Guide to Starting Your Online Education

By OnlineU Staff | Updated November 27, 2019
man using computer

Online education is diversifying and expanding at an astounding rate. A 2008 study by The Sloan Consortium found that online enrollments grew by 12.9 percent over the previous year -- an incredible pace when compared to the 1.2 percent growth in overall enrollment in higher education. The growth in online education has spread to brick-and-mortar campuses as well; more and more traditional colleges are making existing courses available online or starting entire online degree programs of their own.

This guide will cover all of the basics of distance education, from what equipment you will need to the types of online learning and online classes to transferring credits.

Getting Started: Equipping Yourself For Success

All online learning programs are slightly different in both the way they work and in the type of equipment they require. Some courses are done completely over email, while others use more complex systems, such as video conferencing, voice conferencing, and mobile devices.

These are some of the most basic equipment pieces you may need to begin an online learning program:

  • Access to an up-to-date computer (preferably made within the last three years)
  • High-speed Internet (a computer with Wi-Fi is preferable)
  • TV or DVD player
  • Personal email account

If you don't have access to this type of technology, there are a number of alternative options. Public libraries usually provide access to computers and high-speed Internet. This is a great way for a student who does not own a computer to earn an online degree. Another option to consider if you do not currently own a computer is purchasing a used computer at a discounted price.

If you have a computer with wireless capability but no Internet connection in your home, there are still many ways of getting online. For example, there are numerous free and low-fee Internet networks offered through local businesses, such as coffee shops and bookstores, that would be great for accessing accredited online learning programs.

The Online Learning Structure

The increasing number of online degree programs means that it's becoming easier to choose one that fits your specific needs. If you're worried that distance education might be too isolating, many online programs offer synchronous courses consisting of streaming video and live chat discussions. If you like to make your own schedule, many programs are completely asynchronous -- that is, you can do your coursework any time you like. 

Most online degree programs will use both types of courses. Some courses will have recorded audio or video lectures followed by exercises or quizzes. Other courses will provide text online and then require the student to complete essays and send them to the instructor. Many classes will have a discussion component. In asynchronous classes this discussion will consist of a message board, with students posting their thoughts and responding to others over the course of several days. In synchronous classes, discussion will take place using a designated chat room or instant messaging.

Types of Distance Learning

There are numerous different forms of distance learning, and many institutions use a combination of methods in order to teach their students. However, there are four common distance learning techniques: open schedule, blended learning, computer based learning and fixed time e-learning.

  • Blended Learning: The second most common strategy used in distance learning is one that offers an open schedule but requires students to communicate in an established location. This could mean that students are able to complete assignments on their own time, but they're required to meet in a classroom or computer chat room to touch base. 
  • Computer-Based Learning: Computer-based learning is the strictest version of distance learning, requiring students to participate at designated times and places. This means that students must touch base at a designated computer lab, or even meet in an actual classroom at a predetermined time.
  • Fixed Time E-Learning: The most common form of distance learning is a program that sets a predetermined schedule that can be kept from any location. This could mean that students are able to work from home, school, or the office, as long as they log on to the online learning site at a designated time. These programs often include a live online forum.
  • Open Schedule: An open schedule can be taken anywhere and gives students the most freedom possible. In this plan, students are given a set of deadlines that they must meet within a certain amount of time, but they can work any time and any place to meet the course requirements. This program is ideal for independent workers and people who don't struggle with procrastination. 

Types of Online Classes

Not all online courses have the same delivery method or time commitment. Depending on your course type, you can expect a more or less flexible online class experience. The major types of online classes include the following:

  • Asynchronous Classes: Here you’ll still be expected to follow a traditional course schedule, but you’ll have a window of time to complete assignments and watch lectures, rather than a definite set course time. Students do not virtually attend class together at the same time.
  • Hybrid: Hybrid classes are often used in programs that require significant hands-on skills, such as nursing or social work degrees. Students learn didactic information online and attend on-site clinicals or practicums to master related hands-on skills.
  • Self-Paced: These classes do not follow a traditional semester or quarter class schedule. Instead, students use the online learning portal and materials to complete assignments at their own pace.
  • Synchronous Classes: These courses require students to log on at particular times to participate in discussions or training, or to watch live lectures. These are the online classes that are most similar to traditional, on-site courses.

Selecting an Online School: Things to Keep in Mind

Choosing the right online college and degree can be extremely difficult. With hundreds of institutions and programs currently operating online, it's easy to get bogged down by the seemingly endless amount of research you must conduct in order to make an informed decision. This may be one of the most important decisions that you make in your lifetime, but there is information available to help guide your way.

Program Offerings

The number of degrees and subjects that an online school may offer can vary greatly. Some schools may offer only one fully online degree, while other schools will offer one hundred or more different degree options to online students. Whether or not a school offers your desired degree will likely be the most important attribute of a school to you, so it's worth looking into program offerings early on in your decision-making process. If you're not completely certain what you want to study and would like time to take classes in multiple program areas, make sure you find a school that offers multiple degrees that interest you. This will prevent you from the lengthy and frustrating process of having to transfer schools. You can search for schools that offer the programs you desire by using the “Find a School” tool at the top of this page.


Accreditation is an important thing to consider when making the decision about which school to apply to. Accreditation is a way to ensure that the time and money that you spend on your education is worth it, so you should confirm that whichever school you decide to attend has been accredited by a well-respected agency. Accrediting agencies take the time to ensure that the training and knowledge you receive is up-to-date, enriching, and respected by employers. There are many different accrediting bodies that are well known for upholding high standards in education. These accrediting agencies are recognized by The US Department of Higher Education and The Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Take some time to review these articles about accreditation to fully understand which accrediting agency’s approval is important for your degree and career. Be sure to note the difference between regional and national institutional accreditation. If the subject you want to study has an associated programmatic accrediting agency, you should consider whether it's important to you if the program you go to has been recognized by this agency.

Transferable Credits

Do you have credits from a former college experience? Do you expect that you may need to transfer to another college before finishing your degree? If so, it's important to talk to counselors at your college about the possibility of transferring your credits. Transferring credits from a prior college experience can help save time and money on your degree, but colleges are not required to accept credits from other institutions. Often, colleges will only accept transfer credits from schools or programs that have been accredited by the same accrediting agency. This means that if you plan to transfer from a school with national accreditation to a school with regional accreditation, you will likely run into roadblocks.


The reputation of the school that you attend will affect how your degree is perceived by family, friends, and most importantly, employers. Getting your degree will take a lot of time, effort, and money; therefore, it's important to understand the reputation of the school that will be giving you your degree when you graduate. Here are a few resources for you to gauge a prospective school’s reputation and quality:

  • Student Reviews: The experience of former students can tell you a lot about the quality of the school you are looking to attend. Take some time to read the reviews of your potential schools and notice whether or not they generally recommend your school. These reviews will help inform your decision in ways that talking to an admissions counselor or reading facts about a school can't.
  • Online College Rankings: College rankings by reputable agencies will tell you the general impression that the public has about your potential school and how the quality of education that you receive compares with other institutions. On OnlineU, we feature Military-Friendly Online College Rankings and Non-Profit Online College Rankings in addition to our general Online College Rankings.

Tuition and Financial Aid

The cost of college is highly variable, and higher cost does not necessarily mean a better education. No matter how you're planning to finance your college education, it's likely you do not have unlimited resources to spend. Look closely at the cost of each school and consider how it compares to other colleges. We've listed the annual tuition for each school, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, in our school lists.

If you are planning to take advantage of federal financial aid, whether in the form of grants, work-study or loans, it's important to make sure that the school you attend is eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs. For more information about financial aid and other forms of financing your education, check out our Financial Aid section.

Student Services

Traditional campus-based colleges are known for a vast array of student services, including tutoring, libraries, and career services. Some online colleges offer these services as well. These services can often enhance the college experience and the success a student sees after graduation. Decide which services you would likely take advantage of, and find schools that provide them.