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What are Online Courses Like?

You've decided to sign up for classes online? Smart move! With the whole world becoming increasingly virtual by the day, online learning is most definitely the way for the future. But there are always the in-between generations - the ones that are poised between the old and the new.

If you're a student right now, chances are that you're sandwiched between two schools of thought - one which is all for online learning and another that prefers traditional classrooms. Before you get confused by the two conflicting opinions, you need to understand that online classes are not completely different from traditional classrooms; the basic elements remain the same.

Wondering what life would be like as an online student? Well, here's the inside scoop on some of the most common aspects of an online course.

Logging in
Unlike traditional courses, you don't have to commute to college. Instead, you can log directly into the 'classroom' from the comfort of your own sofa or kitchen or car or wherever. Visit NPR.org for further insight into what an online college class experience is like.

The classroom calendar/schedule is hosted by a particular software, course management server, or course web page that can be accessed by signing in with a username and password. The registration process is often completed online, so you'll have to be computer savvy enough to follow the step-by-step instructions. On this pre-assigned space in the cyber world, you can interact with your instructor and with other members who have also enrolled for the course.

Very likely your first "class" will be an orientation or introductory class that will give you the information you require to be a 'successful' online student.

The frequency with which you'll have to sign in would depend largely on your course. Some courses contain synchronous elements, requiring you to log in simultaneously with other members of your classroom. Here, your instructor may provide live lectures with a web cam or hold chat sessions for the entire class. You may be required to participate at a specific time and day.

Other courses would function at varying times, allowing you to log in during the time that suits you best. You can post on bulletin boards, participate in quizzes, complete assignments or work with other class members in virtual workgroups.

If you're in a synchronous program, you will have to be online at a specific time. But even if this isn't the case, students from online programs recommend that you log in about 4-5 times a week and dedicate a certain number of hours every week towards coursework.

Communication
Generally, instructors respond to queries within 24 hours; check if the course has a response policy. You can also get in touch with your instructor and classmates over email, chat rooms, bulletin boards, instant messengers, voice over internet and, sometimes, telephones.

Very often, instructors may post announcements online instead of mailing the class; so make sure that you check out the calendar to get guidelines, view lectures, supplementary articles and deadlines for tests, quizzes etc.

Many courses also have a student lounge (or discussion forum) where you can ask for clarifications, respond to others' questions and contribute to the ongoing class discussions. Communicating over these forums rather than over mails is a great idea, as it allows for more active engagement with your peers.

Some courses require that students maintain a mandatory minimum level of participation in forum discussions; some instructors go so far as to reward students with extra points for active participation.

Lectures
A great advantage of online courses is that unlike traditional classes, it's almost always possible to access lectures over and over again. Depending on the format, you can scroll back, search archives or replay lectures - so, no more frenzied note-taking!

Most online courses use a combination of styles: typed lectures, recorded lectures, bulletin boards, text chat, teleconferences, web conferences and streaming audio. Sometimes, lectures only supplement textbook chapters that have been previously assigned. Links to other sources are often posted in the classroom/course calendar/schedule.

Course Materials
Depending on your program, you may have to buy your course materials. Typically, these include textbooks, videotaped lectures, CD-ROMs and course-related booklets. Some of the materials might be optional and include supplementary information. Certain courses also require that you buy specific kinds of software to gain access to the course.

Homework and Assignments
Just like traditional classes, you will be required to complete assignments and homework. Each week, you will have your share of reading and writing assignments and other projects. While you do have the freedom to work at your own pace and time, it's still essential that you submit projects on time.

Usually, your assignments can be downloaded from an interactive web site in a common word processing format. The method of submitting assignments can vary from course to course and even from assignment to assignment. Generally, students submit their homework by email, in the assignment desk/online drop box. Sometimes, you may be asked to fax the work or even post it on the forum, either privately or publicly.

Grading and testing
Your instructor may choose to test your understanding of the course material during the term. Usually, details on tests and quizzes are posted online. Many of these tests are timed and some can be accessed only for a specific period.

Unlike traditional classrooms where your work would be monitored, online courses assume that you're mature enough to refrain from cheating - and even if you do, that you're eventually the loser. Your instructor reserves the right to schedule a proctored exam.

Apart from the regular tests and quizzes, grading and assessment are based on a number of factors. The criteria and policies involved are usually mentioned at the beginning of the course or in the calendar.

Self-Motivation is Vital
People often think that online courses are easy. However, this couldn't be further from the truth! In fact, because of the technology and flexibility involved, it's easy to procrastinate and eventually fail an online course. Additional information can be found at Online Schools vs. Campuses to get further details on what a typical online college experience can be for prospective students.

If you're self-disciplined and know what you want out of life, an online course could prove to be challenging and intellectually stimulating!

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