Online classes are typically a mix of video recordings or live lectures supplemented with readings and assessments that students can complete on their own time. But nothing is typical about education in 2020 as the coronavirus has forced a sudden migration to online learning with little time to prepare for it.
As the pandemic accelerated, colleges shifted into emergency mode, shutting down campuses in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 -- the disease caused by the novel coronavirus -- and moving academic life online. Education experts anticipate more online classes this fall. For students -- whether incoming freshmen, seasoned seniors or returning adult learners -- here is an overview of what to know about and expect from online classes:
-- How is an online classroom typically structured?
-- Do students need to attend classes at specific times?
-- Do online classes have in-person components?
-- How do students interact in an online course?
-- What is the typical workload for an online course?
-- How many weeks do online classes run?
-- What are typical assignments in online classes?
-- How do students take proctored exams in online classes?
-- What should students know before enrolling in an online course?
-- Are there ways to accelerate online degree completion?
How Is an Online Classroom Typically Structured?
The structure of an online classroom varies, experts say. But generally, online students regularly log in to a learning management system, or LMS, a virtual portal where they can view the syllabus and grades; contact professors, classmates and support services; access course materials; and monitor their progress on lessons.
Experts say prospective students should check whether a school's LMS is accessible on mobile devices so they can complete coursework anytime, anywhere. They will also likely need a strong internet connection and any required software, such as a word processor.
One important distinction that experts note is that the forced shift to remote instruction that colleges saw this spring due to the coronavirus is not typical of online education. What students are experiencing in an online format as a result of the pandemic is "emergency remote teaching" says Lynette O'Keefe, director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium.
"Emergency remote teaching forces faculty that have planned their semester in either a face-to-face or blended environment to be carried out fully online, and it forces students that were not necessarily expecting to complete their courses online to do so," O'Keefe says.
She expects courses in the fall to be designed for online offerings rather than hastily forced into the format.
Do Students Need to Attend Classes at Specific Times?
Online classes typically have an asynchronous, or self-paced, portion. Students complete coursework on their own time but still need to meet weekly deadlines, a format that offers flexibility for students.
Some online courses may also have a synchronous component, where students view live lectures online and sometimes participate in discussions through videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom. The latter model is the move many professors have made during the pandemic, experts say.
"It's effectively taking a physical classroom model and doing your best to deliver that over tools like Zoom," says Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U, an online program management company.
Do Online Classes Have In-Person Components?
Some online classes may require students to attend a residency on the school's campus before or during the program. The lengths and details of these requirements vary.
Students may complete team-building activities, network and attend informational sessions. Especially in health fields like nursing, certain online programs may require working in a clinical setting.
How Do Students Interact in an Online Course?
If a course has a synchronous component or requires students to travel to campus, that's a good way to get to know classmates, experts say. Students may otherwise communicate through discussion forums, social media and -- particularly for group work -- videoconferencing, as well as phone and email.
Online learners interact with professors in similar ways, though they may need to be more proactive than on-campus students to develop a strong relationship. That may involve introducing themselves to their instructor before classes start and attending office hours if offered, Marian Stoltz-Loike, vice president for online education at Touro College in New York, wrote in a 2017 U.S. News blog post.
What Is the Typical Workload for an Online Course?
Just like in traditional classes, the workload varies -- but don't expect your course to be easier just because it's online. Many online learners say they spend 15 to 20 hours a week on coursework. That workload, of course, may vary between full-time and part-time students. A lighter course load likely means less study.
At Arizona State University's online arm -- ASU Online -- students typically spend six hours a week on coursework for each credit they enroll in, Joe Chapman, director of student services at the school, wrote in a 2015 U.S. News blog post.
How Many Weeks Do Online Classes Run?
While some online degree programs follow the traditional semester-based schedule, others divide the year into smaller terms, and graduation credit requirements may vary. ASU Online courses, for instance, are structured as seven-and-a-half week sessions rather than 14-week semesters.
Sometimes students can choose the number of courses they take at one time, while in other programs they must stick to a set curriculum road map as part of a cohort, experts say. Prospective students should determine whether the academic calendar is structured in a way that will enable them to balance work, school and family. They should also know that academic calendars vary by school.
While some schools have decided to tweak the format for fall 2020, most are sticking to the traditional academic calendar to avoid throwing even more changes at students amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chou says. "I think the majority of the folks that we have talked to have elected, at least for this fall, to preserve their semester structures, just in the interest of not changing everything at the same time."
What Are Typical Assignments in Online Classes?
Online course assignments depend largely on the discipline. But in general, students should expect assignments similar to those in on-ground programs, such as research papers and proctored exams in addition to online-specific assignments such as responding to professor-posed questions in a discussion board.
An online course may also require group projects where students communicate virtually, as well as remote presentations. These can be challenging for online learners, who often live across various time zones, Stoltz-Loike noted in a 2018 blog post.
How Do Students Take Proctored Exams in Online Classes?
Not all online classes have proctored exams. But if they do, online students may need to visit a local testing site with an on-site proctor. They may also take virtually monitored exams online, where a proctor watches via webcam or where computer software detects cheating by checking test-takers' screens.
With more classes likely online in fall 2020, experts expect an uptick in online exam proctoring.
What Should Students Know Before Enrolling in an Online Course?
Prospective students looking for how to start online college should visit the admissions page for the school. They should also understand the requirements for the degree program of interest to them, considering that there may be a higher threshold for certain majors compared with general admissions, experts recommend.
While the registration process for online and on-campus classes is often similar, prospective online students should review the course type and requirements before enrolling, experts say. They should also understand the requirements for dropping classes.
Are There Ways to Accelerate Online Degree Completion?
In some cases, it's possible to earn a degree faster.
For instance, in competency-based online learning, students move quickly through the material they already know and may spend more time on unfamiliar topics. In some programs, students may also earn credits for past work or military experience. Some universities even offer a subscription-based model, which allows students to sign up for various self-paced classes over several months.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.