How Online Courses Work

If you are new to online learning, you may find the experience very different from the traditional face-to-face courses you have taken in the past. While there are similarities in terms of academic calendars, textbooks, and assignments, online delivery requires a different approach from both instructor and students as they interact with each other and with the course content via technology.

Let’s take a closer look at the typical components of an academic online course and what you can expect in your first online class.

Access and Information

Most formal academic programs now use a Learning Management System (LMS) or Content Management System (CMS) to provide course materials in an online format. These systems require a school-issued login and password, and allow students to access all of their courses in one place. Some common functions of an LMS include:

  • Navigation: Through pages, tabs, and menus, the LMS structures the presentation of materials for each course using calendars and links to support services, such as the school’s online library.
  • Organization: Class activities and assignments are often organized in weekly folders, modules, or lessons within the LMS. Announcements are posted by the instructor, as well as a course syllabus, grading rubrics, and other course documents.
  • Administration: The LMS manages the processes of tracking students’ progress and posting grades. Tools are also in place for students to upload assignments and receive feedback from their instructors.

Study Materials

As in a traditional class, you’ll find a variety of assignments and activities in an online course, along with assessments to evaluate your learning. You can expect your courses to require interactions that include:

  • Practice exercises and case studies
  • Reading assignments from textbooks and websites
  • Papers, projects, and presentations
  • Class discussions
  • Quizzes and exams

Online courses rely heavily on reading and writing. In addition to text-based materials, you’ll also encounter multimedia presentations such as slideshows, podcasts, and videos. The use of social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blogs) is also becoming more popular as a way for students to engage in class activities and submit assignments.

Communication and Participation

Online course communication between students and instructors can take place asynchronously – in which everyone accesses materials and discussions at times of their choosing, but within overall deadlines – and synchronously – in which all parties are communicating live, in real-time. Synchronous events or meetings are usually scheduled in advance, but can impact the “any time” aspect of an online course. Many online courses use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous strategies, and you can ask your advisor more about what is expected of each course.

  • Examples of asynchronous communication tools include email and threaded discussion forums. There is a delay between the time you send your message or post your response and when you receive a reply.
  • Examples of synchronous communication tools include instant messaging, chat rooms, and Web conferencing. Everyone in the conversation or class is connected at the same time so that you receive an immediate response to your messages or questions. Logging in to your course to meet with your instructor during his/her virtual office hours, or with your whole class for a lecture or guest speaker are synchronous events.

Working Individually and in Collaboration

You’ll find that you alone are responsible for completing the work for each course in which you are enrolled, but not all activities will be individual in nature. You can expect to work with classmates in a variety of ways. From discussion forums to group projects, you will interact with others in your online classes. You may even be involved in peer review and grading, depending on the course design and learning objectives.

Learning to Learn Online

Online students must learn not only about the topics covered in their courses, but also about the technology used to access the materials, participate in the learning process, and communicate with other members of the class. Take advantage of available course demonstrations, trial enrollment periods, and new student orientations. These opportunities allow you to practice with the technologies and gain some experience with the learning environment before you begin your first class.