In the digital age, people are always searching for new ways to use online resources to their advantage. One increasingly popular resource is online education. Now you can take college classes online, which can help you save time and money.
But in the grand scheme of educational opportunities, online college classes are still relatively new, so you might not know what they are or how they work. In this article, we’re going to dig into the important info about online college courses to help you navigate the various opportunities for online education that are out there. We’ll talk about:
- What online college courses are
- What online courses are like for students, how they work, and how they compare to in-person college courses
- The pros and cons of taking online courses, and
- 4 free online college courses you can take right now
By the end of the article, you’ll know everything you need to know about taking college classes online, so let’s get started!
What Are Online College Courses?
People have been taking college classes from afar for decades. These classes used to be called “correspondence courses,” though now we refer to educational opportunities that don’t have an in-person component as “distance education.”
Today, online college classes are a form of distance education that allows students to use the Internet to learn the same material and study the same subjects that they would be able to study if enrolled in a traditional, in-person college course.
The key differences between taking a class in-person and taking one online is that in an online college course, you typically won’t have to be physically present in a classroom. You’ll also access course material exclusively online and will have much more flexibility to complete the course on your own terms. Finally, you’ll most likely pay less tuition for an online college course, which is a huge plus!
Online college courses are usually offered as a part of an online degree program at an accredited college or university. But there are several educational programs out there that will allow you to take individual college courses online without having to enroll in a degree program (we’ll talk about this more later).
When you successfully complete an in-person course through a traditional college or university, you usually receive transferable credits or hours toward completion of a degree. But what exactly do you get out of an online college course in terms of credit or certification?
If you complete an online course through an accredited four-year college or university, you’ll be eligible to receive transferable college credit. If you take a course through a less traditional program, you might receive a certificate upon completing the course. The type of credit or certificate you receive from taking online courses varies between courses and programs.
That’s why it’s important to know your goals before enrolling in an online course. For example, if you’re trying to earn a bachelor’s degree, you’ll want to take classes that will earn you transferable college credits. If you’re already in the workforce and looking to learn new skills, however, a certificate program might be a better fit. Doing a little research to make sure classes fit with your goals will help you make the most out of your online educational experience.
The 2 Formats of Online Courses
There are also two main formats for online college courses: synchronous learning and asynchronous learning.
In synchronous learning, all class participants are expected to be “present” at the same time, by way of videoconferencing or live streaming, for example. Synchronous learning might also be referred to as “paced learning,” since the university or course instructor determines when class participants will begin the course and complete the course.
Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, allows class participants to access course material flexibly on their own time instead. This model is similar to the “self-paced” learning model, which allows students to enroll and begin the course at their convenience and complete the course based on their personal skill level and time commitment.
Knowing the difference between these two class formats will help you pick courses that best match your learning needs.
What Is a MOOC?
Free online courses typically fall into a particular category of online classes called MOOCs, or “massive open online courses.” They’re designed for large-scale participation and complete open enrollment. MOOCs are typically designed to be open to the public, not just enrolled students.
MOOCs are different from online courses you’d take through a traditional university because they are open-access. Learners often don’t have to apply for admission or enroll at a university to take MOOCs. Sometimes they have free tuition! But it’s important to know that these courses are usually the ones that either only offer a certificate for completion rather than college credit.
One quick note: if a MOOC sounds like exactly the type of class you’re looking for, you can find a list of great MOOC courses at the end of this article.
Why Do These Differences Matter?
Knowing these distinctions between the different types of online college courses is important because the method and style of online courses will affect the experience you have in the course. As you look into online college courses, it’s important to be on the lookout for terms like “synchronous,” “asynchronous,” “paced,” “self-paced,” and “MOOC” so you can decide if a particular course will meet your needs!
Next, we’re going to dive more deeply into what taking an online course is like by explaining four key aspects of what students can expect to experience in an online college course!
4 Things You Need To Know About What Online College Courses Are Like
We told you a little bit about the different types of online college courses that are out there, but what will things be like once you’ve enrolled in an online college course? In online classes, students interact with teachers/professors, fellow students, and course materials by logging into a Learning Management System (LMS), or online portal, which functions as a virtual classroom.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to break down four key aspects of online college classes that are typically part of the student experience. Knowing these four things about how online courses work can help you decide if taking online courses is right for you!
#1: You’ll Spend Time in a Virtual Classroom
You might not think of online courses as having a classroom, but they do! It’s just a virtual classroom housed within a Learning Management Systems (LMS). An example of an LMS that some people are familiar with is Blackboard, but the LMSs used by colleges and universities can vary. It’ll be your job to become familiar with the LMS that hosts your online courses. But don’t worry--many colleges and universities provide IT support and tutorial pages for new students who need help navigating their online classroom.
In practice, accessing your virtual “classroom” through an LMS will probably feel like logging into a website. There will usually be a course homepage that will display any new announcements posted by your instructor, notify you of new assignments and upcoming deadlines, and let you know if an assignment has been graded.
Besides the course homepage, a virtual classroom often provides various options for virtual communications with your instructor and classmates, like blog posts, discussion boards, or video conferencing. There are also links to content folders where you can access most course materials, including the course syllabus, course schedule, lessons, learning modules, course readings, PowerPoints, lecture notes, and/or video lectures.
You’ll also most likely take assessments, like quizzes and exams, in the virtual classroom. There will also be portals where you can upload assignments, essays, and projects.
You’re probably gathering that the virtual classroom is the activity hub for online college classes, much like the physical classroom in traditional, in-person courses. Whatever your virtual classroom ends up being like, one of the first things you’ll want to do once you enroll in an online course is explore your virtual classroom and get familiar with how it works!
#2: There Might Be Attendance Requirements
In self-paced online courses and MOOCs, there usually aren’t attendance requirements since there aren’t formal class meetings. But it depends on the course! Some courses might use some synchronous methods, like live video lectures, where everyone has to attend at the same time. You’ll have to read the course description before enrolling to find out those details. (You can also email your professor prior to the first day of the course to ask if there are any attendance requirements in the course.)
But just because most online courses don’t have attendance requirements doesn’t mean you won’t be required to participate. Unless it’s a totally self-paced course or a MOOC, professors in online courses will probably put some measures in place to ensure that you’re logging in and engaging with class material on a weekly (or sometimes daily!) basis.
Here’s an example of a common participation requirement in online courses. Some online courses require students to write a weekly blog or discussion board post, then they’ll require the rest of the class to respond to each others’ ideas, which will count for a grade. Assignments like these ensure you’re “in class” several times a week and keeping up with the course material.
One more example of how “attendance” can be enforced in an online course: Learning Management Systems give professors the ability to put “timers” on quizzes, exams, and other assignments. So, they might post an announcement letting the class know that the first exam will be available at noon on Monday, and the exam will become unavailable on Tuesday at noon. That gives you a 24 hour window to take your test.
And trust us: you really don’t want to miss taking the exam during the designated time frame. If you do, you’ll probably have to email your professor, explain why you missed the exam, and politely request a second chance.
Finally, the ways professors promote participation in online courses can vary greatly--some types of courses might require you to have virtual interactions with your peers multiple times a week, while others might not require you “show up” at all. This is why it’s important for you to gather as much info about the course expectations as you can before you enroll!
#3: You’ll Turn Your Assignments in Online
A lot of the course assignments and exams in online courses are very similar to what you’d encounter in an in-person course, except that they’re online. In order to take quizzes and exams and submit assignments, you will almost always have to log into your LMS.
But what are the different types of assignments you can expect to encounter in an online college course? Here’s a helpful list:
- Virtual quizzes (sometimes these are timed, sometimes they aren’t), proctored by the LMS
- Virtual exams (sometimes timed, sometimes not), proctored by the LMS
- Essays or papers, which you will usually upload as a Microsoft Word document or PDF
- Multimedia projects like video essays, PowerPoint presentations, or podcasts
- Group projects or papers, which you will collaborate on virtually with classmates
- Virtual presentations, given remotely through video chat or conferencing software built into the LMS
- Other weekly assignments, like discussion board posts or blog posts, which you will access through the LMS
These are just some examples of possible assignments you might encounter in an online course. The thing to keep in mind is that most of the time, you’re going to be accessing and submitting your assignments through a Learning Management System.
That means in order to succeed in an online class, you have to have reliable access to the Internet! This is such an essential component of online courses that many professors will even post a clause in their syllabus stating that not having Internet access is not an excuse for failing to turn an assignment in on time. That means you need to plan ahead in case you have technical difficulties.
#4: Online Classes Aren’t Easier Than In-Person Classes
The workload in online classes can vary greatly depending on the discipline, the length of the course, and whether it uses a synchronous or asynchronous model. However, one myth we can confidently debunk is the idea that online classes are easier than in-person classes. Many online learners have reported that they spend between 15-20 hours per week on work for a single online course, which is about the same amount of time as an in-person course.
While it’s nice to work on your own schedule, you’ll still spend a lot of time in the virtual classroom. For example, if there are video lectures, you’ll need to watch them. You’ll still need to complete course readings and spend time studying course material for quizzes and exams. Oh! And those assignments aren’t easier than those you’d take in a regular classroom setting, either.
In fact, some components of online courses can feel more time-consuming than their counterparts in in-person courses, like engaging in class discussion. Sitting through a fifty minute class on campus and speaking during a real-time discussion might go faster for you than writing multiple discussion board posts each week and leaving comments on other peoples’ posts.
Rest assured, though: there are hacks for online courses that you can use to maximize your time. For example, some online learners like to multitask while they listen to video lectures from home. They can fold laundry, run at the gym, or cook dinner while they listen to the lecture playing in the background. Ultimately, you can make the online course format work to your advantage!
The 3 Pros (and 3 Cons) of Taking Online College Courses
We’ve covered a lot of info about what online college courses can be like, but choosing how you want to handle your education is a big decision. That’s why it’s a good idea to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before you dive in.
To help you out, we’ve summed up six pros and cons of taking online college courses below.
Pro 1: Online College Classes Often Have More Flexibility
Ultimately, online courses usually give you more flexibility than in-person courses do. You don’t have to drive to campus, pay for parking, or show up at the same time multiple days a week. Instead, online courses usually allow you the freedom to study, work on assignments, and participate in class discussions and activities when (and where!) it’s convenient for you. In some cases, you’ll even be able to take exams and complete the course in a timeframe that you decide on.
Con 1: You May Have to Be More Proactive
One potential downside of online courses is that you have to be more proactive if you want to connect with your professor or classmates. In a virtual classroom, it’s harder to meet people and form study groups, and you can’t really ask your professor a few quick questions after class.
To fix this, you might consider starting a group chat with your classmates where everyone can share study materials, ask questions, or just commiserate. Making time to reach out to your professor can be equally beneficial. If your professor offers virtual office hours, take advantage of that time by setting up an appointment for a chat. And, unless they specify otherwise, you can always email your professor to ask questions or discuss concerns--but make sure you check the syllabus to see if it can answer your question first!
Pro 2: You Can Work Courses in Around Your Schedule
Another fantastic thing about online courses is that it’s less likely you’ll encounter scheduling conflicts. Something many students enrolled in in-person programs experience is the frustration of needing to take a specific course that’s only offered when they’re at work, taking another class, or in the evenings. Online courses remove this obstacle, giving you the opportunity to knock out the courses you need when you need to take them.
This is definitely a huge plus for people with significant work or family obligations. With online courses, you know they won’t keep you from meeting your other obligations.
Con 2: There’s Less External Accountability
Something that can be challenging for online learners is the lack of external accountability. When you take an online course, you aren’t going to have face-to-face reminders about assignments (or those guilt trips that make you study harder). Online classes require you to self-motivated and comfortable learning on your own.
Instead, it’s your responsibility to check in and make sure you’re keeping up with the course material. You’ll have to log into the LMS for course updates, deadlines, new assignments, and to check your grades. Checking your notifications through the LMS and email every day is a must. You’ll need to make a solid plan for managing your time and keeping track of course requirements in order to succeed.
Pro 3: You Can (Probably) Save Some Money
Online courses often cost less per credit hour than in-person courses at many colleges and universities. But even at colleges and universities that have the same tuition rate for online and in-person courses, you’ll likely be paying fewer fees for online courses.
There are other less obvious ways you can save by taking online courses. For instance, it’s unlikely you’ll need physical copies of papers, assignments, and course materials for online courses, so you can save on the cost of printing. You might also be able to purchase or rent an eBook for the course, which is cheaper than buying a physical textbook. Some professors even post the course readings digitally for free!
Con 3: Accreditation Is a Tricky Thing to Navigate
While online courses can often be more affordable than in-person courses, you need to make sure you’re getting good returns on your investment. This is where accreditation comes in. Accreditation is a process of validation through which institutions of higher education are evaluated based on the standards and quality of education they offer.
It’s critical you research online programs and courses to make sure that they’re regionally and nationally accredited. Many employers will not recognize degrees earned from colleges and universities that are not accredited. Plus, accredited colleges and universities often won’t accept transfer credits from unaccredited institutions.
This sounds daunting, but you can check to make sure that an institution is accredited and that the private agencies that provide its accreditation are reputable through the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. And make sure you check with your university to make sure that they’ll accept your transfer credits!
The Top 4 Free Online College Courses to Take Right Now
To help you get a feel for online college courses, we’ve put together a list of five free online college courses and evaluated them!
We like to think of this list of free online college classes as an opportunity for you to “try before you buy.” It’s always important to do your research, read up on the options, and gather as much info as you can before you invest your valuable time in an educational opportunity.
Here’s one other thing to keep in mind about free online college courses: while they’ll provide you with learning materials that are on par with what you’ll see in online courses at traditional universities, they’re all going to be self-paced and might not earn you transferable college credits. But they’re a great, low-cost way for you to see if online classes are right for you.
We’re listing a course you can take at University of the People first because this school doesn’t just offer free online college courses--it offers free online degree programs. If you’re interested in getting a tuition-free degree online through a non-profit, accredited university, University of the People might be the school for you.
University of the People offers a wide variety of courses across multiple disciplines. For instance, Introduction to Sociology (SOC 1502) is a general education requirement for all Health Sciences degrees at University of the People. It’s a three-hour online course, and you don’t need to have any prerequisites to enroll. The university offers small class sizes of around 25 students in an online learning environment that can be accessed anywhere in the world. You’ll receive instruction from real professors in the course and to experience collaborative learning with your peers, which is pretty great for a free online course.
There is a caveat about the course being “tuition-free,” though: while you don’t pay tuition to take the course, you do have to pay an Assessment Fee of $100 for every exam that you take. If you decided to get a bachelor’s degree through University of the People, you’d be looking at paying $3,960 in estimated total fees for the entire degree. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to receive fee waivers or scholarships to cover the cost of assessment fees, too!
One other thing to be aware of is that University of the People doesn’t have the same prestige as traditional universities do. Employers can be wary when they see a degree from University of the People on a résumé. However, people are becoming increasingly open to online-only schools (which this article from the New York Times talks about). If you want to learn more about public perceptions of University of the People, you might do your own research before you enroll.
#2: Analytics in Python Provided by Columbia University (ColumbiaX)
Columbia University, an Ivy League university located in New York City, offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) and programs through a platform called edX. ColumbiaX provides around 30 free MOOCs in a variety of subjects during a given enrollment period. All ColumbiaX courses can either be audited, meaning you won’t receive credit, or verified via certificate for a small fee.
We looked into ColumbiaX’s “Analytics in Python” MOOC, which has nothing to do with snakes and everything to do with computer programming! Python is a programming language that is focused on programs that deal with data. ColumbiaX’s website lists “Analytics in Python” as an intermediate level course, though no prior programming experience is necessary.
“Analytics in Python” is a twelve-week course, and ColumbiaX estimates that coursework requires about eight to ten hours a week. The course is tuition-free, but there’s $300 fee for graded exams, assignments, and a certificate. ColumbiaX’s website provides a breakdown of what topics will be covered during each week of the course, and it lets you know who the course instructor is ahead of time.
#3: Introduction to Business, Saylor Academy
Saylor Academy is a non-profit initiative that lets learners choose from over 100 self-paced, tuition-free, open online college courses. Introduction to Business (BUS 101) is a freshman-level course that most business majors are required to take at traditional universities and is one of the many courses that Saylor offers. If you’re interested in getting some entry-level courses out of the way for free, Saylor might be an option for you.
One great thing about Saylor is that you can get a really clear picture of what to expect from their online courses simply by browsing the course pages on their website. In the case of their Intro to Business course, you can view the course syllabus, information on all units of study, and see what study guides are provided for each unit. You can also view a list of all other optional course activities, like quizzes and writing activities. All you have to do to gain full access to these materials is to create an account and log in.
When completing courses at Saylor, you have the option to earn tuition-free college credit through one of their College Credit Transfer Partners. These are universities that have an agreement with Saylor to accept transfer credits from the Saylor program. The partner schools include accredited universities like Bellevue University, University of Maryland University College, and Excelsior College, as well as others listed here.
Transfer credit partnerships with accredited colleges and universities are so important because Saylor itself is not an accredited school. It is rare that accredited colleges and universities will accept transfer credits from an unaccredited institution. If you aren’t interested in transferring into a degree program at one of the partner schools on Saylor’s list, Saylor recommends that you contact your school to see if they accept transfer credits from Saylor. So in this case, a little legwork can save a lot of heartache later.
Saylor’s online courses are fully self-paced and asynchronous, except for the final exam. To earn college credit for the course, the course webpage specifies that you’ll need to pay a $25 exam proctoring fee and have access to a computer with a webcam. You’ll need the webcam because completion of the final exam requires that a proctor be present. If you choose to opt for the certificate of completion instead, you’ll find that it’s free and no exam proctor is required!
#4: CLEP Biology, Modern States Educational Alliance
Modern States Educational Alliance is a non-profit organization committed to making high quality college education accessible to everyone. This organization has partnered with edX to provide over 30 free college courses that include features like online lectures, quizzes, and tests. Modern States’ courses are free, and they provide textbooks and course materials free-of-charge online as well.
Here’s how courses work with Modern States: students take any number of free courses of their choosing, then they take and pass an AP or CLEP exam in order to receive the college credit. This means that Modern States online courses are specifically designed to prepare students to pass AP exams and CLEP tests.
Over 2,000 colleges and universities accept AP and CLEP test scores for college credit, so if you want to knock out a year of college courses for free online then transfer to a four-year university, you might give Modern States a try. To view a full list of colleges and universities that accept AP and CLEP credit, check out this page on Modern States’ website.
You can search Modern States’ online Course Catalog and browse the courses offered according to whether they’re AP or CLEP courses. You can also browse the course catalog by subject. For instance, if you want to take the Modern States course that’s designed to help you pass the Biology CLEP exam, all you have to do is sign up for a free account on Modern States’ website and enroll in the course for free. Once you enroll, you’ll have immediate access to the course webpage and all course materials.
While the classes themselves are free, the AP and CLEP exams are not. According to the College Board, 2019-2020 AP exams cost $94 each, and CLEP tests cost $87 each. If you decide to take enough courses to complete a full year of college credit, you’ll be looking at paying anywhere from $850 to $940 in total exam fees. While that might seem like a steep price, it’s still significantly less than paying a full year of college tuition out of pocket!
There's more to picking an online class than Googling one (though Google's a great tool, too).
3 Tips for Finding Online Classes
By now, you probably know whether you’re interested in taking online classes. But finding the right classes for you--in the right subjects, and with the right benefits--can be tricky.
Here are three great tips for finding online classes that are right for you.
Tip 1: Check With Your University First
If you’re working toward a degree from a traditional institution, you’ll definitely want to take classes that will earn you college credit. But transferring credit from one school to another can be tricky.
Luckily, you have options. There’s a good chance that if you’re attending a bigger school, they’ll have their own online courses. Check and see if your university offers online courses since it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll earn credit once you finish the class.
But if your university doesn’t have online college programs--or doesn’t offer the courses you need online--don’t worry. You have options! Once you find a class that fits your needs, it’s time to visit the registrar to see if it’s eligible for transfer credit. Universities tend to evaluate transfer credits on a case-by-case basis, so it never hurts to check.
Pro tip: universities are more likely to accept transfer credits from other accredited, four-year schools...so look for online classes offered by institutions that meet that criteria.
Tip 2: Save Time Searching for Classes
In the previous section, we talked about specific classes you can take online right now, for free. But each of those organizations offers tons of classes in many different subjects! Just because we didn’t specifically mention their courses in engineering doesn't mean they don’t offer them. Searching each program’s website for classes you’re interested in will probably turn up more results than you realize!
Here’s a handy list of the organizations we’ve mentioned above (and a few we didn’t) to get you started:
- University of the People
- Saylor Academy
- Modern States Educational Alliance
Tip 3: Know What You Need
Like we mentioned earlier, each class and program is unique. Some are self-paced, while others take a more hands-on approach. Additionally, each course offers different benefits upon completion. Some offer transferable credits, others grant certificates, and some classes might do a mix of the two.
The last thing you want to do is take a class that’s a bad fit for you...or finish a class only to realize you’re not getting the right kind of credit. So before you look for classes in the first place, take a minute to evaluate your goals. Do you need college credit, or is a certificate better for you? Would you rather take a self-paced class that fits around your schedule, or do you prefer classes with more accountability?
When you know exactly what you need, you’ll be able to find the perfect online class for you!
One of the toughest parts of college is getting in. Learn more about how to create an amazing college application (and find resources where you can get help whipping your current application into shape).
Of course, one of the most important parts of your college application are your placement test scores. Check out this expert guide to getting a perfect score on the ACT. (Don’t worry SAT-takers...we have a guide for you, too!)
If you’re thinking about taking online courses to save money, you might be surprised at how affordable traditional colleges can be. The first step is to calculate the real cost of college. Then you can start looking for affordable schools and applying for scholarships. You might find that you can actually get a traditional degree for free!
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.