How Do Online Classes Work?

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Note: This site has been archived and is no longer being updated, as of September, 2014.

More than likely, one of the questions you had after first learning about online education was, “How do online classes work?”  While there is a massive variety of ways this question could be answered, including “many different ways, depending on a lot of factors”, chances are, you would like a straightforward answer about what you can generally expect.  That is what you will find here.


  1. Computer access.  The most important tool in online learning is a computer.  This can be your own or a public computer such as at a library, but you must be able to use it for as much as 8 hours in a single day.  Note that library computers probably won’t be able to fit all your time in, so be wary if that is your only option.  You’ll need to make sure that it can handle the type of use that comes from these courses, but more than likely, if you have a computer that is less than 4 years old, you already meet all the computer and software requirements.  If you have an older computer or simple want to make sure you won’t run into any problems, here are the system requirements you’ll need to meet in order to receive the full experience:
    1. Mac OS [1]
      1. Intel Core™ Duo 1.83GHz or faster processor
      2. Mac OS X 10.6, 10.7, 10.8, or 10.9
      3. 512MB of RAM; 128MB of graphics memory
      4. Sound card [2]
      5. CD/DVD drive(s) or player(s) (not often required but a good idea to have just in case) [2]
      6. Software requirements:
        1. One of the following internet browsers: Safari 5.0 or later, Mozilla Firefox 17 or Google Chrome
        2. Email (from a reliable provider such as Gmail or Live mail)
        3. A word processing program (Microsoft Word, Pages, OpenOffice)
        4. In addition to the software listed above, on some occasions, you will be required to download specific software to help with your coursework.  Provided you meet the Mac OS requirements, you should have no problem running this software.
    2. Windows [1]
      1. 2.33GHz or faster x86-compatible processor, or Intel® Atom™ 1.6GHz or faster processor for netbooks
      2. Microsoft® Windows® XP (32 bit), Windows Server 2008 (32 bit), Windows Vista® (32 bit), Windows 7 (32 bit and 64 bit), Windows 8 (32 bit and 64 bit), or Windows Server 2012 (64 bit)
      3. 512MB of RAM (1GB of RAM recommended for netbooks); 128MB of graphics memory
      4. Software requirements:
        1. One of the following internet browsers: Internet Explorer 7.0 or later, Mozilla Firefox 17 or later or Google Chrome
        2. In addition to the browsers listed above, on some occasions, you will be required to download specific software to help with your coursework.  Provided you meet the Windows requirements, you should have no problem running this software.
  2. Internet access.  This is a fairly obvious requirement but necessary nonetheless.  You’ll need to use the internet for a good amount of time–no less than 1 hour per day, 5 days a week–so you should make sure you can have a reliable source for your internet needs.  Here are some options that should do the job:
    1. Home network (this is the best option, provided it’s decent quality…not dial-up)
    2. Public WiFi networks like those in coffee shops, McDonald’s, and Panera
    3. Public computers such as in a library.
  3. Skills. There are some computer skills that are necessary for online education, but don’t worry.  If you made it here safely and by yourself, you’ll be just fine.  But, just for your peace of mind, here is a list of some of the things you’ll need to be able to do:
    1. “Navigate the Internet with a web browser.
    2. Use email and send attachments proficiently.
    3. Download and install plug-ins.
    4. Create files and folders.
    5. Use a word processing program: Microsoft Word is strongly recommended.
    6. Save word processing documents as Rich Text Format (.rtf).” [2]


One of the most appealing factors of online education is the ability to learn from virtually anywhere.  Since most classes don’t require your attendance at the hosting school at any point throughout the course, there is no need to be anywhere near the school’s location.  One thing to keep in mind, though, is that there are a few schools that require an in-person orientation, but these are few and far between, with the distance growing consistently.  Much more commonly, you will sometimes be required to take exams at any college or university, so that you can be monitored by a proctor–this is expounded upon below.

Flexibility, Scheduling, and Assignments

This topic is discussed in great detail, pertaining to its benefits, in the article Flexible Scheduling, as well as briefly on the Benefits of Online Education page.  However, this article will focus on the logistics of it all. In most online classes, there is no direct attendance policy.  There are no specific times you need to be anywhere.  The only requirements relating to that are just to get your work done by the due date.  It is because of this that many people are able to attend school full time online and hold a full-time job or raise a family.  Typically courses are split up into modules which may be every week or every two weeks.  Within each module you will have required work to complete such as viewing lectures, participating in discussions, reading texts, doing tests and papers, and completing homework assignments, turning them in via email.  Provided that you have enough hours to complete your work and study time, it doesn’t matter where those hours are placed throughout the module. [4]  In some cases the only deadline will be the end of the semester, but unless you have amazing self control, I suggest avoiding these.  You should always check as soon as possible to see the schedule of each class you sign up and also look for any scheduled dates to see if they will be an issue. While flexibility can be a huge benefit, don’t forget to consider the consequences.  Without a clear plan of action, dedication, and some quiet time, your schoolwork can easily pile up into an unmanageable burden.

Time Commitment

With all that being said about the flexibility of online learning, the obvious next question is, “How much time does it take?”  The answer: a lot.  Oftentimes, online classes take more time overall than face-to-face classes, especially if all the lectures are text-based (discussed below).  To cut to the chase, you can expect around 8 hours of study time per class per week.  This depends on a lot of factors, such as the difficulty of the class, how many credits it is, and your personal learning style.  If you think of it this way, you can take an average full-time schedule, being around 15 credits and 5 classes (3 credits each).  8×5=40 hours per week.  That is the same amount of time that you would be spending at a full time job.  Are you ready for that sort of commitment? [3] The beauty of online education is that you can easily choose between any reasonable number of classes.  If you aren’t capable of adding on another 40 hours per week into your schedule, maybe you could try taking a part-time load, such as 3 classes.  If you work on your schoolwork 7 days a week, that’s only about 3.5 hours per day that you have to add on. One final thing to consider is that online classes are sometimes accelerated, taking semester-long classes and squeezing them into fewer weeks.  If you are ambitious by nature and enjoy a challenge, then you might appreciate this faster learning pace, but if this will be your first time in an online course, make sure to pay close attention to the length of the class, deciding for yourself if you can handle an accelerated rate. [3]


Possibly the biggest difference between traditional and online classes are the lectures.  Traditional lectures consist of a classroom, professor, and students, all together at once, physically sharing the same area, with face-to-face communication possible. Online lectures, on the other hand, are all through the web with no need for face-to-face communication.  These lectures can be text, video, audio, or any combination of those three.  Typically part of the school work is experiencing the lecture, as well as participating in group discussion, in some cases.  Another option is to have the lectures be more of an aid to help in your studies, and not required.

Quizzes, Tests, and Exams

Most quizzes, tests, and exams are taken online.  Where schools–or even individual courses–differ is in the details of how this happens.  There are many variables when taking tests/quizzes online, such as whether or not it is timed, how it is taken, i.e. a web application, and how it is scored. When tests are taken through a web application, they are often scored immediately and sometimes even display your results just as soon as you finish. [5] For the exams that must be taken on-campus, the general rule is that, provided you can find an eligible proctor to monitor you as you work, you can take the exam at virtually any college or university–sometimes even churches and grade schools are accepted.  These tests are typically in the math and science departments, due to the kind of testing required. [5]

What’s Next?

Online education may be a difficult concept to grasp if you’re new to the idea, but hopefully you have been enlightened enough to consider the possibility of trying out an online class or two.  If you are interested, but wondering if it might be a good fit for you, after taking the quiz, Is Online Education Right for Me?, you should have a pretty good idea.  If instead, you are excited about the possibilities of learning online and can’t wait to get started, the next place for you to visit is one of the Online Degrees pages to see if you can earn a degree in an area that you are passionate about.  From there, you can also see what schools offer that degree.  Regardless of where you go from here, make the most of your opportunities, seeking to succeed in everything you do!

[2]Victor Valley College
[4]Accelerated Degrees
[5]Cayuga Community College
[6]Integrated Learning Platform

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