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Thinking about pursuing a college degree? If so, you may be wondering whether the “traditional” college experience is right for you—or if you might benefit more from an online setting. These days, more colleges are beginning to offer online degree programs that allow you to complete classes toward your degree from the comfort of your computer. In fact, more than 1.5 million students were enrolled in full-time online degree programs in 2020 alone.

Of course, there is a lot to know and understand about this style of higher education before you enroll. By having a better understanding of how online colleges work and what to expect, you could set yourself up for a more successful online education experience.

How Does Online College Work?

People commonly tend to wonder, “How do online colleges work, anyway?”

Essentially, an online college works by offering accredited degree programs in a 100 percent distanced setting. Rather than students having to physically attend classes on campus, these schools offer online classes covering the same course material in a virtual setting. This allows students to earn credit hours toward their degree while working from the comfort and convenience of their own computers.

Online college is a sensible solution for many of today’s college students—especially those who are working, are raising families, or have other life obligations preventing them from attending on-campus classes.

How Is an Online Classroom Usually Structured?

The structure of an online classroom ultimately boils down to the instructor or professor teaching the class as well as the course content and other factors. In general, teachers attempt to structure online classes as similarly as possible to that of an in-person class.

This means that students in the class will complete weekly readings, watch lectures, and discuss key topics with other students in a chat or forum. Likewise, there are typically various assignments, projects, quizzes, and exams throughout the class.

What Do I Need to Know Before Enrolling in Online College?

If it sounds like an online college may be a good fit, there are still some considerations to weigh before you enroll in an online degree or certificate program. After all, not all schools are created equal when it comes to the quality of online education offered.

Start by doing your research and making sure the school you are considering offers the degree program you are interested in. From there, check to that the school is accredited.

If you have any previous college credits, you should also check to see if they will transfer and apply to your degree program. You can do this by setting up a meeting with the school’s program advisor.

It is also wise to get a feel for how much you may be spending on your degree program. You could do this by calculating the cost per credit hour multiplied by the total number of credit hours required for your degree program. From there, you also need to factor in any additional fees (such as program fees and technology fees).

What Are Classes Like in an Online College?

In determining whether online college is right for you, it could be helpful to explore what the experience of taking an online class is like. Keep in mind that each class may be different based on the instructor and other factors, but most classes follow the same general structure.

Logging On

To access your online class material, you will need to log into your account. Each school uses a specific software or program that allows students to log into their accounts and access all course material from one place. Typically, you log in using your school email address and password. The exact platform your school uses may vary, but you should be walked through the process of getting logged in and locating your course information before the first day of classes.

Reading and Listening to Lectures

Just as in a traditional, in-person class, online classes also include a fair amount of assigned readings and lectures. Unless you have enrolled exclusively in a synchronous online class (where teachers and students meet online in real time), you will likely watch pre-recorded videos of lectures (or simply listen to recorded audio files of lecture information). Be sure to take notes during these lectures, just as you would in a conventional class.


You will also have assignments throughout the semester that you are expected to complete and submit to your professor or instructor directly. These may be small assignments designed to gauge how well you understand and comprehend the material that was covered in class that week. Throughout the semester, you could expect to submit both smaller and larger assignments and projects, which is usually done by uploading files directly to the course shell or submitting them to your teacher.


Many online classes have a blog component, where teachers may post new blogs that discuss the readings covered for each week, make important announcements, and the like. The course blog is a great way to stay on top of the latest information while interacting with other students in your class. Not all classes have this component, though, so check with your teacher or course description to learn more.


In certain cases, online classes may also have a group component, where the class is divided into smaller groups of students. This could be an optimal time to get to know some of the people in your class, even though you might never actually meet in person. Groups are also useful for tailored discussions, sharing ideas, and completing larger projects.

Discussion Boards

Discussing topics covered in the week’s readings and lectures is a helpful way to better grasp course concepts, so expect your online class to have some sort of discussion component as well. Sometimes, this may take place asynchronously on a forum or even on the course blog’s comment section. In other cases, discussions may be held in real time via platforms like Zoom or a live chat.


While they might not be your favorite aspect of online learning, tests and exams are a necessary part of the experience. Exams are designed to gauge how well you are understanding the concepts covered in class while also determining a fair portion of your grade. During an online exam, your school may use virtual proctoring to ensure that students are not using textbooks or otherwise cheating, though this may vary from one class to the next.

Do Online Classes Ever Meet in Person?

Although not likely, it is not impossible for an online class to meet in person. If in-person meetings will be part of the course experience, this should be communicated clearly before you enroll. Usually, online classes do not meet in person, but they may meet synchronously (in real-time) via the computer; if this is the case, the class may schedule a Zoom call or similar video chat so everybody can interact at the same time. However, some courses may require in-person fieldwork or exams depending on the nature of the degree.

How Do Students Interact in an Online Course?

Interaction in an online course all depends on how the class is structured and how the instructor or professor has set up the class. Most online classes are asynchronous, where discussion and interaction does not happen in real time. Instead, students and teachers may communicate via messages, blog comments, discussion forum posts, and similar methods.

However, when classes do have a synchronous component, there may occasionally be Zoom calls, live chats, or other real-time discussions that allow for more natural interaction.

How Do Online Students Take Proctored Exams?

You might think taking exams in an online class would be easier than an in-person class because you have access to your textbook, the internet, and other materials to assist. In reality, most online exams in college are made to ensure that students do not cheat or get help from any outside source. This is especially true for midterm exams, final exams, and other important assessments throughout the term.

Typically, online schools rely on proctored exams, where your computer’s webcam is used to monitor you while you take the exam. You may be supervised directly by a human proctor, or the footage may be recorded and examined by artificial intelligence (AI) technology to spot signs of cheating. During a proctored online exam, your computer screen is also being monitored and recorded.

Things You Should Know About Online College

Now that you have a better idea of how online college works and what to expect from the process, you can decide whether becoming an online student is the right path. Before you make your decision, however, there are a few more things you should consider.

It Is Not Easier

First, do not assume online college will be easier than “traditional” college simply because you do not have to attend classes in person. At the end of the day, you are still expected to do the same type of work and put forth the same effort—just in a different format. In fact, some students may actually find online schooling to be more difficult because of the technological expertise and mastery required to participate.

You May Do Better in a Digital Space

On the other hand, certain students do thrive in a digital space compared to a traditional classroom. This may be the case for those who have a hard time “speaking up” in an in-person class or simply feel more comfortable at home versus a classroom on a large campus. Some students find the overall format of an online class to be more suitable for them, especially those who are self-motivated and like to work at their own pace.

Technology Is a Must

While you do not need to be a tech guru to take an online class, you do need a basic understanding of how to use a computer, access the internet, and navigate other technology in an online class. You also need access to a reliable device and internet connection. If you are not comfortable with this, then an online degree program may not be ideal for you.

Time Management Is Key

One of the biggest challenges students tend to encounter with online degree programs is juggling their coursework and other life obligations. Because you do not need to be on campus for a specific frame of time each week, it may be difficult to determine how much time you need to complete your online coursework each week. In general, it is best to set aside two to three hours of studying per credit hour of each online class per week. For example, if you are taking a three-credit-hour online class, you should plan to dedicate six to nine hours per week to that class.

Ultimately, completing an online degree program requires a great deal of self-discipline and careful time management. It may take some time to get into the groove of juggling your online classes with the rest of your obligations, so keep this in mind as you get started.

Group Assignments Still Exist

Some online classes may incorporate group assignments, so be aware of this ahead of time (especially if group assignments are not your favorite thing). You should be prepared to work with your group without necessarily meeting in person, deciding upon individual tasks and deadlines to stay on schedule.

Start Your Online Learning Journey Today

How do online college classes work? What can you expect from the experience? We have strived to answer these questions in detail to help you more confidently decide whether online schooling is right for your unique needs and learning style.

Overall, online college classes could be an excellent way to work towards your degree on your own time without the hassle of commuting to campus or living on campus. If you are looking for a school that offers a wide range of online degree and certificate programs, Post University is here to support you. Since 1996, we have offered flexible online learning options to accommodate the changing needs of the online student—so we know a thing or two about how to offer the best experience possible to our hardworking students.


Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly!

Please note jobs and/or career outcomes highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs or career outcomes expected from any Post program. To learn more about Post’s program and its outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions advisor.