What is an online class like?

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Attending an online class has become routine for millions of students around the world. The National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education estimated that nearly 6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course for a postsecondary degree-granting program. Slightly less than half of these students, or roughly 2.8 million, took exclusively online/distance learning courses, while the rest opted for a mix of online and on-campus classes.

With the right curricular design, online master’s degree programs — such as the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) offered by  the George Washington University (GW) — provide today’s students with uniquely flexible routes for academic, personal and professional development. However, the thought of taking even one class over the internet, much less completing an entire degree that way, might seem intimidating to anyone new to distance learning.

A student participates in an online class.

Comparing on-campus and online master’s degree programs

There are several differentiating factors between on-campus and online master’s degree programs. The divide between these two modes of education is somewhat similar to the differences between working in an office and telecommuting. While the overall purpose is the same, the execution is different, requiring more self-direction as well as adept use of communications tools like chat and email.

Still, many common myths and misconceptions surrounding online education can distract students interested in pursuing it. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Myth #1: It is lower quality than on-campus education

The absence of a room filled with classmates and an instructor discussing topics in-depth doesn’t mean online programs lack quality. In fact, students will still perform many familiar activities, like reading assigned materials, completing and submitting assignments and taking examinations. A 2015 review in the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning found similar outcomes for online and on-campus degree programs in performance on a common set of tests, indicating comparable quality.

Myth #2: It isn’t offered by reputable institutions

Some of the earliest online learning initiatives, at both the secondary and postsecondary levels, were pioneered by nontraditional schools and for-profit institutions, neither of which have the same reputation as not-for-profit colleges and universities. Today, institutions of all kinds have robust online master’s programs equaling the quality of their on-campus equivalents. At GW, you can earn a Master’s in SPR, secure in the confidence that your degree comes from a school with regional accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Myth #3: You’re on your own when you’re an online student

Because you aren’t studying face-to-face with your instructors and classmates, it may seem like online education is an isolating experience that forces you to figure everything out on your own. Although the earliest online education was held back by some key constraints on communications (such as dial-up internet connections), platforms as well as the technologies they rely upon have come a long way since then, enabling students to feel more in sync with their online endeavors. Message boards, chat, video conferencing and similar communications channels make it easier than ever to connect with others and get more from the online learning experience. Peer/instructor feedback is quicker and sometimes instantaneous.

Myth #4: Online learning is really easy

No one should go into an online learning program thinking it will require less effort compared to traditional education. Students have to approach online coursework with the same discipline and focus they would devote to any other degree track. While top online programs are rigorous, there are added conveniences for students, especially for those who are working professionals looking to incorporate work-life balance with their academic pursuits. The 100 percent online format of the SPR program means no lengthy commutes to campus, allowing greater flexibility for busy students.

A student browses online course materials.

What you should know and tips for success as an online student

There is an initial learning curve for online students who may have to adjust to the lack of face-to-face interaction with instructors and classmates. Time management is also an important skill for online learning, since class time does not follow the rigid structure of a traditional program. Students typically can view course content and complete assignments at their own schedule, although some activities such as examinations may be timed.

Succeeding in an online course requires a disciplined approach. Some tips for getting the most from an online learning experience include:

  • Create a schedule: Setting aside time each week for working on online assignments is recommended so you can maintain a consistent pace and not fall behind.
  • Connect with instructors early: Establishing rapport with instructors via email or other communications channels can be useful so you have insight into their expectations and how they will be evaluating assignments.
  • Ensure you have a suitable working environment: A reliable internet connection is essential, as is a space in which you can concentrate while studying. Working from the same location consistently is ideal.

The SPR track at GW is 100 percent online, offering maximum convenience for working professionals. Completion is possible in as few as 18 months, with no residency required. Students receive the same master’s degree as they would have gotten through an on-campus program, meaning they can pursue the same post-graduation opportunities. To learn more about how to get started, visit the program overview page and answer a few questions to receive our free brochure.

Recommended Readings:

Online Student Experience

Public Relations: A Guide to Effective Networking


Fast Facts
Learning outcomes in an online vs traditional course