How Do Online Classes Work?

how does online college work

During 2020 and 2021, nearly everyone was thrown into online education. Teachers and professors had to figure out how to teach when no one could meet in-person. Students had to learn to cope with this new situation. Some students thrived, and other students struggled. Some classes, such as those in a lecture format, were easily transferred to an online platform. Others, especially hands-on classes like labs, had to be continued in innovative ways. This online way of learning was new to everyone. 

Well, it was new to almost everyone. Some universities had been teaching online for years. While the past year was a challenge because a whole new learning system had to be put together, many universities had systems already in place. Online classes can be efficient and are often far more convenient for students with busy schedules than their on-campus counterparts would be. 

Below, we set out to answer the question, “How do online college classes work?”

How long have online college classes been offered?

According to, universities have been teaching through distance learning since the mid-1800s. For quite a while, courses took place through the postal service. Technology continued advancing, however, and in 1953, The University of Houston began offering courses through television. The University of Phoenix began offering both master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees online in 1989. Now, says the article, “93% of all brick-and-mortar colleges offer online courses.” Note that this study took place before the 2020-21 academic year, so this refers to established online courses, not courses that had to be moved online to accommodate issues with meeting in person. 

How do online college classes work on a day-to-day basis?

There are two main ways that online classes work. One is known as a synchronous format. This means that there are specific times that classes have to meet, often using Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, or another online platform. These classes operate much like in-person classes do, with scheduled meeting times throughout the week. Some of these synchronous classes, since they often are tailored to serve students with responsibilities such as work or family, will put meeting times in the evening or on Saturdays to help students manage their busy schedules.

According to, some of the advantages of synchronous classes are that classroom engagement is often higher, the learning may be faster-paced since students can research on their own during the actual class time, and students get to interact with their professors much more personally. The disadvantages, however, include the rigid schedule and the possibility of technical difficulties.

Asynchronous classes, classes that are not dependent on a set time, are quite a bit different than synchronous classes. Often, an instructor will assign sources, such as textbook readings or documentaries, and then have the student write a response paper. Some instructors, on the other hand, will pre-record a video lecture. The student can then watch the video whenever it is convenient. Instructors must get creative for some of the learning tools that in-person classes employ, such as student presentations or in-class discussions. For example, presentations will often be recorded and sent to the instructor, while discussions may take place on an online tool, such as Blackboard. The instructor can create a thread and have students log in and respond, either to the instructor or to each other. 

According to, asynchronous classes come with several advantages. One advantage is how flexible these classes are. With no set times that students have to log in, it is up to the student to determine when the assignments are completed. Another advantage, according to the website, is that students can customize the pacing. If a student wants to spend a lot of time on a particular subject that he or she finds hard to grasp, or finds certain material easy and finishes them quickly, it does not set them too far behind or put them too far ahead. While there are often deadlines for the completion of work, there is a great deal of freedom in pacing. Also, many times asynchronous classes are less expensive because there is less effort required from the instructor. 

However, there are disadvantages to asynchronous classes. For one thing, the student is mostly studying alone. While some might prefer to learn alone, others can quickly feel isolated without the interaction with classmates or professors. There may be a certain amount of interaction, but not nearly as much as there would be in a synchronous format. Another challenge with asynchronous classes is remaining motivated. This kind of education is much more self-guided than synchronous or in-person learning, so a student that plans to take asynchronous classes will need to be highly self-motivated. 

It is important to consider these two options to determine which one will be more of a fit when asking the question, “How do online classes work in college?” 

How do online college classes work around people who try to cheat? 

Cheating is a problem even in on-campus courses. Many students do not see cheating as a “big deal” if it helps them pass a class or boosts their GPA. reports that out of a pool of about 17,300 undergraduates (excluding first-year students), 39% admitted to cheating on tests and 62% admitted that they cheated on written assignments. The study ended in 2015. Since then, the numbers have gone up. If there is this much cheating in in-person learning, wouldn’t there be more in online learning? Students could have another person take their online quiz, hire someone else to write their paper, or look up information on the internet while taking a test. They could correspond with one another during a test, keep notes or textbooks with them, or find still more ways to cheat, since the professor cannot watch them as closely as they could in an in-person class. 

According to, online schools use several methods to keep students from cheating on their exams. The website quotes former professor Janice Karlene as saying, “Technology changes how cheating is done rather than making it easier.” In other words, as students develop new ways to cheat, professors must stay one step ahead of them in preventing academic dishonesty.

An inventive way that online schools can prevent cheating is by using Keystroke verification software. This is an online tool that “recognizes” a student’s typing speed, thus being able to determine whether they are the ones who are actually taking a test or writing a homework assignment. 

There is also variable testing, in which professors randomize quiz answers to make it hard for students to cheat using websites such as CourseHero. According to, CourseHero is a website that is made to help people study. However, often, the answers to tests or quizzes are shared through this platform. If instructors change up the order of the questions, it is harder to cheat in this way. Also, instructors may change what tests they use every semester to make it more difficult for students to cheat. 

Another method used is the proctored exam. Students must show up to a testing center, either on the campus or in some other location, to take the exam. This ensures that students are being watched while they take their exams. This might go a long way towards preventing dishonesty. However, one problem is that many students are taking online classes for their flexibility. They might live far away from campus, and might not have the time or the resources to travel there. Still, when is it workable, this is an effective method to discourage cheating. 

Sometimes, for an exam, the instructor of an online class will have students answer critical-thinking questions in which they are asked to analyze rather than repeat information. These exams are more difficult to cheat on, because the student must give their own opinion rather than being asked specific questions that they could look up on the internet or find in their notes. Often, these exams will be “open book” exams, so the students need not worry about retaining specific pieces of information as much as learning to analyze and understand the information they are given. 

These methods are not foolproof. If a student is determined enough, he or she will most likely be able to cheat, whether they are in an online class or an in-person one. However, many cheaters are caught, and often academic dishonesty is very severely regarded by academic institutions. 

How do the workloads of online college classes compare with those of traditional classes?

Interestingly enough, the biggest difference in workload between in-person classes and online classes is for the instructors. According to a study conducted by Wright State University, online instructors spend significantly more time on preparation and instruction in distance-learning classes. This is, according to the study, the result of more time spent on each student’s learning; it is not thought to be a result of the use of technology itself. 

For students, online classes are often thought to have a heavier workload. In the University of Alberta’s student journal, Rebecca Avila claims that online courses are more work. This can, in fact, be the case, and it has especially been seen in the past year. As instructors scramble to learn how to teach online classes, they feel they must give students enough to do, and often, this results in busywork, or assignments that are not really necessary for the student’s education. 

However, this is not always the case for classes that have been initially designed to be completed online. The classes that fill up with busywork are usually the ones whose instructors are new to online teaching. Classes that have always been online do not always have this problem. Also, the workload often depends on the instructor. Some instructors feel they have to give more homework for their online classes; others give very little work. It is much like in an on-campus class: it will depend on who is teaching the class. 

Can I finish an online degree faster than an on-campus degree?

Usually, according to, online degrees can be finished faster than on-campus degrees. This is done by taking a heavier courseload than the student would take in person. Also, many online degrees are offered in accelerated formats, which are designed to help the student finish as soon as possible. Also, transfer options, credit for life experience, and other benefits for students who want to earn their degree as quickly as possible are often offered. 

How do online college classes work if they are hands-on classes, like labs? 

Many classes are more hands-on, and thus are more difficult to translate to an online format. For example, it may be hard to imagine an online lab. However, technology is available to counteract this problem. According to, simulations and virtual labs allow labs to take place online. A simulation is a way to show how something works, whether it is a video simulation or an interactive simulation. Virtual labs, according to the website, “provide a more immersive experience” than simulations, and, in some cases, virtual or augmented reality adds to the experience. Also, these simulations and virtual labs are often designed so that group projects are possible, much like in an on-campus lab. says that though online labs can take plenty of supplies and coordination, they can be a very positive learning experience.

How do online classes work if part of the degree has to be in person? Will I have to visit campus for my online degree?

It depends on the degree. Some online degrees require one or two visits to campus as soon as the student is accepted into the program. Some degrees have components which would be difficult or impossible to accomplish by distance learning. 

For example, many degrees in the medical field require clinical experience as a part of the degree. Some schools have made it so that students can get that experience in their hometown without having to travel to campus, but others will require that students travel to the university’s campus. 

Education degrees are another example. Prior to 2020, student teaching had to be completed in person. However, for the 2020-21 academic year, student teachers were able to continue teaching online. It is certainly possible that more online programs will move in this direction in the future, and that more online education students will be able to complete their student teaching online. 

In Conclusion

Online classes require motivation and determination. They are not for everyone, but many that have tried online learning have found it worth the effort. For those that were thrown into the chaos of a learning system that found itself suddenly transitioning to online learning, online classes might seem stressful. However, for the universities who have designed many of their classes from the ground up for distance learning, online classes can be convenient, inexpensive, and all-around positive experiences. 

OAD Staff
April 2021

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This concludes our article on how online education works.