What to Expect From an Online Degree Program

Oct 20, 2021

Before starting an online degree program, it is important to know about course material delivery formats, scheduling options and technological requirements.

Inside Online Degree Programs

Students searching for online degree programs can find them through several types of postsecondary institutions, including:

  • Community colleges
  • Career schools
  • Traditional four-year universities
  • Private distance education schools with no brick-and-mortar campus

In many cases, prospective distance learners must meet the same admission standards as on-campus students. The required coursework is also usually the same or very similar.

Fully Online vs. Hybrid Programs

Students may enroll in completely online degree programs or choose hybrid learning, which means they take classes partly online and partly in person. The latter is more likely to be set on a course schedule that resembles a traditional degree program and runs in a semester format. Distance learning programs offered in a hybrid format are common with fields of study that require hands-on training, such as:

  • Technical disciplines
  • Engineering
  • Allied health
  • Counseling

There are also programs, such as those in teacher education, that have fully online coursework, but require students to complete internships or practicums, such as student teaching experiences.

Online Scheduling

Online program schedules vary according to each school's requirements and opportunities, and teachers may also have certain stipulations that apply only to their class. In most cases, online students complete and submit coursework on their own schedules but may have certain assignments and tests due on predetermined dates. There are also instances where courses have no set end date, much less due dates. Often, these programs allow students to work whenever they desire to complete each class or earn their degree. These may be available as noncredit courses for continuing education or personal enrichment.

Content Delivery

Online classes often use specially designed education software that incorporates all aspects of classroom learning through a single Web portal, such as Blackboard. Students can log in using their unique account information and locate:

  • Forums
  • Course materials
  • Automated testing services
  • Support systems for learning strategies
  • Technical assistance

The goal is to create a virtual classroom environment where learners can easily access lectures, assignments and tests -- which all may be available around the clock.


Students are highly encouraged to interact with their peers and instructor. Sometimes there are scheduled chats or live-streaming classroom sessions, but messages are often sent asynchronously with no more than a minimal level of participation required. Some instructors may open a discussion topic and expect distance learners to complete original posts and reply to classmates during the week or another specified time frame. Common communication methods used in online classes include the following:

  • E-mail
  • Message boards
  • Instant messengers
  • Video or audio conferencing
  • Chat rooms


Most schools require students to have their own computer with stable access to the Internet. They may need to separately purchase some software specific to their major. Other hardware and software requirements include:

  • An up-to-date operating system
  • A current Web browser like Google Chrome, Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox
  • Basic word processing programs like Microsoft Word
  • A certain amount of RAM and memory
  • The ability to download and stream multimedia content
  • Web camera
  • Printer

When enrolling in an online program, students can expect to access coursework and communicate with instructors through online platforms, which may require certain computer software and hardware. Course schedules vary, as do the availability of fully online and hybrid coursework.

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