How Does an Online Degree Work?

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. There is 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.

Class formats for online degrees vary, and it's important for students to enroll in a class format that fits their schedule. The more traditionally scheduled class assigns and requires students 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.

Learning Methods

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 is usually 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.

Most online classes are presented via a website that integrates forums, an instant messenger, e-mail and streaming audio and video. Programs also offer testing and real-time assignment review capabilities to create an online classroom environment for students. This 'virtual classroom' allows students to interact with each other and communicate with their teachers, along with viewing class calendars or informational posts. Teachers have the option of posting lectures and assignments as video, audio or text files.

Things to Consider

Online degree programs are a popular option nowadays because they give students -- especially busy adults -- flexibility in when and where they complete coursework. That said, prospective distance learners should make sure they are prepared to take on independent learning. 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.

Tech Requirements

Schools with online programs usually have specific tech requirements regarding what kind of computers, Internet connections and software distance learners must have. In some cases, instructors use web conferencing to interact with classes at set times, so a web cam and microphone may be required.

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.

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