What Is Taking an Online Course Like? (7 Things to Know)

Aria Miller
Published by Aria Miller
Last Updated On: December 8, 2021

To take online classes or not to take them, that is the question. If you don’t understand the reference, I suggest you take them.

But let’s get serious.

Some students simply aren’t cut out for online learning. As an online professor, I’ve got the insider scoop you need to decide if you’re online learner material or if you’d be better off in a regular classroom.

What Are Online Classes Like?

A girl smiling in front of her laptop

Here’s how online classes work:

  1. You find a school you like. You can search schools through degree finder*, a tool that lets you find… well, different degrees. For example, you can go to the degree finder, select arts, and find schools that offer an online degree in arts. You can also search classes by the degree level, such as BA or MA.
  2. You enroll in classes. Now that you found a school, you can enroll in classes you want to attend. You’ll probably have to pay for the classes in advance. But do review the school’s policies first because you might discover that you’re eligible for financial aid.
  1. You start attending classes. Be an active student from the get-go. If you have live lectures, make sure you don’t miss any (at least in the beginning). This will help you get more comfortable with online learning.
  2. You earn a college degree, a certificate, or qualification. If you finish the course successfully, you’ll get a paper that confirms it. This can help you land a better job or enroll in a higher program later.

*Note that there are numerous online degree finders that you can use. Compare your findings from two or three different finders to pinpoint the schools that fit you best.

What Do Online Students Say About Their Experience?

It doesn’t really matter what I think about online classes, does it? What matters more is what ex-students think.

I scoured the Internet and found a good deal of students’ experiences and reviews of online programs. I’ll share the two most telling observations with you.

One reviewer focused on the benefits of taking online classes [1]:

“I would recommend online courses to anyone that has a busy schedule, such as having a full time job or having family responsibilities. Also, you are able to learn well by doing the required work on your own, without depending solely on interaction with other students as a means of learning. Online courses are a great alternative to the student who must hold a full-time job while enrolled in college. Online courses are not only convenient but they teach you how to become a more disciplined scholar.”


- Brandi Ratcliff

Another ex-online student mentioned some drawbacks, like the lack of feedback [2]:

“The main plus is that you can study it at your own pace. You don’t have to be in a class room on a given day at a given time. I would say the trickiest thing about taking a college course online (just like any online course), is that you don’t have direct contact with your professor and your classmates, which makes it difficult to get good feedback.”


- Florian Decludt 

What students think about online classes really depends on how good they are at online learning. You need to be independent, self-motivated, and resourceful to do well in an online class.

7 Things You Should Know Before Taking an Online Course

A woman holding a pen and notepad

I can’t tell you how many students asked me questions like this: 

  • Aren’t online degrees useless?
  • Aren’t online classes easier than in-person ones?
  • Don’t you have to figure out everything on your own in online classes?

These are common misconceptions that many students have about online education and reasons why to take online courses. I’ll try to offer some answers and finally demystify online classes.

1. Online Courses Aren’t Easy

I’ll admit it: many online courses are poorly designed and definitely not worth the money.

With that said, most online courses today offer the same experience (and value) you’d get in a traditional class.

You can expect a hefty workload, tight deadlines, lots of group work, and regular assignments.

On the one hand, this is good because it makes online degrees as valuable as “real” college degrees.

But it also makes things harder for you, not easier. Online schools may not offer office hours with the teachers and you may have little face-to-face interaction.

This means you’ll have to rely on yourself more than you would in on-campus classes.

2. Flexibility Is Both a Blessing and a Curse

A student reading a book

Students are usually drawn to online classes because they offer them a flexible schedule.

Many are trying to juggle work, family, and classes all at once. Being able to create your own schedule is a huge advantage.

But this flexibility is also a curse. Online learners have to be highly self-disciplined, responsible, and self-motivated.

They don’t have anyone nagging at them because they didn’t study enough or submit assignments on time.

This might sound like a good thing, but it could set you up for failure.

My advice to prospective students is to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. If self-motivation isn’t your strong suit, then maybe online learning isn’t for you.

Read More: How Much Time Should I Spend on My Online Course Per Week?

3. Don’t Think You Won’t Get Homework

Taking classes online doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. You’ll still have to complete assignments and, maybe, have even more things to do than you would in a regular school.

Many teachers expect students to participate in discussion forums too, mostly as part of their homework.

This is how they compensate for the lack of real-life interaction between students.

Note that typing out your thoughts in discussion forums requires even more time than talking in an in-person class. The no-homework thing is definitely a myth.

4. You Aren’t Completely On Your Own

A student in front of her teacher in a computer

Online learners typically have to be more independent than their peers who take on-campus courses.

They have to develop their own learning management system and stick to their weekly schedule.

But they can still turn to their teachers and fellow students for help.

Most online classes offer the academic support you’d get in traditional classes.

Students can usually attend office hours and always contact others via email or the platform they’re taking their online program on.

5. Good Online Courses Include Versatile Materials

The best online degree programs combine different course materials: books, recorded lectures, interactive games, articles, studies...

That way, you aren’t just watching lectures all the time. Videos may not fit your learning style, so it’s good that you can also rely on text-based or audio materials.

Some recorded lectures also have a full transcript which you can read if that’s what you prefer.

Pro tip: Are you a visual learner? Then print out the transcripts and underline or highlight the most important things your course instructor mentioned.

6. You Can Often Get an Online Degree (or a Certificate) Faster

Individual courses usually get you a certificate, while online colleges get you a degree. You can often earn both faster in online classes than you would in traditional school.

Let’s say you’re attending a competency-based online degree program. This means you can finish the lectures you understand well faster, or rewatch them if you need more explanation.

Basically, it’s up to you when you’ll finish the course. If you want to get a degree faster, you can. You just have to put in more effort.

7. Your Online Learning Journey Rarely Ends When the Course Is Over

A kid focused on his online classes

By that I mean two things:

  1. You’ll acquire important life skills
  2. You’ll probably continue with online education

First, online courses are important as this learning experience will teach you how to stay organized and committed, without the pressures of a traditional classroom.

Second, most students become enthralled with online education after they take their first course.

They become more aware of how online classes can help them advance their careers or even earn, say, a bachelor’s degree.

That’s why I jokingly refer to online learners as eternal part-time students. Most will jump right to the next course when they’re done with the first one.

Read More: Questions To Ask Before Taking Online Courses

What Are Some Cons to Online Learning?

First, distance learners must have three prerequisites to even be able to attend classes:

  • A personal computer
  • A reliable Internet connection
  • Enough free time

Without any of these things, students don’t have a shot at online learning -- let alone being successful at it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of scammy degree programs out there. Not only are they poorly designed, but their degrees aren’t recognized by employers or universities. They’re virtually useless.

Other cons have more to do with your personality and aren’t necessarily cons per se. I mentioned some already: 

  • Flexible schedule = more freedom, but also more responsibility
  • Self-paced lectures = easy to follow, easy to swing you off track
  • No face-to-face interactions = comfortable but possibly challenging learning experience

How Do Colleges and Employers View Online Courses?

Short answer: Most colleges and employers will recognize your online bachelor’s degree, certificate, or qualification.

Long answer: It depends on the school rankings and brand. Not all online degrees are equally acceptable or valid.

Here’s how one HR expert explained it [3]:

“The key for most of our clients and how we guide them is that the online degree is coming from an accredited program or school, and that really is the difference in what we're looking for.”


- Massad, Insperity

Your school should at least have regional accreditation so that you know for sure that colleges and employers will accept it. It’s a plus if it has a reputable campus.

Does Online School Count As Homeschool?

Student staring at a paper

No, an online school doesn’t count as homeschool. There’s a big difference between the two.

When you’re homeschooled, your parents are your teachers and graders.

When you’re enrolled in an online program, your progress is evaluated by a professional course instructor.

Your instructor will probably be more realistic about your academic success than your parent, which is why he’s more credible.

In essence, online programs look better on a job interview than homeschool.

Are Online Courses Worth It?

Taking online classes -- or attending an online college -- is a positive experience for most students. Online learning has many advantages: career advancement, better balancing of family commitments and/or work, and personal development.

That last point is exactly what draws so many students to online programs. They’re able to develop life skills, such as self-reliance, time management, and organization.

But note that you may not achieve success if you’re not an independent learner. Online courses simply require more self-initiative than traditional ones.

So, if you're a disciplined person, online courses are undoubtedly well worth it.


  1. https://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/elejeune/internet_student_opinion.htm
  2. https://www.quora.com/Have-you-ever-taken-online-college-courses
  3. https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/slideshows/10-things-employers-think-about-your-online-degree

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