How Do Online Colleges Work? Our Guide

Posted on February 23, 2023

Posted on February 23, 2023

There’s not always a clear path to higher education that fits everyone’s situation. For some, balancing work and family life with school is a necessity. For others, the cost and barriers to attending a traditional on-campus college are limiting.

No matter the reason, online colleges offer a convenient, flexible solution for people who want to earn a degree – particularly adult learners.

If you’re considering starting or returning to school in an online format, you may be wondering “how do online colleges work?” There are some differences, so here’s all you need to know about online colleges and what to expect from the experience.

Can You Do College Online?

Yes! Online college is similar to a traditional learning experience – it just takes place virtually. You can find traditional college campuses that offer online courses, as well as fully online colleges that have no physical campus. Instead, students attend classes online and complete all the necessary coursework from their own computer.

Types of Online Courses

Online learning is a broad term that includes a variety of different course structures and types. The one commonality they all have is that they are taken online with your computer and internet connection.

Asynchronous Online Courses 

These types of courses don’t take place in real-time. You’re given content and assignments with a predetermined time frame to complete your assignments, including quizzes, discussions, written papers, and exams.

Typically, students interact through discussion boards, forums, or blogs. There are no assigned meeting times, just deadlines for initial posts and response posts. Students respond to each other as their schedule allows, offering a lot of flexibility for time constraints.

Synchronous Online Courses

These courses are taken online, but the instructor and all the students in the class interact simultaneously at designated times. Synchronous courses may use a webinar, video chat, audio chat, or text.

This type of learning experience mimics that of an on-campus, in-person course in a virtual environment. Students who thrive in real-time classrooms, synchronous courses allow participation for distance learners.

Hybrid Courses

Hybrid courses – also known as blended courses – are online classes that allow students to interact both in person and online. Students often attend classes together a few times during a semester while the rest is online with computer-based interaction.

Naturally, hybrid courses require you to be close to the campus location or willing to travel. It’s important to pay attention not any in-person requirements for your online learning program. 

Self-Paced Courses

Self-paced courses – also known as on-demand courses – are made up of content, lecture recordings, reading materials, and presentations that students can proceed through at their own pace.

Despite the name, self-paced courses may have a predetermined time frame or a final date in which all coursework must be completed. The rest of the assignment deadlines are often flexible, so you can complete them when you feel comfortable and prepared. It can be challenging to stay disciplined, however, so some courses have recommended assignment due dates to help you stay on track.

How Do Online Classes Work?

Now that you know some of the common setups for online colleges, here’s what you can expect for the day-to-day experience.

Logging In

As mentioned, the structure of online classes varies by type and institution. But in general, students log in to a learning management system or virtual portal to access the syllabus and course materials, view grades, monitor feedback, interact with classmates, and contact professors.

The learning platform and materials are provided, either as part of the tuition or for a separate fee, but you will need computer access, a reliable internet connection, and some common software, such as a word processor like Microsoft Word. Some courses are mobile compatible as well, so you can complete your work from anywhere with an internet connection. 

Learning Resources

Any course materials you need will be available for purchase in advance or provided for you through the learning platform. Different courses use different types of resources, including video lectures, audio recordings, presentations, a textbook, and articles. You’ll also learn through the experience of discussing the course concepts with classmates on discussion boards or forums.


A lot of online courses have assignments with set due dates that you can submit online. They may be quizzes and exams – often timed – and writing assignments. For the latter, you will likely upload your written assignment from a word processor like Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Student Interactions

Because students don’t spend time in the classroom for most online learning, a lot of online programs use discussion boards, forums, blogs, groups, or chats that facilitate interactions. There may be a prompt that covers the course concepts, giving you an opportunity to share your knowledge, and respond to the insights of others.


Like traditional college, the grading for online courses is either A to F or pass/fail. They may be based on a straightforward exam or quiz, such as multiple choice or true or false questions and answers. For short answers, discussions, and written assignments, there may be a rubric that you can use to guide your assignment and understand the professor’s expectations. 

What to Know About Online College

Now that you know how online college classes work, here are some things to expect:

It’s Challenging

Online college isn’t the “easy way out.” You have to put in the work, just like a traditional college, and you need strong time management skills.

It’s Flexible

Some students have a better learning experience with online classes that offer flexibility. It’s important to consider your options and choose the right online learning structure for your needs.

There’s Teamwork Involved

Just because a course is online doesn’t mean that you won’t interact with other students. Some courses have group assignments or pair assignments. You’ll also interact with other students in discussions and chats. 

Is Online College Right for You?

If you’ve ever wondered “How do online college classes work?” and whether they’re right for you, this guide has you covered. It’s always best to ask your academic advisor if online schooling is right for you. Our learning coaches at Sophia are here to help as well.

Ready to take the first step? Start a free trial at Sophia Learning or take a look at our online university partners.

Category: Higher Education

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