The structure of online degree programs varies. That’s why prospective students must research a program thoroughly to ensure that it meets their needs. In general, however, online courses require students to regularly log in to a learning management system, or LMS. This is a virtual portal that serves as a classroom, where students can access relevant course materials and monitor their progress on lessons.
Online courses typically have an asynchronous, or self-paced, component. Students complete coursework whenever they wish but must follow weekly deadlines. Some programs also require students to attend what are often referred to as synchronous class sessions. These sessions are held in real time through videoconferencing, which can help students interact and build strong relationships with their classmates and the instructor.
Certain online classes and programs have in-person requirements, including on-site residencies before or during the program where students take part in peer-to-peer activities, network and attend information sessions. The length and details of residencies vary.
Some programs – especially those in fields where face-to-face communication and hands-on learning is more significant, like nursing or social work – may have an additional clinical or internship portion. Schools have different policies regarding how these requirements may be completed, and there may be some flexibility. For instance, students may be able to intern for a company virtually or in another department at their current job. For working adults who also need to intern for their degree, good time-management skills are key to success.
Online students may interact with each other through a variety of other channels, including discussion forums, social media, videoconferencing, by phone and through email. Prospective students should not expect an online class to be easier than an on-campus class just because of the format. In fact, many online learners say they spend 15 to 20 hours a week on coursework, with some instructors assigning group work that requires students to communicate virtually, possibly even across time zones.