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How Does Online Learning Work?

By Amber Hilton,
Staff Writer

Despite the lack of a physical classroom, online learning doesn't necessarily dictate a solitary learning experience.

Online learning has taken the world of higher education by storm in recent decades. Gone are the days of commuting to college with pen and paper in hand; modern-day students do much of their learning using a computer and Internet connection, even if they choose to attend a brick and mortar institution. Every college and instructor is likely to approach online learning in a slightly different way, but some commonalities exist throughout most schools in the U.S.

Several different types of programs are grouped under the blanket term "online learning." Some colleges exist entirely online. Everything is done via a school website, email and telephone, and there is no actual physical campus to attend. However, many bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities also offer online courses and incorporate online learning into their more traditional classroom curriculum. Some even offer entire programs online. Regardless of which option you choose, online learning works in much the same way. With a bricks-and-mortar institution you may have the option to work face to face with instructors or students on some occasions, whereas with a fully online college, this won't generally be possible, because your classmates may be across the country or even around the globe.

When you take an online class, you won't have a physical classroom to attend, but you'll generally have an online classroom that you'll visit regularly. Sometimes, everything you need is provided on the school's website, but many schools use online content management systems, such as Blackboard. Regardless of what type of system your school uses, you'll be provided with the necessary links and log-in information to access everything you need, including lectures, tests, assignments, discussion boards and email addresses for faculty and fellow classmates. A textbook may be required for some online courses to supplement any online materials.

Online learning allows for many different possibilities when it comes to lectures. Some instructors simply upload text documents or PDFs, while others use a more interactive approach with audio lectures, PowerPoint presentations with audio, or full video lectures. If you are taking a course that is also offered in a traditional classroom setting, you may be required to log in at a certain time to view a live video feed. But more often, lectures are made available for you to access at any time of day or night. This also allows you to review old lectures if you forget something or need to brush up come test time.

In an online learning environment, assignments and tests are generally completed online as well. Assignment instructions are made available to you via whatever system your school or instructor has chosen, and you can turn assignments in via email or an electronic drop box. In some online courses, all of your assignments for the semester are provided up front, and you can work at your own pace. Test are more likely to have scheduled times for completion, so that students can't share answers. In other cases, each student is given a different test so that it can be completed at any time. However, you typically only have a certain amount of time to complete an online exam after it's been opened, and most can only be opened once.

Despite the lack of a physical classroom, online learning doesn't necessarily dictate a solitary learning experience. Most online courses require you to participate in class discussions either through an online message board or instant messaging program. In some cases, this may be optional.

Every school and instructor is likely to have slightly different systems and requirements, and online learning is bound to continue to evolve as technology continues to change. One thing is for sure, finding the right school is important so do your homework to determine what option is best for you.

Last edited: June 18, 2012, 3:52 pm EST
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