How Do Online Universities Work?

As you might expect, online colleges and universities are very different from traditional schools. Despite the differences, and the sometimes perceived inadequacy of online schools, the number of online institutions and the number of enrolled students have grown in the last few years. For those who are interested in going to school online, read on to find out the process behind getting into an online university and what it's like to take an online class.

Choosing an Online Program

There are many, many options for prospective online students. Before you decide where you want to apply, always remember to research your top schools very carefully. The United States Department of Education has an online database that you can use to make sure your chosen schools are accredited. This is very important—a degree from an online school that is not properly accredited is worthless.

Another option is reading online message boards to see what people are saying about the quality of a particular school. You can also learn a lot about an online university by checking out the credentials and professional experiences of its faculty. If the faculty does not impress you, then it's probably best you elsewhere.

Also, consider what type of learner you are. For example, an online class will require you to communicate solely through online correspondence. This might be great for students who enjoy writing and do not like to participate vocally in class. If you prefer to interact with professors and fellow classmates in person, a more traditional class, or a hybrid class that combines online and face-to-face instruction, will allow you to talk about your ideas. If you're curious about how classes at a particular university work, talk to the school's academic advisor or look at its website. Most importantly, make sure the online university offers the program you want to take. Different schools offer different programs at different prices. This sort of research and reflection should be the first stage of your application process.

Applying to an Online University

The actual application process requires different things depending on if you're applying to an online university or to an online program offered by a traditional college or university. What you need in order to apply also depends on the type of degree or program. If you want to go back to school to get an associate's or bachelor's degree, then most online universities will require that you have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Some online institutions have special requirements.

The University of Phoenix, for example, requires that undergraduate and master's students be employed. To get a master's degree or a doctorate, the requirements are much more stringent. At the very least, most online universities will require that prospective master's and doctoral degree candidates possess an undergraduate degree and a grade point average higher than 2.5 on a 4.0 scale.

The requirements for a graduate or professional degree are very diverse and depend on each individual program or school. The online graduate programs offered by public universities will usually require that you apply through their graduate admissions offices. They may require certain scores on tests like the GRE or the GMAT. The admission requirements for every school, whether online or brick-and-mortar, will be different, so be sure to check them out before you apply.

Taking an Online Class

You might also be curious about what it's like to take an online class. Again, it's hard to be very specific because there is no standard way of conducting an online class. However, you can still get a general idea of how an online class works. First of all, you will spend a lot of time in front of your computer. For entirely online courses, everything will be conducted online. The instructor will post some form of a lecture online, along with readings and homework assignments. Depending on the class, the professor could also upload interactive material or video lectures.

Students can download digital copies of the readings, and email their homework to the professor for grading. If a student has a question, he or she can post it on the classroom forum where other students (or the instructor) can respond. Professors usually have some form of online “office hours” or students can ask them questions over email.

The dynamics of an online classroom are very different from a traditional class. Students are usually asked to present their ideas in detail. This may be a benefit to introverted students who would be reticent to speak in class, but it requires an ability to express oneself through writing. Another difference is that online courses require a higher degree of organization and motivation than normal classes. Web-based education is more free form and it takes the right student to maximize its advantages.

Article Resources:

“On the job: Study before committing to online courses,” Pittsburgh Tribune Review, July 2009
Kaplan University Admissions
University of Phoenix Admissions
University of Washington Online Learning
UMassOnline Admissions
“College for $99 a Month,”Washington Monthly, Sept./Oct. 2009
“No Test Tubes? Debate on Virtual Science Classes,”The New York Times, Oct. 20, 2006
“The Homework to Do Before Enrolling Online," The New York Times, June 15, 2008
“More Students Find Online Is The New College Try,” The Baltimore Sun, Dec. 14, 2009
“The future of college may be virtual,” Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 16, 2009