As the world began to move further online at the onset of the 21st century, so too did the field of higher education. Now, as we make our way through the 2020s, the explosion of online learning has upended traditional academics, with more schools expanding their online offerings and companies providing workers with online training to update their skills.
Leading the way are the exclusively online universities that have spent years investing in technologies that recreate the traditional classroom experience – instruction, discussion, and shared community – for today’s always on-the-go online student. As a result of these investments from the academic and corporate sectors, it’s estimated that more than 30 percent of American students have enrolled in at least one online course, and more than 50 percent of U.S. graduate students found their online college-level education provided a better learning experience than the classroom.
Online learning can still be intimidating to the uninitiated, especially adult workers who want to return to school and earn a college degree. For those who are curious about how online classes work, here’s a look at the world of online learning.
Online Classroom Capabilities
By far, the most notable advancements in the online classroom are happening on the one device that a student can’t live without: the smartphone. While the earliest online universities required students to log in at their desks, higher education is now fully mobile. Typically, schools that cater exclusively to online students can be accessed via a single app on any device – smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop.
Today’s online classroom allows you to do more, including:
Communicate with Instructors and Classmates. Like texting a friend, the online discussion board gives you the chance to weigh in on daily topics anytime, anywhere. With online classes, instructors no longer need to post office hours because they’re able to respond to messages from students faster.
Keep Up with Reading Assignments. For most online classes, textbooks can be accessed online and read over the phone, and students are able to highlight and save specific text for future reference.
Submit Assignments. It’s not uncommon for students to type out entire papers and discussion posts on their phone and upload them on-the-go.
Access School Resources. Online universities allow you to access the library, tech support, and other resources via a student portal. Further, the ability to connect with tutors and other students makes it easier to navigate challenging subjects.
A helpful tip if you’re researching online colleges: be sure the school offers 24/7 support, so you can get what you need anytime.
Bottom line: In a society that is increasingly reliant on smartphones, the in-app online learning experience will only continue to get better as universities improve functionality and develop new ways to connect their global student communities.
How Online Classes Work for All College Students
Exclusively online universities offer several advantages over their brick-and-mortar counterparts, notably:
In a traditional college setting, students wake up in their homes or dorm rooms and make a point to be in class at a specific time when the class is scheduled. A student may have several classes on their schedule, meaning the average day can feel a lot like a traditional 9–5 workday.
At an online university, there is no set limit for the length of time you need to be in class, because your assignments and deadlines are provided to you far in advance. Attendance is necessary, but you can log into your classroom anytime.
Some online universities also offer you the chance to take one class at a time over a period of several weeks before you move on to the next course, while still graduating on-time. This allows you to focus all of your efforts on a single subject before moving on to the next one. An asynchronous learning environment also allows you to start school on your time. The University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC), for example, offers up to 50 start dates per year and classes typically are 5-to-6 weeks in length.
The aforementioned “on the-go” student has the advantage of catching up on a classroom discussion during a lunch break or listening to a book on the phone during the daily commute. But geographic flexibility is even more valuable to learners who are attending school overseas or in remote areas.
Members of the military, especially, benefit from being able to access their classes while serving around the world.
“It would literally be an hour between fighting the Taliban and transitioning to classes,” recalls U.S. Navy SEAL Ty Smith, a 2015 graduate of Ashford University (now the University of Arizona Global Campus).
A Level Playing Field
Online learning holds every student to the same standard, regardless of age or educational background. Whether you are fresh out of high school or returning to college after several years off, the online classroom offers the same resources and the same expectations.
For introverts, those who are uncomfortable speaking in classroom scenarios or those who simply prefer to work alone, the online classroom is a judgement-free setting where learning and discussion occur through typing words rather than speaking words. This creates a sense of independence and more control over your outcomes.
Self-discipline and Improved Soft Skills
When you’re working independently, you must be disciplined. Though online classes are self-paced, they challenge you in the areas of time management and organization.
Other soft skills, such as problem-solving, adaptability, critical thinking, and (especially) stress management can be developed or improved during your time at an online university.
When combined with the hard skills learned in a degree program, graduates of online schools are able to present themselves as the complete package to employers.
Comforts of Learning at Home
The coronavirus pandemic fast-tracked the work-from-home trend, and now the number of remote workers in the U.S. is expected to double to 36.2 million by 2025.
Online students were already “working” from home before it was trendy. The ability to attend class at the dinner table rather than a lecture hall adds a layer of comfort and flexibility that allows students to at least be in closer proximity to their families, even if their time is spent researching topics and writing discussion posts after they have finished their day at work.
Perhaps the greatest advantage for online learners is the ability to balance all of their responsibilities. Years ago, a person working a full-time job would have had to consider leaving the workforce in order to go back to school. Online classes remove that obstacle because you can log into the classroom whenever you have time, and you don’t have to miss work to do it.
Others who may not be in the office but are stay-at-home parents juggling a different type of job also find the flexibility of online classes a benefit that allows them to be there to raise their children while still focusing on their own growth and enhancement.
A Week in the Life of Online Learners
With all this talk about flexibility, here’s an example of what a typical week looks like when you’re an online student. Keep in mind, everyone’s experience is different, but this example of one week at UAGC can help you get an idea of how you might prioritize your time in and out of the online classroom.
Sundays and Mondays can be stressful when you’re focused on a new workweek. With staggered start dates, you could begin a new online class on Tuesday and log in to see what your assignments look like. On the first day of class, you can also post in the discussion board and introduce yourself to fellow classmates.
With your assignments posted, you can get started on your reading or research, and post in the online discussion board. Like a traditional classroom, the discussion board is the place where all students can debate topics, share perspectives, and post questions for the instructor. With your classroom available 24/7 on all your devices, you can read and post whenever you have a break in your day and a phone or tablet in your hand.
Things will start to pick up by Thursday, and you’ll need to start gathering sources for your weekly research paper. With the school library available 24/7, you’ll be able to find everything you need. At the same time, your workweek should be winding down, allowing you to breathe easier and dedicate any upcoming free time to your assignment.
By Friday, your instructor will have given you feedback or answered questions about the week’s discussion topics. Now that the weekend has arrived, you can get started on writing your paper.
It’s tough to sacrifice weekends to school, but college is a commitment. As you continue to work on your assignments, you can remind yourself that everything will pay off in the end. If you’re curious and have some spare time, you can explore your university via the student portal and take advantage of other resources like the Career Services department, which is there to help you maximize the value of your degree.
If your online university offers proofreading tools and writing assistance, this would be the day to take full advantage. Once you’ve finalized your research paper, you can submit it for approval.
At last, you can enjoy a break in the action. Working adults usually have to focus on work come Monday, but if you have time, you can get a jump start on the week ahead by looking at your upcoming assignments or reading the next chapter in your textbook.
As a self-disciplined online learner, what happens next is up to you. There is no rule that says you have to be in an online class for a certain number of hours, but success hinges on how much you’re willing to put into your education. If you think you’re ready to commit to a flexible, accessible online education, talk to a Global Campus advisor today.