How does online university work?

Online university provides a valuable alternative to a brick-and-mortar university experience. Common misconceptions about online degrees paint virtual institutions as ersatz diploma mills, but in reality, they can provide just as much knowledge and gravitas as a mainstream, in-person degree. Just how the online learning experience unfolds can be an area of mystique, however.  There’s no need to fear though – Canstar Blue will be breaking down all the confusion around how online courses work in this guide, so if you’re wondering about what’s involved with online university, read on to find out all you need to know.

How does online university differ from traditional university?

Man studying online

The key difference between online and traditional university is where you learn, as the entire university experience is digital. This means that classrooms, tutorials, lectures, group work, libraries and even assessment will take place online. This learning environment also means that in some cases, there is no set schedule for your tutorials or lectures, as you will ‘attend’ the classes when it suits you. The important stuff like the learning content and assessment requirements remain the same, meaning your degree will be almost identical to one earned through a traditional university.

The key differences between online and traditional university are:

  • Lectures and tutorials will take the form of recorded and live videos.
  • Readings, coursework and assessment will be distributed through an online portal.
  • Exams will be proctored, meaning they are timed, monitored and reviewed at a later date.
  • Students submit assessment through the university website or via their student portal.
  • The course is accessible from anywhere, including mobile devices.
  • Students have a loosely structured schedule, meaning there will be deadlines but it’s up to you when you do the coursework and attend lectures.
  • The semester might follow the regular uni schedule or may be divided up into smaller learning units.

If you choose to undertake a hybrid degree, some of your courses will be carried out in person and some online, which isn’t that different from how many university students’ complete university today.

How do online courses work?

Online study uses sophisticated technology to deliver students a highly usable and accessible virtual classroom. This means that every student needs access to a device that can support participation in the course content, as well as the ability to work on assessment. Before you begin your study, you will usually participate in an orientation where you’ll learn how to use and navigate through your online resources and tools. The most important online resource is your student portal, which acts as an access point for your coursework, assessment and group work. Online universities also place a strong emphasis on discussions and participation. Consistent communication is key, and the 24/7 nature of an online degree provides many opportunities to talk to your professor and other students. In addition, there may be opportunities to pursue in-field experiences throughout the duration of your course, which would take you offline and into contact with other students or experts in your area of study.

What do you need to study online?

Studying online is a flexible and easy way to study, but there are some supplies you can’t live without. Absolute essentials include access to a computer, a reliable internet connection, a web camera, headphones, office software skills and a quiet place to study. Less practical requirements are the ability to stay on task, work without supervision, network under your own steam, forge relationships with staff and manage your time well. It’s important to be honest with yourself about your commitment to online study, and structure your learning, so you get the most out of your online course. However, like brick-and-mortar universities, you’ll be able to get in contact with staff if you’re struggling with anything, so be sure to reach out if you have any questions or need to talk with anyone.


Read more: What are the pros and cons of online learning?


How do I prepare for online study?

Mum studying at home with child

In order to succeed at an online university, it’s important to be prepared. A lot of this preparation will be similar to that required at a traditional university, such as reading the coursework, getting acquainted with your professors, buying the readings and understanding your timetable. However, some preparation is unique to online learning.

To get the most out of your online education you need to:

  • Set up a learning space which is comfortable and quiet. Remember you will be in this space for the entirety of your degree, so it’s important it’s conducive to concentration and productivity.
  • Understand the expectations of your degree; know when you need to participate and when to submit an assessment.
  • Implement a consistent routine of study and breaks to ensure you’re not wasting time or spending every minute at the computer.
  • Organise your year according to the university schedule.
  • Set regular, achievable goals to help you stay on track.
  • Communicate frequently with your cohort and develop an online community of students and professors.
  • Take advantage of your ability to rewind and revisit content to make sure you never miss important information.

Studying online is an adaptable and useful way to get the degree you want, on your terms. Now you know how online university works, and what you will need, you can feel confident in choosing the right online degree. But not sure which university to study through? Check out our ratings for the best-rated universities in Australia.

Photo Credit: fizkes/shutterstock.com, Ilona Titova/shutterstock.com

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