Students usually know what to expect from a traditional college experience. After all, many of them completed their secondary schooling in classrooms, sitting next to peers and taking exams during class time. When they try to imagine what online degree programs are like, however, they have a harder time. Without a campus, online schools may take some getting used to. Here’s what it’s like to go to an online school.


Let’s start with the basics. What is online learning?

Online learning is a form of distance education in which professors and students communicate with each other using the internet. Schools that offer online classes build virtual classrooms, which support videoconferencing, chat, slideshows, and/or exam administration, among many other features.

How can I become an online student?

  • If you want to take an online class for fun: Anyone with internet access can open up a browser and start learning on their own by reading articles or watching videos. That said, some people like the structure of online classes and want to take a few for fun, not credit. That’s where MOOCs come in. MOOCs, or massive open online classes, are online classes brought to you by companies or nonprofit organizations, not schools. The biggest MOOC platforms are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. Enrollment is usually free (though you may have to pay if you’d like a certificate of completion). Taking a MOOC is also a great way to test drive online classes and see if a graded course may be for you.
  • If you want to take both online and traditional classes over the course of your college career: If you enroll at a college with a physical campus presence (also called a brick-and-mortar school), you may have the option to take some classes in person and others online. Students often opt for this kind of blended schedule if they prefer to learn in classrooms but need more flexibility to fulfill a handful of degree requirements (e.g., to work around a scheduling conflict or to take a class during summer break).
  • If you want to complete your entire degree online: If you want to finish all of your degree requirements remotely, enroll in an online degree program. None of its classes will meet in person.

Which schools offer online degree programs?

  • At online colleges, every program is an online degree program; there is no option to take traditional courses in a classroom.
  • Many brick-and-mortar schools, which do have campuses, are recognizing that the market demands online classes, so they are developing new online-only degree programs to stay in the game. Harvard’s Extension School and Indiana University Online are just two examples of the many online degree programs affiliated with brick-and-mortar universities.

Will I ever set foot on a campus if I enroll in an online degree program?

Not usually, but the answer depends on your school. If you attend an online college, your school might not even have a campus. If your program is affiliated with a brick-and-mortar school, you could travel to campus for a study group, your professor’s office hours, a class with an in-person lab component, or graduation day.

How can I schedule my online courses?

In an online degree program, you have two options.

  • Classes that require you log on at the same time every week: Synchronous classes are live, meaning that the professor and all students log on at the same time. Because these classes occur during real-time, you can often send instant messages, videochat, or make phone calls.
  • Classes that you can complete on your own time: In an asynchronous course, students can log on whenever they choose and complete their assignments or watch prerecorded lectures at their leisure. If you need to communicate with professors or classmates, you must rely on email or forums since it is unlikely that all participants will be logged on at the same time.

Please note that you may be able to choose between asynchronous and synchronous classes, or each course you take may have its own scheduling requirement. Before you sign up for a certain class, check to see how it is scheduled.

Will I ever meet my professors or classmates in person?

Online degree programs are designed so that you can complete everything online. That said, you still have plenty of ways to contact your peers and teachers. Many classes have online discussion boards, forums, private messages, and chat features, so it isn’t difficult to make connections with the people who are also involved in the course.

If you attend an online college, your classmates could be located all over the country (or world), and your professor could very well be in a different state. If your degree program is offered by a brick-and-mortar school, you might have the opportunity to interact with your professors or classmates in person, but that’s up to you.

Will my professor know me well enough to write me a recommendation letter?

The answer to this question depends on how much you participated in class (by responding to class forums or discussions), whether you did the assignments on time, whether you completed the units, how well you did on tests and essays, and how you presented yourself in class. If you received high praise from your professor and interacted often with the material, your classmates, and your professor, then you should have no qualms about requesting a letter of recommendation from this person.

What does graduation day look like at online colleges?

Some schools have traditional graduation ceremonies. They may rent a location or host ceremonies at their administrative offices. If you can’t attend the ceremony in person, you may be able to livestream it so that you can still hear your name being called and listen to the commencement speaker. Other schools offer virtual commencement ceremonies. They may invite you to create an avatar on Second Life, an online virtual world similar to the Sims, which can receive a symbolic diploma for you.

Page last updated: 02/2017