Online College Courses and Classes: Options and Requirements

Overview of Online College Course Options

While many colleges and universities offer full online programs that culminate in certificates or degrees, others may offer individual online courses. Many schools offer a combination of the two, with some degree programs available fully online and other degree programs available through on-campus and distance learning, giving students options to learn on a schedule that fits their lives. Course content for online studies typically mirrors that found in on-campus classes.

How Online Courses Work

Colleges and universities that offer full programs and individual classes online typically deliver the class materials to students electronically. Students may receive lectures in text form via email, while others log in to a secure site to view professors deliver streaming lectures. Blackboard is a common electronic interface for transmitting course materials as well. Students log in to receive lessons and submit completed assignments for review. There are also opportunities for students to interact with fellow learners through email, discussion lists, chat rooms and discussion forums.


Most online courses and classes are semester- or trimester-based, in keeping with on-campus classes. Students may be able to view lessons and turn in assignments at their convenience, though it's not always the case. An instructor might require one or two class participation activities online at a set time, like a group chat, or they may have set assignment due dates. Exams are usually mailed to the student. Students arrange for a proctor to monitor the exam, which is then mailed back to the professor for scoring by a pre-set date.

Online college students may have the option of choosing a program of individual study or an alternative, known as cohort study. In cohort study, all students beginning a degree program at the same time move through the courses together.

Technology Requirements

Technology requirements vary by program, but generally include a reliable computer and Internet access, at the very least. Some schools offer an introductory class to help new online learners. Many schools offer tech help regarding their online classes, and most have basic help desk support available to distance learners experiencing trouble with online course interfaces or hardware. In addition, some programs and courses may require students to purchase special software and/or hardware.

Residency Requirements

Most online classes can be completed virtually. Some programs, most likely those taught at the graduate level, do have a residency requirement for online students. This may be anything from a single week spent meeting and working with classmates and professors to several weekend meetings throughout the semester.

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