How Online Classes Work

Curious exactly how one learns the material in an online course? We've compiled this overview of different online learning methods, to demystify what happens in an online class.

How It Works

There are technically four types of online courses: asynchronous, synchronous, hybrid, and self-paced classes.

The first three of those four types of classes operate very similarly to traditional courses. Students are expected to stick to a traditional schedule of either semesters or quarters, and they must follow a traditional syllabi with assignments of class reading, homework, quizzes, and tests. In these programs, students are also expected to watch lectures every week, and communicate with their instructor and classmates regularly.

Today, most online classes use one of several popular online learning platforms, such as Blackboard, Vista, Angle, or Moodle. In these systems, students can upload their homework and access lectures, notes, and other resources in the online learning platform. Most also have forums, where students can discuss course-related questions or have debates.

Here's what you need to know about the differences between those classes:

  • Asynchronous: In asynchronous classes, students are not required to log on to the web-based learning environment at any particular time. Students are still responsible for completing their assignments and watching lectures by the deadline on the syllabus; however, they can do these tasks when it best fits into their schedule.
  • Synchronous: Synchronous online classes operate like traditional courses that are facilitated over the web. Students must access their course website at particular times, to have real-time discussions with their cohort and their professors. These types of courses use a white board application within the learning platform, that allows the lesson to happen just as it would in a traditional course. Some students prefer the greater structure of synchronous courses, while others prefer the greater flexibility of the asynchronous approach.
  • Hybrid Courses: In these programs, students may complete some of their course requirements online, but they are also expected to come to campus to complete part of their requirements. Hybrid courses are the norm in many hands-on disciplines, such as nursing and engineering. The online courses in a hybrid program may be synchronous or asynchronous.

The last type of online course is the self-paced online class. In these programs, students are not required to follow a traditional semester schedule, or to adhere to deadline dates in the syllabus. They are provided with the course materials and the benchmarks they must complete in order to finish the course; however, when they meet these requirements is totally up to them. Entirely self-paced courses are relatively rare in online degree programs. (