If your educational experiences are limited to classrooms, you probably have a vague idea of what online classes are like: You’ll sit for hours in the glow of your computer screen, clicking through quizzes and not speaking to anyone. That’s not the case. Well, that’s not the case unless you want it to be. Online learning comes with flexibility and independence. You can often choose between classes that are entirely online or ones that have an in-person component. You can also choose between classes that require you to sign in at the same time each week or ones that you complete at your own pace. With online classes, there really is no one way to get the work done right.


What are online classes?

Online classes are, as implied by the name, classes that take place at least partially over the internet. A textbook may be required, but many of the reading materials can be accessed online, as can assignments and exams. These classes have adapted in such a way that all communication between professors and students can be done over email, in forums, or on video chats; there is no need for a professor to host office hours or for students to drive to campus for an in-person meeting. With webcams or slideshows professors can present their lectures live or recorded. They can require students to use restricted browsers on test day or take exams live on camera. Students can communicate with each other via live chat, forums, and email.

Online classes are quite attractive to students. In fact, some 5.8 million students took at least one in 2014. Students aren’t required to be on campus at any specific time, which allows them to log on from anywhere, whether they’re at home, on a break at work, or on vacation. Some classes even allow them to log on at any time of day. Furthermore, some online classes may be self-paced, making them a particularly good choice for students who are busy working, raising children, or fulfilling other obligations.

Can I take an online class for fun, not for credit?

Of course, though you might not be able to do so through your school. Most people interested in taking an online class for fun turn to MOOCs (the acronym stands for massive open online course), which are often sponsored by nonprofits or companies, not schools. Some MOOCs are created by institutions like Georgetown University, Harvard University, and the University of Texas system, but more frequently you’ll find courses designed by companies like Microsoft, the Smithsonian Institution, or Tableau.

MOOCs are a type of online class designed to serve more students than could ever fit into a physical classroom. Because it is impossible to coordinate the schedules of hundreds or thousands of students around the world, MOOCs let you pace yourself. There are no grades involved and the classes are usually free, so you can go ahead and sign up without any worries. In fact, taking one of these MOOCs could be a good way to see if you might be interested in taking online classes for college credit later down the line. MOOCs that you’ll find on websites like CourseraedX, and Udacity have been vetted, so you don’t have to worry about wasting time on an illegitimate course.

Some MOOCs do offer you the option of earning a certificate of completion if you successfully finish the course. This is a great résumé builder and can show potential employers that you have reached proficiency in a certain field or have learned a particular skill. To receive the certificate of completion, however, you will likely have to pay for your MOOC. The certificate-track courses may also include graded coursework, though they are still self-paced. If you’re interested in earning a certificate from a MOOC, read about its costs, financial aid policy, and cancellation policy. These will vary depending on where you access your course.

How do I earn college credit for an online class?

There are generally two ways to integrate online classes into your college schedule:

  1. Completing all degree requirements online by attending an online college or enrolling in an online degree program
  2. Completing some degree requirements online and some requirements in person by enrolling in a brick-and-mortar school and supplementing your in-person courses with online courses

Will I do all of my work online?

Because online classes cater to their students’ needs and provide flexibility, there is no one common experience for online learners. In fact, the only similarity is the obvious one: Students in online classes need access to a computer and the internet. Your online classes, however, could take one of two forms. Know which form a class takes before you register for it by checking its syllabus or asking the professor.

  • For classes that are completed entirely online: All-online classes are what most people think of when they visualize online classes. An all-online class is one that does not require you to meet up with your classmates or professor in person for any reason whatsoever. (If you enroll in an online degree program, all of your classes will be all-online.) All homework and classwork are submitted online, readings generally come from online sources (though you may be required to purchase a textbook), and “class” is held online. You will not have to step foot on campus.
  • For online classes with an in-person component: Blended classes, also called hybrid classes, mix elements of traditional learning with distance learning. You may complete your readings and quizzes online, for example, but need to visit campus for a lab, final exam, or discussion group. These are less flexible than entirely online classes. Before signing up for a blended class, ask the professor for a copy of the syllabus so that you can determine when you will need to be on campus. If you can’t make the in-person component(s), you may not want to enroll for the course.

How are online classes scheduled?

Online classes are designed with flexibility in mind, so it should be no surprise that you can study when it’s most convenient for you. No matter if you’re enrolled in one or five online classes, each course will have its own specific schedule and time frame.

  • For classes that meet at the same time each week: Synchronous classes require that you log online at a specific time each week, usually for a live lecture, discussion, webinar, or presentation. You can log on from anywhere, but you do have to be online if you want to access that week’s course materials. If you aren’t online, you may be counted “absent.” There’s no need to worry, though, because you’ll know the dates and times of your classes before you register for the course, so you can pick the classes that meet virtually during your lunch break at work or while your kids are down for their afternoon naps. You will be able to communicate with your professor and your classmates in real time through instant messaging, voice calls, and videoconferences. Of course, if you have a question after class, you can always email your professor.
  • For classes you complete on your own time: Asynchronous classes, also called open online classes, are the most accommodating. You choose when to log on to complete the assignment. For some asynchronous classes, there is no time limit. Most of them, however, give you about a week to complete each unit. During that window of time, you can study whenever you like. One week, for example, you may log on at midnight on a Monday, while the next week you log on at noon on a Saturday. You will communicate with your professor and your classmates virtually through email, discussion boards, and forums. Don’t wait until the last minute to ask a question in an asynchronous class. Your professor may not be online when you need him or her, so allow yourself time to communicate your questions adequately before the final exam.
  • For blended classes with a scheduled meeting time and a self-paced component: In blended or hybrid classes, some of your schoolwork is to be completed online and some is to be completed in person. The in-person component (e.g., an exam or a lab) will always have a set meeting time, but the online component may be asynchronous or synchronous.

Page last updated: 09/2017