What to Expect From an Online Degree Program

Online degree programs are now widely available thanks to advancements in Internet and educational technologies. Many schools offer these flexible options to busy adults who may not otherwise be able to commit to pursuing a college degree.

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 and 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 usually the same or very similar.

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

Online Learning Methods

Online education specifics vary according to each school's requirements and opportunities, and teachers may also have certain stipulations that apply only to their class. But there are some commonalities that students can expect.

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.


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, but otherwise only need to have a current Web browser like Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox and basic processing programs like Microsoft Word. Other requirements may have to do with RAM, memory and drivers that will help students quickly access, download and stream multimedia content. Hardware may involve a Web cam or printer.

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 and support systems for learning strategies and 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

Search Degrees, Careers, or Schools