How it Works and How to Decide if it's Right for You

A Guide to Online Learning

Last Updated: 8/8/2021
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Technology and the Internet have made education more accessible to millions of people. Whether looking to earn a degree, complete a certificate program, or simply learn a new skill, online learning offers flexibility and convenience that the traditional classroom can't. This type of learning format, however, isn't right for everyone, and there are some important things you should consider before enrolling in a program. This guide explains the different types of online programs, how they work, and their potential benefits. Read on to learn more so you can decide whether online learning is your best bet.

Overview of Online Education Providers

All kinds of topics and skills can be learned online, and there are formats that cater to different kinds of learners, from those who merely want to explore something new in their free time to those who are ready to earn a degree to help advance their careers. Below is an overview of the types of online education providers.

What is it?


Four-year, not-for-profit colleges and universities may be either public or private. Both offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in traditional academic areas, such as economics, English and psychology.

Students can study online, at least in part, all the way to doctorate level; Transferrable credits; Large budgets for student resources

Some nonprofits resisted the trend of online learning at first, so are now playing catch-up; Some colleges, particularly private schools, can be more expensive than other online options


Community and vocational colleges provide two-year associate degree and/or diploma programs. Some programs are designed for students looking to go on to earn a four-year degree; others, such as nursing programs, lead to degrees that can be put to use immediately.

Often a less expensive way to get a degree from an accredited institution; Degrees and credits earned often transfer to other accredited colleges

Degrees are not offered beyond the associate level; Students wanting to take advantage of inexpensive in-state tuition may be limited by community college offerings in their state


Massive online open courses offered by providers like Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy use lectures, readings, and quizzes from highly regarded professors to allow people to learn about a specific topic.

Free in most instances; Thousands of courses to choose from; In some instances, may be taken for credit (for a cost)

Standalone courses that don't integrate with a larger curriculum; Without a monetary investment, most students don't complete the courses*; Don't offer degrees (although many offer certificates of completion); Typically not offered for credit


Online education platforms, such as Lynda and Skillshare, are geared toward teaching a specific marketable skill, such as Web design or expertise in a particular piece of software.

Thousands of courses available; Courses have specific practical applications that can be put to work immediately

Don't offer degrees (although many offer certificates of completion)


For-profit colleges offer everything from diplomas to doctorates in a wide range of disciplines

Accelerated programs with multiple start dates throughout the year; Some college have less rigorous admissions requirements than their nonprofit counterparts

Typically more expensive than their nonprofit counterparts; Depending on type of accreditation, credits may not transfer; Greater need for prospective student to research the school and ensure it is properly accredited

How Online Learning Works

Once you've decided that online learning is something you want to pursue, you'll still need to get up to speed on how it works on a practical level. Here's what you can expect from an online program.

Delivery Methods

There are two basic delivery formats for a class — synchronous and asynchronous — with various delivery platforms used in each. Synchronous courses are taught live, in real-time. Asynchronous delivery means that students can log in to access classes at any point within a given time period. Individual courses can use one or both formats, depending on the teacher's preference. Students are expected to log in regularly, even for asynchronous classes — at minimum once a week, but likely more often — with many instructors giving grades for class participation.

When choosing a program, students should know what's realistic for them. Asynchronous learning methods are great for self-starters with busy schedules. Synchronous methods may better suit those who gravitate to traditional learning formats that involve more structure and interaction with instructors and other students.

Here are some examples of how an instructor can relay information to students in an online course:

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    An instructor teaches as you watch. If the class size is small enough, your webcam might be turned on so you can interact with the teacher and classmates during the class. Otherwise, you'll probably ask questions via a chat screen or save them for a Q-and-A session at the end.

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    Web conferences

    These work like a webinar, usually with the instructor talking while giving a slide presentation. Web conferences are likely to be interactive as well, with the instructor asking students to answer questions and make comments via a chat screen or even Twitter.

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    Recorded lectures

    These can be done via video or podcast, allowing students to pause and rewind. They are usually shorter than synchronous lectures because there's no student interaction. Instructors may also give out PowerPoint presentations to supplement the lecture material.

Classmate and Instructor Interaction

Despite the absence of a physical classroom, effective online learning is not just a one-way stream of communication. Here's how students might interact with teachers and peers:

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    Chat rooms

    Conducted synchronously or asynchronously, these are places where students can interact and share their thoughts or ask questions.

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    Group assignments using forums/conferencing/email

    Video conferencing makes small-group assignments a feasible option for online students. Instructors may also have students deliver presentations to the entire class via a videoconference.

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    Some professors have used Twitter to communicate with online students during live videoconferencing. By creating a unique hashtag for the class, professors can take live polls or hold real-time Q&A sessions.

Basic Technology Requirements

Online programs typically publish minimum technical requirements and these requirements can vary depending on the college or specific program. As an example, here are the basic technology requirements of Penn State World Campus:

  • Operating system: An operating system released within the last eight years
  • Specifications: 2 GHz processing speed, 1 GB of memory and 60 GB of hard drive space
  • Hardware: DVD-ROM, printer, sound card, microphone, speaker
  • Purchased software: Microsoft Office
  • Downloadable plug-ins: Adobe Reader, Flash Player, QuickTime
  • Internet connection: Broadband

Other Requirements

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    Proctored exams

    To protect against cheating, many programs require students to have proctors for tests and quizzes. Depending on the program's rules, testing can take place at specified sites or in the presence of an approved proctor (in some cases an online proctor).

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    Non-classroom experience

    Certain online programs, such as social work, require practical experiences or internships. Students may need to find local internship opportunities in their area to apply toward their degrees.

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    Hands-on learning on campus

    Programs that require hands-on learning in addition to theory may ask students to come to campus for concentrated seminars and lab work. This is especially common for nursing programs.

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    Residency requirements

    MBA degrees, and other programs of study in which networking is key, may have residency requirements for which students meet on campus or other locations at regular intervals.

Choosing an Online Program

Over 5.5 million college students took a for-credit course online in 2013, some at for-profits, others at nonprofits, and still others at community colleges. That number swells even larger when taking into account those who took a MOOC or a course through a non-degree education platform. If you're considering joining their ranks, ask yourself these five questions when choosing an online learning program:

For more information on choosing an online college, check out the following guide: Finding the Right Online College

Overall Benefits of Online Learning

Most people name time, money, and flexibility as the prime benefits of online learning. It saves students time by cutting out the commute to and from school, and by giving them the flexibility to study at their own convenience. Ten minutes spent in line at the grocery store can be converted into a quick review of work on their smartphones, for example. Students also can take advantage of asynchronous courses over several days or a week, rather than needing to be in class at a set time for a month or more. Lastly, in some cases, online learning can save students money by eliminating peripheral costs such as parking, campus health insurance, or athletic fees typically required of campus-based students. Online programs, however, are not always cheaper than their traditional counterparts, so students will need to compare expenses and all required fees closely.

Here are a few other advantages of online learning that get less attention:

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    Online learning programs are diverse

    By their very nature, classroom-based programs tend to attract local residents—people who are more likely to have similar life experiences and backgrounds. Online programs, on the other hand, attract people from all over. These learners are usually of various ages and bring with them a wide range of life and professional experiences. As a result, online students are exposed to more varied perspectives and can expand their worldviews.

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    You can diversify your network

    A more diverse student body means a more diverse personal and professional network. If you're interested in exploring new parts of the world or other industries, the connections you forge in an online program can help lead to career opportunities.

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    You can create new opportunities in your area

    Smaller towns in particular may lack people with certain specialized skills. Perhaps there are not many Web developers in your area, or maybe there is a shortage of caterers for events. Online courses can provide the educational foundation to start your own business and fill the gap.

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    You can get targeted education and training

    Employers can leverage the power of online learning by working with providers to craft courses or programs that meet their specific needs or the needs of the local business community. This is a clear win for students because they'll gain the exact knowledge and skills that employers are looking for.

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    Enhance your computer and technology skills

    The real world increasingly operates online and on computers. According to Job Outlook 2016, a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 55 percent of employers looked for computer skills on applicants' resumes. You'll get those as a side benefit of studying online.

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    Round-the-clock support

    Because online programs typically accommodate students from across the country or even around the globe, many of whom work different shifts, most support services aren't limited to nine-to-five hours. If you have a problem with loading something on your dashboard at 3 a.m., you can probably get support right then and there.

Military Students and Online Learning

Online learning is a particularly good option for people in the military. Active-duty service members and veterans can take advantage of:

Online Learning Advantages


Flexible scheduling
Asynchronous courses and 24/7 support perfectly suit military members serving overseas.


Location flexibility
Active-duty military are limited to where they can physically attend school by the location of their base. No such limitations exist in online learning.


Tuition assistance
Each branch of the armed forces pays up to 100 percent of tuition costs for active members. Military members can verify the exact amounts with their branch of service. Through the GI Bill®, veterans can also receive financial assistance with college, including through online programs.

Is Online Learning Right for Me?

Now that you have an overview of online learning and how it works, it's time to figure out if this type of approach is right for you. Before enrolling, consider the following questions:

Tips for Online Learners

Online programs are distinctly different from campus ones, and require their own academic strategies. To be successful, consider incorporating some of the following into your study habits:

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    You're going to be spending a lot of time on the computer using various software tools and Web applications. If you aren't comfortable using a computer, take some online tutorials before enrolling. In addition, you can't rely on autocorrect, emojis, and shorthand when you're communicating with professors and classmates, so now is a good time to brush up on your typing skills, if necessary.

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    Without the structure of a classroom, you have to create your own learning environment. Make a spot away from the television, family, and other distractions where you can concentrate on the class. Get a comfortable, ergonomic chair to sit in. Set limits—and stick to them—when it comes to off-topic Internet surfing, Facebook, texting, and the like.

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    But why? Isn't the advantage of studying from home that you can put on a bathrobe, log in, and learn—with no need for time-consuming activities like showering and getting dressed? As fashion psychologist Dr. Karen Pine told Forbes magazine, "A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it's 'professional work attire' or 'relaxing weekend wear,' so when we put it on we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning." In other words, students may perform better by dressing like they're going to a real classroom.

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    On a bustling college campus, it's easy to run into a classmate, subconsciously reminding you that you have a paper due the following week. When you learn online, however, you're not in an environment where everything revolves around school. Instead, you have to be proactive about getting into a learning mindset. Keep a schedule of classes, map out study time, and aggressively work through your to-do list to make sure you're making progress on assignments.

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    LOG IN

    It's easy to get out of the habit of checking in with classes via the online learning portal, especially if you have all asynchronous classes. To avoid falling behind and getting caught off guard by assignments and readings, create your own check-in schedule and follow it.

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    Just because you haven't shaken hands with your classmates doesn't mean you shouldn't get to know them. Joining a study group—or starting one of your own—will not only help you learn the material, but also provide another way to keep structure in your schedule. Plus, you'll get a sense of camaraderie you might otherwise miss.

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    Online students can't just follow the crowd into the classroom. They have to be self-motivated. A simple but effective aid is to write down your personal "mission statement". Whether it involves earning more money, landing that dream job, or just learning something new. Display it where you will see it regularly, perhaps as your computer wallpaper or on the bulletin board beside your desk.

Myths About Online Education

Most people grew up going to school inside a classroom, and may be wary of the very different approach taken with online education. Here are some common stereotypes surrounding online learning and why each is not true:


Online learning isn't as effective as traditional learning

A 2012 report found learning outcomes for online programs at public universities to be similar to their brick-and-mortar counterparts in terms of overall pass rates, final grades, and performance on standardized tests.


Schools don't invest the same resources into their online curricula

Many courses are developed specifically for online learning, although the content is designed to be as rigorous as a traditional campus class. One online Spanish instructor puts it this way: "I was very skeptical. But then I started looking through the curriculum, and I was thoroughly impressed. They have clearly spent a lot of money and time to put together a well-rounded curriculum that's not just 'read the textbook'. [Students] have to have an online tutoring session every week. There's a lot to it."


Credits don't transfer

Each school decides whether to accept transfer credits — and most schools are more interested in whether the credits were earned at an accredited institution than about the delivery format they came in. Credits earned at regionally accredited schools typically transfer.


The students aren't as good

There's a perception in some sectors that online students can't cut it in a traditional program. On the contrary, students go online to help navigate difficult schedules, access better programs in their field, and learn in a more effective environment. Online schools can be quite selective, with top graduate programs often requiring high minimum GPAs and turning down a majority of applicants.


There is less interaction between students and instructors

Whether online or in a physical classroom, the level of interaction depends on the attitude of the teacher and students. As Nate Sleeter, an online teaching assistant, writes in Inside Higher Ed, interaction can actually increase in virtual classrooms because "some students are more likely to engage in an online discussion with instructors or other students absent the pressure of speaking 'in public.'"


Employers don't respect online degrees

This is true of some employers but certainly not all. Mary Massad, a recruiter with Insperity, which recruits for some 100,000 businesses, told U.S. News & World Report that about 75 percent of her clients welcome — and hire — applicants with online degrees.

GI Bill is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site.

About the Author


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