How Online Universities Work

Online courses offer a flexibility and freedom to decide one’s own learning pace that traditional, in-person classes simply will never be able to offer students. For those students who are exceptionally self-motivated, or have exceptionally busy schedules, online courses can be an excellent way to complete a degree. They may also be offered at a discounted price from traditional classes, and thus offer a financial incentive to students. They may not be the best choice for everyone, however, as it can be very easy to fall behind if the student is not dedicated.

Admission and Classes

The basic premise of an online university is that it is much like any traditional university, but classes are attended through a number of video or audio lectures, virtual conferences with professors and classmates, and pre-created lecture material that students may peruse more or less at their own pace. These lectures are the core component of the classes and may be synchronous (live), asynchronous (non-live) or any combination of the two. The admissions process can be similarly rigorous, and prospective students may be required to submit transcripts, test scores, essays, and letters of recommendation.

Testing and Projects

Depending on the course or school policies, assignments to be completed may have strict deadlines, or students may be permitted to submit assignments at any time up until the course’s end date. Although some online universities allow students to take tests from their homes, more and more are implementing policies to ensure academic honesty. Students may be required to take tests in the presence of an official proctor, which may be found at a local public library or other location.


Graduation from these online universities is usually celebrated privately by the students and their invited guests, however there has been an upward trend recently in online universities organizing graduation events for their graduating students. Those with physical locations as well as online branches may invite online students to travel to their campuses and walk across the stage with all the other graduates at their traditional graduation ceremonies. Those without may organize private regional events for graduates. Others even offer online ceremonies in virtual worlds like Second Life!


The biggest uncertainty with online degrees is how that degree is viewed by potential employers. Recent studies have shown that about 26% of employers considered online Bachelor’s degrees to be as credible as traditionally earned Bachelor’s degrees, even though 37% of them considered online and traditional graduate degrees to be equivalent. Furthermore, 77% of respondents believe that an online degree earned through the virtual degree program of a well-known physical institution like Duke or Stanford is more credible than one earned at an Internet-only institution. These degrees are looked on much more favorably, however, in fields such as information technology, telecommunications, consulting, and media marketing where working remotely is often part of the job description.

Online colleges offer many benefits to students determined enough to thrive in them, but they are not for everyone. Depending on both the learning style of the student and the career they are interested in, it may or may not be the right choice.