The "virtual" classroom is a phrase we would have scratched our heads over 20 years ago. In fact, online learning has really only been around as long as the Internet, and some of the oldest programs only date back to the early 1990's. Computer and Internet technology has given rise to this new and flexible way of learning and earning a degree. In fact, some estimates indicate that over three million Americans are taking online courses in some capacity today. So what exactly does Online Learning look like? What are these "Virtual Classrooms" all about?

There is no one single way to earn your college degree online. Learning formats and course materials differ among schools - some are in real-time, and some are self-paced. Some provide a combination of the two. It is interesting to note that only a few companies develop, build and supply online course delivery tools to the universities offering distance learning, so they are competing to enrich the environment and offer more student tools and technical support as this Industry matures. We think you will find most virtual classrooms offered at the schools we list on this web site as fairly advanced, having invested significant hardware and software costs into this segment of their business. The end result is generally pretty sophisticated systems with a "plug-and-play" feel so that moving through the virtual classroom is intuitive and self-explanatory. Ask for a virtual tour or screenshots when you speak with a school's Admissions Counselor.

In general, here's the process you should expect and be prepared for:

  • The Research and Decision-Making Process
  • Signing Up For Classes
  • Getting Started
  • Accessing Your Assignments
  • Attending Online Classes
  • Doing the Work
  • Earning Your Degree

The Research and Decision-Making Process

Once you have decided on the degree that you would like to earn, you should start by requesting information from the universities that offer that type of degree online. You can do this by searching for your degree, program and concentration of interest on this website. Follow your options to the form pages we provide for the school(s) of your choice. Once you submit your contact information, we send it instantly to the school, and an Admissions or Enrollment Counselor will contact you right away.

Most online universities will assign you to an Enrollment Counselor, who will guide you through the process of enrolling in the college, filling out necessary forms, understanding your financial aid options, and paying tuition. Your Enrollment Counselor will also help you to transfer in any credits from previous college courses or work experience that might apply to your degree. In order to be more prepared in asking the right questions, feel free to visit our FAQ's and Selecting a School sections in our Resource Center.

In some cases, you will be referred to a Financial Aid Counselor who can help you to find scholarships, grants, and loans to pay for your tuition. If you are receiving financial aid through your employer or the U.S. Armed Forces, a Financial Aid Counselor will help you to set up a payment plan for your tuition. It's their job to make this process easier for you, so let them do the leg work. We encourage you to be educated on your options, however, by visiting our Financial Aid section in our Resource Center.

Signing Up For Classes

When you have enrolled in the degree program of your choice, the online university will assign you an Academic Advisor, who will work with you to develop a plan for completing your degree. Your Academic Advisor will advise you on how to complete your courses according to your personal preferences, schedule, and time requirements.

Most online courses have a specific start and end date. Some courses may last for a month or six weeks; others may run quarterly, and last several months. Usually, classes will have a specific time period in which you must sign up for them, i.e. at the beginning of the online university's academic semester.

Getting Started

Once you have signed up for classes and paid your tuition, it's time to begin your coursework. Very likely, your first course will be about online learning itself. Many online universities have an introductory course or online tutorial that teaches their students what they need to know about being an online student at that university. This course will help you to get familiar with the online learning process.

As part of this course, you will learn how to complete your assignments according to the university's learning format, and how to send them in for evaluation. The introductory course may include practice tests that you can take online. You will learn how to interact and exchange information with your online instructor and classmates. The introductory course will also typically show you how to access library resources and do online research, and how to access the university's support services, such as Career Counselors and Technical Support.

Accessing Your Assignments

The method and format for accessing and completing assignments varies among different online universities. In general, most online universities have an "online classroom" for each course. This is usually an interactive web site where you download your course assignments in a common word processing format (i.e. Microsoft Word). You can then complete the assignment and return it to you instructor by e-mail in that format.

The "online classroom" will usually include important course materials such as the course syllabus, calendar, and book list of required reading. If any special software is needed for you to access the "online classroom," the university will either send it to you, or have you download and install it from their web site before your first class begins.

Attending Online Classes

In taking an online course, you will interact with your instructor and fellow classmates in a variety of ways. At the beginning of each course, you will normally receive a Contact List for the class. This list includes contact information -- names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc. -- for the instructor and all students in the class. You can use this list while taking the course to contact your instructor and fellow students at your convenience.

In most cases, you will access class lectures and presentations by your instructor through the "online classroom" page for the course. Online lectures are normally made available to students through interactive multimedia, such as streaming audio or video combined with visual materials (i.e. Power Point slides). Hard copy transcripts of the lecture can usually be printed from the "online classroom" page, or requested from the instructor. Class discussions between students and instructors are conducted either by group e-mail or through online discussion threads (similar to message boards) on the "online classroom" page. Again, there is no "set time" when you must log on for each class. In schools that use online discussion threads, students typically log on 2-5 times per week to post their comments in class discussions.

Some online university courses have minimal class attendance requirements. In such cases, you may be required to attend one or two classes at a local campus of the college. For example, you may be asked to attend an opening class in person at the beginning of the course, do the coursework online from your home, and attend a closing class in person at the end of the course.

Doing the Work

In terms of educational quality, accredited online universities offer courses and degree programs that are equal to those offered by four-year universities and colleges. This means that the online courses you will take will be every bit as challenging as the courses you would take in a traditional college.

In general, online university students devote the same number of hours (i.e. 10-20 hours per week, including virtual class time and time needed to complete assignments) to their education as part-time students at traditional colleges. Completing online assignments requires the same academic effort, intellectual investment, and attention to detail that you would apply to college-level assignments that you receive in a classroom setting.

Earning Your Degree

The time it will take you to earn your online degree depends on several factors, including:

  • The degree program you are enrolled in
  • Whether you transfer in previous college or university credit
  • The speed at which you complete your courses, according to your own personal schedule.

Again, online universities do not have set time periods or deadlines for students to earn their individual degrees. You can take as little or as much time as you prefer to complete your degree program.

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