How Do Online Classes Work? [2024 Guide]

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How do online classes work? Do you have to attend at a specific time? What about exams? Are those taken online? We have the answers you need!

How Do Online Classes Work

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The assignments for online college classes are a lot like an on-campus class. There are a few critical differences between online and traditional courses, including how the teachers and students share information.

How Do Online Classes Work?

student studying on her computer at home

Usually, when you take an online course, you will log in to a learning management system. Two examples are Blackboard and Schoology.

It’s a virtual portal where you can check your grades, talk to the professor and your classmates, and complete course assignments.

Do Online Classes Have Set Times?

Online courses can have two types of classwork:

  • Asynchronous
  • Synchronous

Your professor might make assignments, or they might be part of an automated set of curriculum, with checkpoints built-in. If you need to balance school with a job, kids, or other responsibilities, asynchronous classwork lets you work around your schedule.

Some online classes also have synchronous classwork, which means you have to sign on to the website at a specific time. Your professor might give a live lecture using a webcam, or proctor a live test with a time limit.

You might also have to use your computer’s camera and microphone to talk to your professor or classmates.

How Do Online Exams Work?

How Do Online Exams Work

Online exams can take many forms. You might take a test on the learning portal. You might have to download a test, work on the answers in a separate document, and then upload your answers.

Online exams are often timed. If the test is through an online platform, an unstable internet connection can interrupt your test and force you to request a redo.

Online exams may be proctored, meaning someone might watch you take your test. There are in-person proctored exams, where you have to show up at a testing center at a particular time.

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Some instructors use virtual proctors. This means you’ll turn on your computer’s webcam, and a person will watch you complete the test.

Some instructors also use software that detects cheating by checking your screen to see if you have other web pages open. Often, instructors use plagiarism-checking software to make sure you don’t copy and paste answers from other sources.

How Long Do Online Classes Take?

How Long Do Online Classes Take

The length of the course will depend on your school’s program. Usually, an online class will take the same time as a face-to-face class, a semester (typically 15 weeks).

Some schools offer accelerated classes. They are usually taught in the summer. They can be as short as 4-8 weeks.

In general, you will likely spend 15 to 20 hours a week on the work for one online class. If it’s an accelerated class, you will likely spend 30-35 hours a week on the classwork.

In online courses, you might have to read more than you would for a face-to-face class. Face to face, a professor can speak the information, but online, you will need to read it.

One activity that usually takes a significant amount of time is posting your responses in online discussions. In a regular class, you could choose to participate (or not) by raising your hand and sharing your thoughts. In an online course, you write.

Another difference is that in an online class, every student has to reply to every question the professor asks.

You might also have to post your own questions or reply to other students’ posts (like a forum). Posting your response, waiting for others to publish theirs so that you can respond, and writing your answer takes time.

Tips for Taking Online Classes

student working on her laptop

There are ways you can make your online learning experience more enjoyable, helping you earn the highest grade possible. Write like you would write to your boss at work, not like you’re texting a friend. Be professional and communicate clearly.

Stay in communication with your teacher. For example, if you have a question about an assignment, ask well before the due date. It may take a while for the teacher to respond.

Take charge of your learning. No one will remind you of due dates or explain assignments (unless you ask for help well before the assignment is due.)

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Back up your work. If you submit something through the learning portal, save a copy in case it isn’t received. Check for grades and feedback from the instructor frequently.

Most problems with online learning come from a lack of communication. The way we communicate online is different from interacting face to face. Generally, sarcasm, innuendo, and subtle hints are not appropriate in an online class.

How Many Online Classes Should I Take?

How Many Online Classes Should I Take

You can usually choose the number of classes you take online, but this will depend on your school’s program. Some programs require students to follow a set path of online coursework, limiting the number of classes you can take at once.

Make sure to ask about the flexibility of the online class load so that you can balance work, family, life, and school. Although a program may allow you to sign up for unlimited classes, it may not be a good idea to take more than one or two at a time.

Be sure to ask how many hours per week of coursework is required for each class. To avoid taking more classes than you need to, ask if a program offers competency-based online learning. In this situation, you can test out of topics you have mastered, and you may move more quickly through the curriculum.

People tend to assume some things about online classes. Some people think they’re easier than traditional courses, and that cheating on the coursework is easy.

Other people believe online classes are more challenging. Some people have tried online learning before, but wonder what it’s like at the community college level.

Is It Hard to Take Online Classes?

Student attending an online class

Online classes are not necessarily easier than traditional courses. Just because you can do the work at your own pace from the comfort of your home doesn’t mean there is any less work to do.

You may have to read more information or watch more videos than you would need for a traditional class. You may have to search for answers to questions on your own if the teacher is not available to talk with you right away.

You also might have to write out all of the responses that you usually would say aloud in a classroom.

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Speaking of writing, online instructors tend to require solid writing skills. Since writing may be the primary form of communication, many instructors require complete sentences.

They won’t accept shoddy work or shortcuts like you might use when texting or writing informally to a friend.

Can You Cheat on Online Classes?

college student studying on his computer in a cafe

The ability to cheat on an assignment or test comes down to the type of question being asked. If the answer to the question can be found through a quick internet search, then some people may cheat and look it up.

Higher-level questions that ask you to justify, explain, or show your reasoning are much more difficult to cheat on.

Online instructors are very aware of the possibility of cheating. This is why they pose complex questions, require students to respond to each other in authentic ways, and use anti-cheating software to search for copied and pasted responses.

In the end, the risk of cheating in an online class is almost the same as the risk of cheating in a traditional class. Professors know it is a possibility, and they work hard to prevent it, no matter what format the course takes.

How Do Online Classes Work for Community College?

college student studying on her laptop at home

How college classes work at a community college is much the same as a four year college.

Online classes at community colleges, sometimes called distance education, are a popular option. Many students at community college balance work, family, life, and school. Online classes allow community college students to complete work flexibly.

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Not all courses at a community college may be offered online. If you’re interested in completing most or all of your schoolwork online, make sure to talk through each part of the program with your advisor. Check that each course is offered online, and check the timing too.

You don’t want to reach the end of your college program and find that the last class you need to take is only offered once a year.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Taking Classes Online

Advantages and Disadvantages of Taking Classes Online

Consider the following features of an online class and decide whether you see it as a positive or a negative.

Learning Management System (learning portal)

Pros – Having all of the curriculum visible online means there are no surprises or secrets. It’s transparent.

Cons – Access to the coursework depends on the strength of your internet connection. Also, having all of the curriculum available means there is a lot to navigate and read on your own.

Independent Coursework

Pros – You can complete some (perhaps all) of the coursework on your schedule. You can flexibly work around your family, job, life, and other responsibilities.

Cons – More independence means more responsibility. You are in charge of keeping yourself motivated, on-task, and hitting deadlines.

Online Exams

Pros – You might take exams from the comfort of your own home, with less test-anxiety.

Cons – Exams may be proctored, which could still cause test-anxiety. Tests are usually timed. If you need help, you usually cannot ask the instructor during the test.

Timing of Online Classes

Pros – Online courses are typically the same length as traditional classes (one semester). You’ll save some time by avoiding the commute to and from school.

Cons – You may not be able to accelerate your learning much. Taking many online classes at once is difficult because of the time it takes to complete writing activities for each online course. Some programs don’t let students take more than one or two online classes at once.

Difficulty of Online Classes

students studying together on laptop at home

Are online classes harder? They don’t have to be!

Pros – If you’re confident in writing and reading, an online class may seem easier.

Cons – Online classes often require more reading and writing than face-to-face courses. Every student has to answer every question in complete sentences. There is no online equivalent of sitting at the back of the class and tuning out.

Keep in mind, even within one school, each online class can be different. Make sure to ask the following questions before signing up for the course.

  • What is the average amount of time people spend on the work for this class?
  • Is the curriculum automated, or was it created by the professor?
  • Will there be any synchronous class meetings?
  • How are exams given in this class? Is there a proctor? Do I have to go to a testing site?
  • Will I need to use my computer’s camera and microphone to speak to the instructor or my classmates?

The answers to these questions can give you a better idea of whether or not a specific online class is a good fit for you.

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Jordan Meeks
Jordan is pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and earned her Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management and her Bachelor's in Business Administration. Jordan's research focuses on adults returning to college and online degree programs.