How do online classes work? 6 things to expect from the virtual classroom

The College of St. Scholastica By  The College of St. Scholastica  |  @StScholastica  | 

Online learning — at times referred to as distance education — has profoundly impacted the higher education ecosystem. The flexible, often more affordable modality of learning has made advanced education a possibility for students for whom attending a traditional brick-and-mortar university simply isn't an option.

In fact, the number of students enrolled in one or more online classes grows steadily each year, with the most recent federal data reporting more than 5.25 million students in participation. Not only is distance education a more flexible and affordable option for higher education learning, but one study found that students who "took all or part of their class online performed better, on average than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction."

With statistics like this in mind, it's no wonder online learning has grown in popularity. In hopes of providing you with some clarity as you determine whether online learning is right for you, we spoke to a handful of professionals — education experts and veteran online students alike — to learn some of the must-know facts about participating in an online classroom.

6 things students should know about online learning

If you're considering enrolling in an online course for the first time, it's understandable to have a few hesitancies. Many rightfully wonder if they'll learn as much from distance education as they would in a face-to-face classroom. Others are nervous about navigating the online learning platforms. And others still are unsure if they'll enjoy learning without the in-person comradery of sitting in a room of their peers.

We gathered insider insight from those who were in your shoes and went on to conquer the online classroom. Take a look at what they had to say.

1. You don't have to be a tech-whiz to master the online classroom

One of the primary concerns many have about enrolling in an online program is if they'll have enough technical know-how to navigate the online classroom environment. In distance education, everything — from class lectures, discussions, assignments, presentations and even office hours — can take place from the comfort of your home, library or favorite coffee shop.

But this leaves many wondering, "What if I run into a problem?" Be it trouble finding the right place to submit a document, experiencing difficulty operating a webcam if needed or encountering a potential technological glitch, it can be intimidating to feel like you'll need to handle it on your own.

In truth, however, it may not be as difficult as you might anticipate. "Online classrooms have evolved over the years," explains Breanne Tepler, admissions counselor at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS). She explains that they've become increasingly user-friendly while the general student population has become more digitally skilled. In general, if you can operate a smartphone or any of today's standard social media sites, you'd likely have no trouble holding your own in an online learning environment.

"Our society is getting more technologically-savvy every day," Tepler says. "That said, if you don't enjoy being on a computer and you feel lost or frustrated often when communicating with someone via phone, email and video, then an online program may not be for you."

2. Online courses can be just as impactful as on-campus classes

In general, studies have revealed that online courses can teach students at least as effectively as in-classroom courses, if not more so in some cases. "Online courses teach the same learning objectives as face-to-face classes," Tepler states, explaining that the key to a positive online learning journey is possessing the discipline to put in the necessary amount of work despite the flexible format.

"Your experience will be good if you put forth the effort to regularly login, participate in discussions, connect with your classmates and communicate often with your instructor," she says. Our experts agree that a student's experience in an online course will only be as good as the amount of dedication they're willing to put into it.

"It can be difficult for some students to not have the instant connection with professors or peers, and you do need to be motivated to concentrate on work and not be distracted," offers Steven Kellow, digital marketing and PR executive at TEFL.org. He explains, however, that what sets online courses apart is the level of support offered to combat this. "A good online course will have lots of options available to help students get the information they need."

3. You can still interact and bond with your professor and classmates

One of the benefits of in-classroom learning is the presence of differing viewpoints and opinions as expressed by classmates and instructors. Some of the most important lessons are learned in the process of such interaction and discussion. Many students who are interested in online learning wonder if this aspect of higher education is still possible through a virtual classroom environment.

While it does all take place within a digital platform, peer interaction, class discussions and even extra time with the professor are all facets students don't have to sacrifice for online learning. "Class discussions in online courses work in a similar manner to traditional online discussion in principle," explains Nate Masterson, a former online student."People share their thoughts, respond to each other and a professor moderates in an appropriate manner."  

Use of virtual meeting rooms provides a face-to-face experience where students can attend office hours, collaborate with classmates and meet with their professors for whole and small group instruction. The ability to receive personalized assistance and collaborate with classmates brings a sense of community to what has traditionally felt like a solo endeavor in online classes.

Other tools such as light boards bring the advantages of a traditional classroom feel to the online environment. Mini lessons delivered with a light board offer a natural feel to learning and simulate the experience of being in a classroom, but from the comfort and convenience of the student's device and choice of time.

In terms of connecting with instructors with questions or for additional help, Tepler assures potential online students that instructors make themselves available during office hours or by appointment the same way teachers of on-campus classes do. Many also offer multiple ways to connect, whether you'd prefer a phone call, an email conversation, a video chat or some other form of communication.

"I find students are often surprised at how connected they did feel with their online class experience," Tepler adds. "If you're nervous about it, I recommend trying some online webinars before signing on to an entire online academic program."

4. Learning from a distance can actually be an advantage

In discussing the pros and cons of online interaction in virtual classrooms, Masterson explains that "while it is more difficult to respond to each other in a timely manner, class discussions also promote the submissions of substantive replies that are more meaningful than you might find in a traditional classroom." Rather than blurting out thoughts for the sake of being heard, he continues, students are afforded the opportunity to express themselves in their own time, having fleshed out their thoughts and allowed them to evolve.

It's also true that not all students thrive in a face-to-face environment in which they're expected to offer up their comments amidst a sea of other, sometimes more dominant voices. "Online courses allow individuals to study at their own pace and in a way that works for them," says Mary Stephens, founder and CEO of PrepForward. She explains that online courses can alleviate the intimidation more soft-spoken students may experience in an on-campus classroom environment.

5. Not all online programs are the same

"As with in-person classes, there are different types of online courses with varying degrees of quality," Stephens offers. "High-quality online courses foster classroom discussions, interactions with peers and one-on-one attention from professors."

It's also true, Stephens poses, that students in online courses will need to put in some effort to develop this support system. "These courses require personal discipline to stay organized and motivated," she says, while iterating that the benefits can far outweigh the challenges.

In terms of format, you'll find some similarities among varying online programs while also encountering a few differences. "Not all classes are the same," Tepler says, citing the example that while most class discussions will typically take place on a discussion board, some may require a synchronized log-in time with a webcam for students to participate in live discussion remotely.

To best prepare yourself, be sure to address any questions you may have about a potential school's online classroom environment and processes when you speak to an admissions representative.

6. The flexibility it affords is worth any potential challenges

Among the many benefits of online learning, Kellow has noticed one rise to the top over the years: the flexibility. "You can learn whenever and wherever you want, so you can fit your learning around other commitments," he explains.

While some online courses may have designated login times, many do not, requiring only that students adhere to assignment and discussion due dates. This allows students to maintain full- or part-time work as they work toward advancing their education, it allows parents to balance family life with educational commitments and more.

Despite the lack of live, face-to-face interaction and the requirement of an extra helping of self-discipline, the advantages of participating in a flexible learning environment are more than worth it for millions across the nation. "The opportunity to learn at your own pace and still have a platform through which to express your thoughts, ideas and answers among peers is a worthy trade-off for many," Masterson says.

Are you ready to login to the online classroom?

If you've done your research and you're now convinced that you're up to the challenge and ready to reap the benefits of online learning, it's time to start searching for the perfect program to help you achieve your academic goals. But with online learning, the sky's the limit — so where should you even start? 

It can help to narrow down elements you might put on your online program wish list. In addition to a specific subject or program, you might be on the lookout for small class-sizes that allow you to get the most out of group discussions, personal advisors who can help you define the right path to reach your goals and various other services similar to those that on-campus students receive, such as counseling, tutoring and student community groups.

The online and virtual classrooms at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) offer those elements, amid a host of other great benefits. You can learn more about these offerings by visiting the Online Learning information page.    

The College of St. Scholastica


The College of St. Scholastica is an independent private Catholic Benedictine college with locations across Minnesota, in addition to many high-quality programs available online and through convenient evening and weekend formats. Since 1912, St. Scholastica has been preparing students for a life of purpose and economic gain by engaging students in the love of learning and active citizenship in the world. Our mission is to provide intellectual and moral preparation for responsible living and meaningful work. 

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