Online College Guidebook Expert Advice, MOOCs, Important Factors to Consider & How to Succeed

There was a time when an “online degree” didn’t mean that much, since only a few schools offered online education. Today the landscape has changed completely, with some of the most prestigious and elite schools in the world offering online classes and programs. The practical advantages of being able to take classes remotely through the Internet – thus allowing busy people to pursue their education without sacrificing their work or family obligations – is perhaps the biggest reason why online education has become such a popular option. This guide provides a detailed overview of how online college classes and programs work and explains why earning a degree online can be a great opportunity.

Types of Online College Programs

Synchronous

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What is it?

Synchronous learning is just a fancy way of saying that all students are taking a class at the same time. The traditional college class is synchronous, with everyone in the same classroom on a set schedule to learn the material. In an online college class, students are still receiving the material at the same time, except they sit in on that class remotely, through an Internet connection.

How does it work?

The exact details will vary depending upon the school and class, but typically, online students will watch a class lecture live as it streams through the Internet. There may also be class notes or slides that student can follow along with, and message boards or video conferencing allows the ability to ask questions and discuss topics with fellow classmates during the live meeting.

Asynchronous

What is it?

Asynchronous learning is the opposite of synchronous learning in that the online college student is not receiving the class material at the same time other classmates are. So instead of watching the class lecture live, the student watches a recording of the lecture later. Though the student can choose when to watch the lecture, asynchronous courses often have set deadlines by which a student must complete a certain portion, such as watching that lecture or producing homework.

How does it work?

Class notes, assignments and lectures are uploaded for students to download and review later that is convenient for them. Students will then sign onto their online account so they may watch or listen to the lecture as well as download the relevant assignments and do the work.

Hybrid/Blended Learning

What is it?

In a blended learning environment, students will take their class in both a traditional classroom environment as well as online. The size and nature of the online element of the class can vary greatly, depending on how the program is set up. Many online classes have this hybrid approach because certain topics and skills can only be taught in-person; for instance, nursing students might take a course that allows them to complete a great deal of work online, but must attend in-person for clinical hours or labs that require a hands-on approach.

How does it work?

There is a wide range of hybrid course offerings. On one end of the spectrum, a traditional class may have one or two lectures that must be watched online during normal class hours. On the other end of the spectrum, a class is taught almost entirely online, but the final component requires students to show up on campus because it requires a physical demonstration or review of the material. In some online degree programs, hybrid learning can refer to the fact that some courses can be taken entirely online, while others must be taken in-person, for the reasons listed above.

Self-paced

What is it?

Self-paced classes allow a student to complete class requirements, such as lectures and assignments, at their own pace. Self-paced online courses existed before the Internet in the form of correspondence courses. Though the student in a self-paced course will have the opportunity to communicate with fellow students, keep in mind that those other students might be moving faster or slower on their own studies, which can sometimes make true discussions of the material difficult.

How does it work?

Even though self-paced classes allow students to study on their own timetable, most online colleges still have a deadline, such as a few months, for when the class requirement must be completed. However, some other schools and programs have more flexible schedules or longer deadlines. If the student finishes the class requirements within the assigned time period, they will get full credit.

MOOCs & Online Colleges

Massively open online courses are offered through the Internet to anyone who wants to take them, with no limitation on the number of students who can enroll. Depending on the reasons for taking the course and the course provider, the student can take the class for free or get a certificate for a nominal fee. If the goal is learning for fun or for a certain certificate, MOOCs make a lot of sense and are very cheap or free. But if a student desires a formal degree, even a series of challenging MOOCs will not be enough to meet program requirements.

What Makes MOOCs Different from Online Programs
Free enrollment

MOOCs are usually free and all students need to do to enroll is sign up.

Unlimited class size

Because MOOCs are offered through the Internet to anyone, there is no limit on the number of students who can enroll.

Certificates available

For a small fee, students can obtain certification upon completion of one class or a group of courses.

Grading done by peers

Many MOOCs allow grades to be given by classmates.

What MOOCs Have in Common with Online Programs
Offered online

MOOCs are offered through the Internet and taught by real college professors, just like online college courses. MOOCs are therefore offered in partnership with major colleges and universities.

Course materials

In many cases, MOOC lectures, assignments and other course materials will be available to students in the same way an online college course is available.

Cost

To get credit, whether for college credit or certification, the MOOC will require students to pay a fee, just as online college courses will require tuition.

Self-paced study

Students have the option of completing the course as slowly or quickly as they want. Many online degree or certificate programs offer self-paced study options.

Online Colleges Offering/Teamed up with MOOCs

Many colleges and universities offer MOOCs, although most of these course offerings will not contribute to a degree. The following is a list of traditional post-secondary institutions that offer MOOCs.

edx Edx (Harvard)
  • Affiliated Schools: Harvard University, MIT, U.C. Berkeley and the University of Maryland

  • Sample courses: Becoming an Entrepreneur, Global Health – The Lessons of Ebola, Introduction to Apache Spark, Super-Earths and Life

  • Primary method of delivery: Video lectures

  • Format: Largely self-paced

  • Cost: Free, unless a Verified Certificate is desired

  • College credit possible: Yes

y-icn Yale (Open Yale Courses)
  • Affiliated Schools: Yale University

  • Sample courses: Modern Poetry, Freshman Organic Chemistry I, Financial Theory, France Since 1871 and Foundations of Modern Social Theory

  • Primary method of delivery: Audio and video lectures, as well as lecture transcripts

  • Format: Self-paced

  • Cost: Free

  • College credit possible: No

mit-icn MIT Open CourseWare
  • Affiliated Schools: MIT

  • Sample courses: Astrodynamics, Introduction to Modeling and Simulation, Foundations of Computational and Systems Biology and Philosophy of Film

  • Primary method of delivery: Class materials and audio/video lectures

  • Format: Self-paced

  • Cost: Free

  • College credit possible: No

mellon-icn Carnegie Mellon University (Open Learning Initiative)
  • Affiliated Schools: Carnegie Mellon University

  • Sample courses: Argument Diagramming, Introduction to Psychology, Probability & Statistics and Responsible Computing

  • Primary method of delivery: Written lecture notes and pictures

  • Format: Self-paced

  • Cost: Free

  • College credit possible: No

courcera-icn Coursera (partnered with schools like Rutgers)
  • Affiliated Schools: Stanford University, University of Michigan, Duke University and University of Pennsylvania

  • Sample courses: Dog Emotion and Cognition, Economics of Money and Banking, Game Theory and Buddhism and Modern Psychology

  • Primary method of delivery: Video lectures

  • Format: Weekly lectures, assignments and quizzes

  • Cost: Free, as long as no certificate is required

  • College credit possible: Yes

stanford-icn Stanford Online Learning
  • Affiliated Schools: Stanford University

  • Sample courses: Mining Massive Data Sets, Palliative Care Always, Building Business Models and Stem Cell Therapeutics

  • Primary method of delivery: Video lectures

  • Format: Self-paced or set schedule

  • Cost: Varies, but most courses cost several hundred dollars, with only a few offered for free

  • College credit possible: Yes, but not at Stanford University

Benefits of Online College

There are many reasons why attending college online makes sense. Here are five of the most prominent reasons why individuals choose to online learning.

1 Flexible Learning Schedule

While individual programs and schools will vary, most online courses will provide tremendous flexibility in when a student must “attend” class. Instead of a set class time, students can attend class whenever it fits into their busy schedule. There is also self-paced learning, which allows students to learn not only when their schedule allows, but at a speed that makes them most comfortable. This could mean taking longer to complete the class or working quickly through the work; the latter can result in students taking more classes in each period of time. This flexibility also allows a student to take a lighter class load when professional or family obligations require it.

2 Cost Savings

Because online students can usually take classes as quickly as they please, they can easily accelerate their learning. This means there is potential for early graduation, which in turn means paying tuition for a shorter period and joining the workforce sooner rather than later. The online student can also save on moving and living costs in situations where the student has been accepted to a school across country but can’t leave their home to live in a dorm or near the campus.

3 Geography Doesn’t Matter

For many students, the choice of schools can be largely dictated by a school’s location. Many online college students are non-traditional students, which can mean they may have a family and/or full-time job while attending school. This makes moving to another state to attend a particular school largely out of the question. By taking online college courses, a student has a much larger list of potential schools to consider, as well as no added burden of packing up the family, leaving a job, or changing other important aspects of their life to attend school.

4 Improved Learning Opportunities

Since physical classrooms aren’t needed, a class will be open to a student providing they are eligible to enroll in the course and have the proper technology, such as a reliable computer, solid Internet connection and the ability to watch lectures, communicate on message boards and the like. In addition, online courses often allow a student to better customize their study and work toward a degree that is more tailored to their interests and eventual career goals.

5 Online Degrees Are Respected

There was a time when online degrees were seen as the lesser choice, and it was believed that those who took online courses simply did so because they couldn’t get into a brick-and-mortar school. Today, getting a degree through a school’s online program will result in the same degree and academic credentials as someone working toward that same degree on-campus, lending much more credibility and respect to the online degree program and outcome.

All about the Online College Student

The reasons for attending college online can vary widely. Due to the many advantages of online education, several different types of students will take advantage of the opportunity.

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    The Student with a Disability Colleges and universities are required to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. However, it can still be more convenient for some of these students to take classes remotely, through the Internet. From eliminating the commute to a more customized way of reviewing class lectures or notes, online learning offers more flexibility if a student needs to miss all or part of a class or simply needs extra time to learn the material.

  • IMG

    The Working ParentIf already having a full-time job didn’t make a person busy enough, many also have a family. This double duty requires not only learning on the student’s schedule, but finding the right pace as well. Work projects, family events and other obligations can make a set learning schedule all but impossible. However, an online college program can make it possible to juggle education, work and family without letting anything fall through the cracks.

  • IMG

    The Curious LearnerThis type of student loves to learn and doesn’t care if they get a degree or certificate. All the curious learner cares about is stuffing their brain with as much knowledge as possible, in the most affordable and quickest way. For this person, it’s all about the journey – not necessarily about a piece of paper that claims they completed a certain number of credits.

  • IMG

    The New Career SeekerThese are individuals who want to change careers, but need additional credentials to do so. But they are in a bind: How do they continue to work in their job while carving out the time it takes to go to school? Online programs offer the ability to continue working in that current job, but allow the flexibility to obtain another degree or certificate through self-paced options.

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    The Career AdvancerMany professionals require an additional degree or certificate before they can take that next step in their current career. Online programs provide the convenience of asynchronous learning so students can still get their degree or other credential while working full-time to build up even more seniority in their current profession – and continue working their way up the ladder.

Traditional Vs. Online Colleges

Online programs have tremendous benefits that make learning possible to certain students who otherwise could not attend school. However, online learning does have a few drawbacks. By comparing online learning with on-campus learning, some of the advantages of disadvantages of attending an online college become more readily apparent – this is helpful for those who are on the fence when it comes to their choice of online or traditional education.

Characteristic On-Campus Learning Online Learning Online Learning FYI
book Course load

Students are beholden to course load requirements and class timetables.

Students can generally choose how many or how few classes they would like to take at one time.

With no one encouraging a student to take a minimum number of classes, it can be easy to take longer to complete a program online than on-campus.

scheadule Class schedule

The school establishes the time and location a given class will be held.

Students can attend class whenever they want and wherever they want.

Online students can more easily fall behind on class work without a set schedule.

location Geographic convenience

Students must live on or around campus.

Students can live anywhere they have an Internet connection.

Some programs or courses will require students to make one or more visits, either on-campus or to a location that’s close to where the student lives, to meet certain class requirements.

cost Cost

Students are often required to pay for housing located near the school and also pay either part-time or full-time tuition rates.

Students can avoid paying housing costs by making their own living arrangements. Even if paying the prevailing market rent or mortgage, students can choose to live in a part of the country with a low cost of living.

Depending on the student’s circumstances and chosen school, there may be little cost savings by attending a school online.

professor Classroom experience

Provides regular in-person and real-time interaction with professors and fellow students.

Real-time interaction requires synchronous learning.

In-person interaction is impossible and if real-time interaction is desired, online students must attend class live, which negates the flexibility advantage of online learning.

user Social experience

Students can partake in on-campus activities and join student organizations.

Students can engage in online interactions, such as on social media.

Except in the rare on-campus class visits, a college social experience is limited to interactions over the Internet.

univercity Academic structure

Students have set class schedules and degree timelines they must follow, though limited flexibility is usually possible.

Most online programs have limited structure, providing tremendous leeway in when students complete courses and meet program milestones.

The convenience of attending school online is a double-edged sword; with so much flexibility in when coursework gets done, it take a lot of discipline for a student to do the necessary studying and make reasonable progress in an online program.

dollar-img Financial Aid for Online College

Student who choose to attend an accredited online college are eligible for financial aid, just like traditional college students. The process for applying for financial aid is also the same whether a student will attend class online or on-campus. However, student must be cognizant of their enrollment status when choosing classes and applying for financial aid. Certain financial aid awards are based on a student’s status as a full-time student. If a student takes a lighter course load or takes longer to complete a few courses, their enrollment status could change, thus lowering or eliminating their financial aid.

In addition to ensuring that a particular degree or program teaches what it claims and the education students receive meets the basic minimum standards, accreditation is critical for receipt of certain types of financial aid. For example, for students to be eligible for federal aid, they must attend a school that is accredited by an organization recognized by the US Department of Education.

To determine financial aid qualification, the best thing a prospective student can do is speak with an admissions and/or financial aid officer at a school they’re interested in attending. From there, the student can learn about financial aid available and what must be done to receive it. Most schools will have detailed information on the financial aid section of their website, so that is a good place to start looking before contacting a school official.

Finally, remember that most schools will require completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, even if a student is only going to be awarded school-specific financial aid. Make sure to complete the FAFSA well ahead of the deadline to ensure all financial aid opportunities are available.

Learn more about financial aid for online colleges

Expert Advice & Tips on Online College

joel

Joel Kaplan Joel Kaplan is the Associate Dean for Professional Graduate Studies at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and Communications@Syracuse, the Online Master of Science in Communications program.

linne

Lynne Fleisher Lynne Fleisher is the Clarion Online/Associate Director of Extended Programs at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.  Lynne possesses a M.Ed. with Technology concentration degree.  In addition to coordination of all distance education programs, she created and delivers an online orientation every semester to all newly registered online degree seeking students at Clarion University. Lynne has been employed at Clarion University since 1995.

Interview

with Joel Kaplan and Lynne Fleisher
Despite the fact that online education is a proven method of getting a degree, there are still some students who see brick-and-mortar schools as being superior. What would you say to those who are skeptical of online education?
joel

Kaplan: I think there is something to be said about brick and mortar schools when it comes to undergraduate education because there is more to an undergraduate experience than just the classroom. However, when it comes to graduate education I think that the online experience can be superior because of the focus and interests of the students. Those who are skeptical should try an online class and they might be surprised as to how fulfilling they can be, particularly online classes that combine asynchronous (taped) content with synchronous (live sessions) content.

linne

Fleisher: Online learning opportunities are absolutely critical for today’s society of working adults with an ever-growing list of priorities on their plate.  It provides the vehicle (modality) for progression when brick-and-mortar is just simply not an option.  An online course affords the professor the opportunity to zero in on what the students’ knowledge base is and advance forward if needed or spend more time on concepts if needed.  It is a personalized approach.

What traits do you believe make a student well-suited for online learning?
joel

Kaplan: Online learning is most suited to those students who are committed, hungry to learn new things and understand how advanced education can help them. Like all students, online students need to be motivated and have good time management skills. But this is particularly true for online students since they must have the discipline and self-control to keep up in fast moving classes. An online student cannot look upon education as a hobby but something that is important to his or her future.

linne

Fleisher: Good comprehensive reader, great time management skills, a very self-motivated personality.  A student should be their own best advocate and never settle for less.  Be proactive and ask lots of questions and don’t apologize for asking them.

What aspects of online learning do students seem to struggle with the most, and why?
joel

Kaplan: The most difficult part is keeping up with the work. Many students think they have the whole semester to do all the readings and assignments and so will often wait until the last minute to do the bulk of the work. This is a huge mistake since online classes operate the same as residential classes and if you fall behind then it might be impossible to catch up. So, time management skills are a necessity. Also, since many online students have other responsibilities like a job or family, their education can sometimes take a back seat to other pressing issues. But a successful student has to be able to balance all of these things and keep up.

linne

Fleisher: Struggles include technology issues, especially for those who have been out of school for a while or just entering school for the first time.  These students are not “technology natives” and they need/demand excellent support. Students who are transferring from a traditional brick-and-mortar learning background after a few years but finding themselves needing the flexibility of the online environment.  Students may grapple with allowing their minds to think differently and adapt to the learning style.  Communication can be as robust, just in a different way. Another struggle for students is group work, but this is not unlike their brick and mortar counterparts.

Anything else you would like to add about online degree programs?
joel

Kaplan: Having run a successful online program for more than a year now and teaching in it as well, I have been surprised at how committed the good students really are. They are mature, eager to learn and have great ideas. Many of them have already parlayed their degrees into new or better paying jobs so it has been a very satisfying experience for me.

linne

Fleisher: Online learning is not easy, but again, it does afford the opportunity for education where brick-and-mortar is simply not an option.  When speaking with students who complete their degree and they were able to achieve their goal while continuing to work etc. it is a humbling experience.

Types of Schools Offering Online Degrees

Today it seems as though all schools of higher-education are taking steps to offer online courses, degrees and programs. What started out as a niche educational market are now considered mainstream. A substantial number of colleges offer at least some coursework online, even if they don’t offer a fully online degree. Here are the options:

Community colleges

Community colleges focus primarily on providing two year degrees and certificates. Community colleges are unique in that students enroll either to springboard into a four-year degree program or obtain an associate’s degree or certificate, which is the basic requirement for some professions. Community colleges have traditionally offered more vocation-oriented curriculums compared to universities, so the online offerings are not as numerous compared to traditional college degree programs. However, many community colleges now offer certain courses and degrees online and in hybrid formats. Due to the relatively abbreviated length of community college, students usually won’t have as much flexibility in how long they take to complete a course or program.

Vocational schools

Vocational schools are typically hands-on in the training they provide. For example, learning how to be a plumber requires real world, in-person training. But that doesn’t mean vocational schools aren’t offering online programs. Some vocational schools offer specific professional certificates or diplomas, such as those in computer programming, accounting and marketing communications.

Private schools

Private schools are unique in that they are funded by private entities, rather than the state. Private schools typically charge a higher tuition than public schools but may offer more individualized student attention, thanks to smaller student populations and a unique college experience with more specialized program offerings. With respect to online degree and course offerings, non-profit private schools are usually no different than public institutions with respect to quality of instruction and reputation. However, a public college or university may have a wider variety of online programs available.

Public colleges and universities

Public colleges and universities differ from private schools in that they’re usually cheaper, sometimes even for out-of-state residents. For in-state residents, tuition can be significantly cheaper than that of a private school due in part to state funding the public school receives. One primary disadvantage of public schools is larger class size and thus, possibly less individualized attention. Public schools usually have a wide selection of online classes and programs available.

Completely online

Completely online colleges and universities have no campus where students meet to take classes. Colleges that are completely online are typically for-profit institutions. For-profit schools used to bear the brunt of the poor reputation felt by online degree programs. Today, these institutions can offer viable options, although the tuition can rival that of private schools. Students should be careful when deciding to attend a for-profit school; make sure the for-profit school is accredited before enrolling.

Important Factors to Choosing an Online College

Choosing the right online school can be tough. Depending on the student’s goals, some programs may not be available completely online or only offered in certain formats. Below are some of the important factors prospective students should examine in deciding on the right school to attend.

Course Format

Are courses offered synchronously or asynchronously?

Does an online course or program have any in-person or on-campus requirements?

Is the course self-paced?

What kind of assistance does the online course professor offer?

What are the out-of-class participation requirements?

If a course has offline requirements, can they be met by attending or participating in a local event or must the student travel to the school?

Accreditation

Has the school and/or program earned accredited?

If the school and/or program is accredited, is the accrediting body recognized by the US Department of Education?

If accreditation doesn’t matter, will the student need to apply for federal financial aid?

Program timeline

Does a particular program provide for an accelerated option?

How much time does the school allow to complete a program?

Are there minimum course load requirements?

Financial Aid

Does the school offer the same financial aid to both online and traditional students?

Is there a different financial aid application process for online students?

Technology Requirements and Support

What type of computer and Internet connectively requirements does the online school have?

How much technical support does the school provide to students having online trouble?

Tuition and Costs

How much is the school’s tuition?

Does the school allow students to pay on a per-credit basis and take as many or as few classes as they want?

Program Offerings

Does the school offer the programs or degrees of interest?

Will the program meet the requirements for specific academic or professional goals?

School Reputation

Does the school’s name and/or reputation matter to the student?

Will the degree obtained carry more or less weight at a particular online program?

Alumni Base

How big is the school’s alumni base?

How well does the school facilitate contacting alumni?

Career Services

What kind of career services does the school provide?

What is the job placement rate for graduates?

What professional relationships has the school established for increasing the chances of graduates finding employment?

Online College Further Resources

  • College Scorecard

    An online college search tool offered by the US Department of Education with special emphasis on helping prospective college students figure out how to pay for college.

  • Coursera

    A leading MOOC provider with free access to all courses. Coursera maintains relationships with major universities; a few schools allow Cousera classes to be taken for college credit.

  • edX

    Offers free MOOCs in partnership with a variety of colleges and universities around the world. Courses are free, although a small fee is required for a certificate.

  • eLearn Magazine

    An online publication where anyone can learn more about eLearning in various educational settings, including colleges and universities.

  • FAFSA

    The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the basic application that any student seeking federal financial aid must fill out. The FAFSA is usually required to apply for state school specific financial aid as well.