What to Expect From Online Learning

Not sure what to expect from online learning? Expect a lot. Online degree programs aren’t for the faint of heart—they’re as rigorous and challenging as traditional programs, and sometimes more so. But most online degree programs offer a lot of support for students in the form of helpful professors, students on the same track, and established tutoring and mentorship programs. Here are just a few things you should expect from your online degree program.

Expect to work hard. “Online” doesn’t mean “easy.” Online degree programs assign homework, reading, regular tests, and more—all the things you’d expect from a traditional school. Many students who’ve taken both online and traditional college-level classes say that their online classes were more challenging. Many online programs expect a “class participation” effort from students—you’ll have to maintain strong discussions online as well as completing your assignments.

Expect to become tech-savvy. Online programs lean heavily on the latest technical advances. Every student has access to a computer, after all. If there are software or technical applications commonly used in your industry, most online programs will have you familiar with them by the time you leave. You’ll also deliver your assignments in a range of mediums, from Microsoft Word to Access and PowerPoint.

Expect to communicate in many different ways. You’ll communicate in writing a lot. You’ll be expected to ask questions, make points, defend positions, and coordinate group efforts via email and discussion forums. But you’ll also be getting class lectures over videocast and podcast, and may do some remote conferencing for some assignments and classes. Schools offering online degrees are always experimenting with different methods of material delivery.

Expect strict standards. If you think online students are tech-savvy, you should see the professors. As an online student, you’ll likely have a harder time getting away with turning in unoriginal work—so don’t attempt it. Online professors are often industry experts with credentials in the industry—especially in the more practical professionally-oriented programs—and they typically expect high levels of performance. Technical ability allows online teachers to keep careful track of students’ work and originality.

Expect group work. Think learning online means learning in a vacuum? Think again. As an online student, you’re likely to be assigned group projects with other students located in many different locations and time zones. Many online students are non-traditional, so you’ll be working with people who differ widely in age and background—much as you would in the workplace. You’ll also be working around different schedules and time zones, so an online group work project will hone your communication, leadership and scheduling skills.

Expect support. Online students have to be independent, but that doesn’t mean there’s no support network if you need it. Many online schools offer online tutoring and mentoring programs that will connect you with alumni, more advanced students or faculty advisors. In addition, it’s part of an online professor’s job to maintain timely communications and answer questions quickly—within 24 hours is typically the norm, and office hours are 24/7. Expect your professors, fellow students and school to look out for you and get you the help you need when you need it.

Expect flexibility. One area where online and traditional schools differ is in scheduling and flexibility. Online programs are highly flexible and allow students to complete classes while working full-time and fulfilling family obligations—which is why they typically attract large percentages of nontraditional working students. However, online degree programs aren’t always completely flexible—you will likely have due dates for assignments and exams, and you may have some regularly scheduled events including live lectures or conference calls with group members.

Expect to learn more than your subject. An online degree won’t just teach you what you came there to learn. It will teach you written communication skills, software savvy, and independent working skills. Online students often have strong study habits and an ability to get things done on their own—with a minimum of hand-holding. Online students are highly capable and clearly driven—they have to be to get through highly challenging degree programs in an online environment.

Online degree programs are highly challenging and demand a lot from students. Expect to learn a great deal in your program—and not just in your academic subject. Students in online degree programs learn to be flexible, independently motivated, and technically savvy—all qualities that will serve them well in their coming careers.