"Taking an online class" can mean many things and vary greatly by course, program, and school. Students entering online programs often have a preconceived notion of what it will be like, which could be based on traditional courses taken years ago or assumptions about the requirements of distance learning. These impressions, when not accurate, can result in frustration and possibly withdrawal from the first course. Having a successful experience in that first course, and even surviving the first week, can have a positive impact on your continued progress.
As a prospective student, there is a lot you can do to not only make sure you are ready for online learning in terms of your skills and academic preparation, but also have realistic expectations for the day-to-day requirements of the specific programs you are considering. Getting accurate information about what the learning environment will be like is an important step to take before you enroll. Not all schools provide thorough descriptions in their marketing materials, so here is a list of questions to ask as part of your overall research of the options available.
How long does it take to complete a course?
Look for each school's official academic calendar. If you've taken classes at a traditional campus you may expect that online courses will mirror the same time frame, with two 15 to 16 week semesters and a summer term. You'll find that some online programs and courses are offered this way, particularly those offered by traditional colleges and universities. Online schools, however, may be operating with academic schedules that include accelerated terms of 7 to 10 weeks. The terms can overlap and don't always account for breaks and holidays. Planning ahead for these dates can impact how you manage your time and other commitments at work and home while you are in school.
How are the courses sequenced?
In a traditional setting you may be enrolled in multiple courses simultaneously, especially if you are a full-time student, with some choices about which courses you take and when. But online programs may be more structured offering programs that require you to take courses in a specific sequence with fewer options for electives. This structure, often provided in the form of a degree plan, may mean taking one course per term, or several courses at once.
If the time to degree completion is a critical part of your decision about a program, ask about degree plans and course sequence. How many courses can you take in any given term? What are the consequences if you unexpectedly have to miss a term to focus on other commitments? Find out how often each course is offered.
How is the program scheduled?
This question is directly related to course sequence. In many programs, each student enrolls in courses according to an individual degree plan that is developed through conversations with faculty and academic advisors, and is largely self-paced. This is often the case in traditional and online programs, but there is another possibility to consider. Cohort models are sometimes used and involve groups of students moving through their courses and programs together. There are benefits and challenges to this approach, which is often in place to encourage learning community and relationship building as well as student collaboration.
Being part of a cohort means studying with the same group of students in each course. This can be applied to an entire program or to s set of courses within a specialty. Find out more about how the programs you are interested in schedule students and courses. Colorado Christian University and The College of St. Scholastica provide descriptions of how student cohorts are used in several of their programs.
Are there any face-to-face requirements?
Entering an "online program" may mean that all activities, from communication and course content to advising and student services, take place in a virtual environment through the use of various technologies. It could also mean that there are some "off line" requirements, such as meetings with instructors and advisors, practical experience or internship hours, and in graduate level programs, residency requirements.
A recent Sloan Consortium report defines an online course as one in which "most or all [80%+] of the content is delivered online" [PDF]. Ask your prospective schools for more information about these potential requirements. While there is no one industry-wide definition, an online course may include some on-ground activities. Online programs at Syracuse University and the University of Phoenix offer just two examples of residency requirements for graduate students. Programs that integrate online and face-to-face interaction are also often described as blended or hybrid learning models, and are becoming popular as a way to bring the benefits of both environments to the learning process.
How will students and instructors communicate and collaborate?
One of the draws of online learning is the convenience and potential for "any time, anywhere" access that allows you to schedule your studying around work and family life. Online course interactions 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 in real-time. Synchronous events are usually scheduled in advance but impact the "any time" aspect of an online course.
Some courses and programs may allow you to work completely independently, but others will include collaborative experiences. As an online student, you should anticipate the possibility of working with other students to complete group assignments. Working in groups online is similar to working in groups on campus, involving communication and exchange via various communication channels. Review the school's course catalog and inquire about the availability of course syllabi before you enroll.
Having an accurate expectation of how a program will proceed can impact your experience in those important first courses. There's no one best way for an online course to be delivered, but you should be familiar with your school's program plans and design from the beginning, so there are no surprises later on. Ask questions and prepare yourself for online learning success.
Image credit: Horia Varlan, Flickr, CC-BY