How Does an Online Degree Work?

Oct 20, 2021

Online programs have become widely available from colleges, as they provide a flexible way for students to learn on their own terms. Online options may be strictly scheduled or self-paced, depending on the type of program. Discover what these degrees entail and what to consider before enrolling.

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Online Degree Programs

Distance learning degrees are available through traditional two-year community colleges, four-year universities, and private online schools. When deciding whether or not to enroll in an online learning program, it is important to understand how they work. Prospective students have many things to consider, including scheduling options, technology requirements, and their personal learning style. This article will help you learn more about:

  • Course formats
  • Scheduling options
  • Program length
  • The virtual classroom environment
  • Class participation requirements
  • Technological necessities
  • Learning style considerations

Course Formats

There are a wide variety of fully online programs, although some schools utilize a hybrid format, which combines online and campus-based classes. Hybrid learning is more common for majors that require hands-on training, such as engineering or allied health fields. Some courses, especially those at the graduate level, may even have internships or residencies that students complete at local schools, businesses or hospitals.


Scheduling options differ between courses. A student in a class with a traditional schedule is required to complete regular assignments and tests by certain dates throughout the semester. A self-paced course allows students to work at whatever pace they may wish, for as long as necessary to complete the course. Many classes fall somewhere in between these two formats and require students to have all work submitted by a particular date at the end of the semester.

Program Length

Because of their flexibility, online program lengths can vary to a great degree. Self-paced programs can move as quickly or as slowly as the student wishes. For an online bachelor's degree, the average completion time is 2.5 years (compared to 5 for on-campus students). Most online master's degrees take around 2 years to complete, though some programs, like nursing, can take more like 3 years. Some schools offer accelerated programs with intense but short courses; this allows students to complete their degrees even faster.


The enrollment process might be slightly different for each school, but most have a similar application process as the on-campus programs. Students will need to submit an application along with high school and/or other college transcripts and show that they meet any specific program prerequisites.

After they have been accepted, online students can review the course offerings (and specific degree requirements if they are seeking a degree), meet with an online advisor to verify their selection and register online for the course. One thing to keep in mind is that online courses are typically subject to enrollment deadlines, so checking the schedule is always a good idea.

Virtual Classroom

Most online classes are presented via a website that integrates forums, an instant messenger, e-mail, and streaming audio and video. Voice Over IP (VoIP) is often used, and this allows for a more traditional experience, with students and professors interacting in real-time. Programs also offer testing and real-time assignment review capabilities to create an online classroom environment for students. This virtual classroom makes it easy for students to view class calendars or informational posts as well as the lectures and assignments that teachers have posted, which can include video, audio, or text files.

Class Participation

There are a variety of ways in which student can communicate with instructors and other classmates in an online classroom environment. These include email, instant messaging, video chatting, audio conferencing, and message boards.

Because online degrees are not set in a physical classroom, students are required to show some sort of participation, either by posting a certain number of times on the class discussion boards or by completing assignments with other students. In hybrid classes, this requirement may be waived, as students must show up for a physical class on certain days throughout the semester. In continuing education programs or degree programs for working adults, this participation requirement may be less stringent.

Tech Requirements

Schools with online programs usually have specific tech requirements regarding what kind of computer, Internet connection, and software distance learners must have. In general, students usually need to have a computer with the following features:

  • A recent Windows, Mac, or Linux operating system
  • High-speed internet access
  • A minimum amount of memory
  • Office software
  • Antivirus software
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Microphone
  • CD/DVD drive

In addition, certain programs could require students to purchase equipment and supplies that traditional students have access to on campus. For example, online graphic design programs might require participants to have their own cameras, editing software, color printers, and scanners. Some schools do have affiliations with corporations to help online students get needed software at a discount.

Learning Style Considerations

Prospective distance learners should make sure their learning style is conducive to the independent initiative that is necessary for the success in online programs. While instructors often provide feedback and have set due dates for work, students must be motivated to complete readings and projects without the benefit of in-person assistance. A basic level of proficiency in using the internet and computer applications is necessary, as are solid reading and writing skills. There are a variety of factors for prospective students to consider when deciding whether to enroll in an online distance program, from their personal learning style to the format of the course.

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