Online learning at the college level has passed through numerous phases during its brief history. While distance learning is nothing new, it was only in the early 2000s that online classes and degree programs at the college level started making headlines. That’s when the world saw a massive explosion of online for-profit colleges advertising the convenience and cost-savings of studying online widely, attracting hundreds of thousands of students—and then millions.
In 2000, for-profit institutions made up less than 5 percent of the market for distance-learning degrees. By 2010, 70 percent of students in online degree programs were enrolled in for-profit institutions. That left colleges and universities (which had formerly invested in remote continuing ed and extension services) scrambling to launch their own online classes and degree programs.
Ultimately, the balance shifted. Ten years later, nearly all colleges and universities in the US (including Ivy League schools and other top-ranked institutions) offer some form of online classes, online certificate programs, or online degree programs for bachelor’s degree and master’s degree students.
The ease of access that could once be found only at for-profit schools is now commonplace across disciplines at high-ranking universities. You can earn an MBA, a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS), a psychology degree, a master’s in teaching, or any number of other degrees from a famous-name school without ever leaving your living room. What you’ll need to do to earn that degree depends on which school and which program you choose. Online classes usually follow the campus counterparts’ curricula, but there can be as much variation among digital coursework as there is between traditional in-person classes.
In general, distance learning is a good option for students who need to continue working while pursuing a degree, have personal obligations that can make attending classes difficult, or merely prefer not to spend their days in a classroom. Right now, it may be the only option, as some colleges and universities have decided to keep campuses shut down in the fall in preparation for a possible second wave of Covid-19. Whether the trend toward online continues when the pandemic subsides remains to be seen, but many suspect it will.
In this article, we dig deeper into how online classes work and cover the following:
The precursors of online courses were correspondence courses—which were developed in the 1800s—and the educational broadcasts that went out over radio and television in the 1900s. In 1982, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute opened its School of Management and Strategic Studies and launched a distance education program in which business executives completed assignments using computer conferencing. The first accredited online graduate program (which conferred a Master of Science in Computer-Based Learning) was launched along with one of the first-ever electronic classrooms by Nova Southeastern University in 1985.
From there, some of the big for-profit schools began offering education programs through the evolving internet. Even so, online classes didn’t come into their own until the first web browsers were developed in the early 1990s. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that the first fully online education programs were founded at New York University, Western Governors University, Trident University International, and the now defunct California Virtual University.
These early forays into bachelor’s degree and master’s degree-level classes delivered via the internet tended to be text-heavy and low on engagement. There were no online classrooms. Most students wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth to support large images, online video was still in its infancy, and the only way to engage with classmates and faculty would have been through basic chat room programs. On top of that, many colleges and universities offering online classes weren’t seeing the same kinds of graduation and job-placement results as in their traditional programs.
Today’s online classes and online degree programs are very different. Live classroom instruction and discussions are possible, collaboration is encouraged, and schools can incorporate high-def streaming video, virtual field trips, and interactive experiences into coursework delivered online. There are also online classes, certificate programs, and even entire bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate programs offered by top colleges and universities. Some people still question whether online degrees are worth it, but the stigma that once discouraged students from taking online classes has all but disappeared.
Most often, students opt to take some online classes or complete entire degree programs online because they’re looking for flexibility. Sometimes, these students can’t take time off work to study; online classes allow them to view lectures and complete assignments during their off hours. In other cases, students have personal obligations that make traveling to and from campus difficult or impossible.
However, don’t assume that everyone in online classes is there because they’re overscheduled or have young kids at home. Some people simply feel more comfortable in self-directed educational settings or prefer to take classes at home, or even on the road. Others enroll in remote courses because taking virtual classes allows them to study at a more prestigious institution.
What most people in online classes have in common, however, is that they’re older than the average student and have jobs. The average student in online bachelor’s degree classes is 32, 25- to 29-year-olds make up the largest group of online college students, and most students taking online classes are 30+. Surprisingly, most of these students live within 100 miles of the college or university they attend remotely.
Different schools use different learning management systems (LMS) or portals—e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle—but most colleges and universities employ some form of electronic platform to deliver classes, host discussions, and gather coursework for grading. Students log in to the LMS via a web browser to access courses, ask questions, submit homework, collaborate with classmates, take tests, and check grades. The content hosted on the LMS might include:
How students interact with these materials depends on the platform a school uses and whether content is delivered synchronously or asynchronously. In most cases, LMS platforms are extremely easy to navigate. Schools are aware that students should be able to engage with the course material without having to learn how to use an entirely new computer system, and they work hard to make course design intuitive. Often, materials are organized into modules that guide students through a linear sequence of content and quizzes.
In many ways, online classes are very similar to traditional in-person classes. Teachers develop a syllabus and deliver lectures, students complete assignments that supplement those lectures, and mid-semester and end-of-term exams assess each student’s mastery of the material.
Most online classes have a mix of synchronous and asynchronous content. In these courses, students have to log in at set times to attend mandatory live classes delivered through streaming video. They may also have to participate in regular class meetings or group project work. All other course content, like slide decks, texts, or videos, is delivered asynchronously, which means students can access it at any time once they’ve reached that module.
There are also 100 percent asynchronous online classes in which students learn at their own pace, on their own time. In these, there are no live courses or mandatory live study sessions. Students may be able to access all course content and assignments from the very first day of class and complete them as possible. In some instances, later content may be ‘gated,’ i.e., inaccessible until earlier modules and assignments have been completed.
There’s a third type of online class that can best be described as a hybrid course. These classes take place primarily online, with synchronous and asynchronous content. The course requirements include a weekend-long immersion, one or more group excursions, or lab work that can’t be completed remotely for practical reasons. In all three formats, success is mostly determined by students’ ability to self-motivate.
Class sizes in online university programs are limited only by what the technology will support.Some colleges and universities pack students into these courses as a cost-cutting measure—possibly to the detriment of course quality. Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University told Inside Higher Ed that “scalability is limited if we care about the quality of students’ experiences. Assessing complicated work, such as papers and discussions, requires professors’ expertise, wisdom and judgment. And all students, whether online or on campus, deserve opportunities to interact closely with their teachers.”
That may be why the best colleges and universities treat online classes no differently than in-person classes when it comes to enrollment. Research has demonstrated that to be effective, online undergraduate classes should have no more than 12 students and graduate courses should have no more than 14 students. As more students are added to online students, classroom discussion boards become chaotic, it becomes impossible for professors to offer one-on-one advisement, and assessment becomes challenging. Smaller class sizes allow professors to provide students in online classes the same attention and support that students on campus receive.
Many online classes are slotted into the traditional semester-based schedule. However, because courses for distance learners don’t take up classroom space or require faculty to travel to and from campus, schools can schedule online classes at any time of the year. Some colleges and universities divide the school year into smaller terms for online classes. These classes may be shorter than those held on campus, and students pursuing degrees may graduate more quickly. Every institution structures its academic calendar differently, so it’s essential to make sure that you’re comfortable moving through the material at the pace your chosen school has deemed appropriate for online classes.
The image of a lonely online student staring mutely at a laptop for hours at a time while doing solo work is outdated. Modern LMS platforms promote classroom discussion and collaboration between classmates. Participation in discussions and group projects is often mandatory, but if you’re worried about having to do it all through message boards, don’t be. Zoom and other video conferencing apps are often built into distance learning platforms, making live interaction possible.
Most online classes don’t require students to sit for proctored exams. Where proctored exams are part of the syllabus, students may need to travel to local testing centers, libraries, or community colleges that have proctors on site. There are also virtually monitored exam platforms like Proctorio on which live proctors use student webcams to watch for cheating or software that’s designed to detect cheating is built into the examination platform.
Some programs require students either to travel to campus to take proctored exams or to secure their own proctors, who must be approved by the school. Make sure you know ahead of time whether you’ll be required to take any proctored exams as part of your online classes so you can be prepared.
In the best online classes, professors and other faculty members are frequently available via email, chat, text, or video conference to answer questions and address concerns. Some offer tutoring services or make themselves available to review assignments before they’re submitted. Some online degree programs even make a point of having professors proactively reach out to students on a regular schedule for check-ins, which may bolster student engagement and help shy students meet a class’ participation requirements.
That said, not every professor teaching an online class will be that hands-on. Students in online classes can still access support from professors and other faculty, but they may have to seek it out proactively.
There was a time in the early 2000s when web-based distance learning was relatively new. It wasn’t clear whether online courses could be as rigorous as traditional courses because of the limitations of the existing tech. Since then, technology has evolved, and most online classes are every bit as challenging as those offered on campus. Students have to meet the same kinds of participation requirements, complete the same kinds of projects, presentations, and exams, and meet the same benchmarks. At schools that offer specific bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees both on campus and online, the curriculum in each program is often the same. Research also suggests that student performance in online classes is comparable.
There are some things you should consider, however, if you’re trying to decide whether to take a class on campus or online. Acing an online class can take more self-discipline and organization, and if you’re not a self-starter, you may do better in live classes. You’ll probably do better in online classes focused on subjects you’re comfortable with. If you struggle with math, for example, taking calculus or other higher-level math classes online could be a lot more difficult.
Because online courses function much as on-campus classes do, the keys to success are similar. Make sure you log in for all live lectures. Complete your assignments on time and to the best of your ability. Participate in course discussions. Reach out when you need help.
Don’t expect to do less work in online classes. You’ll do just as much reading, writing, and other work in online classes. In some courses, you’ll do more. There’s still accountability in online classes, but not as much as there is when classes meet on campus.
The best thing you can do is always to treat online classes like “real” classes. Too much flexibility or autonomy can lead to bad study habits, so create a schoolwork schedule you can follow without having to rush or let other commitments slip. Create a distraction-free workspace. When you sit down to study, don’t let your mind wander (as tempting as it might be to quickly check email or Facebook because you have a browser window open).
Finally, look into what kinds of support your college or university offers students enrolled in the same classes on campus. As a distance learner, you may be able to access the same tutoring services, career support services, and alumni network—all of which can add a considerable amount of value to your online experience.
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