Online Universities
and Colleges Guidebook

Essential Information for Advancing Your Education and Career Through E-Learning

Online university programs and courses are becoming more prevalent and mainstream each year – a trend that’s improving access to higher education considerably. Self-paced degree and certification programs, flexible scheduling and the removal of geographic barriers are making college a reality for remote students, full-time professionals and others who might not otherwise be able to attend. In turn, many are choosing online universities and colleges to improve their job and salary prospects. Begin your online university research with this comprehensive guidebook and see how you can leverage distance learning to help achieve your educational and career goals.


Earnings Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Main Advantages of Online Universities and Colleges

From added affordability to enhanced convenience, attending an online university can come with a host of benefits over traditional campus programs – making it an attractive option for a broad range of students.


While online classes can be more affordable than campus-based counterparts, their financial benefits do not end there. Online colleges mean students don’t have to move to attend the school, which eliminates moving expenses as well as new housing costs. There is no commuting cost, either. In addition, students can often continue working while taking classes, which helps keep their finances stable.


Many online programs allow students to log into class whenever and wherever they can. These distinctions are not only convenient, but can be essential for students unable attend campus or managing nontraditional work schedules. Classes can be presented in several ways, such as livestreamed or recorded lectures. Discussion may take place spontaneously through video or audio chat, or through more flexible methods, like email and message boards.


Online colleges can usually accommodate more students than campus-based programs: if a student is eligible to take a class, they will likely be able to get in. This means more opportunities for students to take the classes they want while customizing their curriculum and course loads. This is particularly true for massively open online courses, or MOOCs, which offer enrollment for anyone, often at low or no cost. Some online colleges also offer “competency-based” programs, which allow students to earn college credit for knowledge and experience gained elsewhere.


Because online colleges can transcend the barriers of time and geography, they tend to attract a more diverse student population than campus-based programs. It is not unusual for classmates to come from many different regions and cultures, which allows them to consider topics with the benefit of varying worldviews. Enhanced communication is another key advantage of online education, particularly among students who might feel uncomfortable participating in a classroom discussion. Tools like discussion boards give learners and professors time to carefully consider ideas and questions before contributing their own. They also allow all students a chance to participate – and professors the freedom to mentor-without time constraints

Who Benefits Most from Online Universities and Colleges?

Online college’s convenience, cost savings, curriculum customization and overall flexibility has great appeal for many different types of prospective students. Here’s a look at the types of people who often benefit most from learning online.

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    Skill builders are already in the workforce and want to advance their career. Unlike the career changer, the skill builder wants to stay in their current profession but gain additional training to take on more responsibilities. By completing an online degree, credential or series of courses, the skill builder can obtain certain licenses or certifications that confirm their skills and knowledge.

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    Some people have a thirst for knowledge that isn’t satiated when a degree is completed. Whether working full-time or retired, the lifelong learner always wants to gain more knowledge. Maybe they want another degree or just want to attend a few classes. Online colleges allow the lifelong learner to choose from a huge range of courses taken on their own schedule.

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    This is an individual who is already working in a particular field, but wants to switch to a new line of work. They need to be able to continue working in their original job while earning a degree. Some might already have a degree in a field that doesn’t fit with their new career goals, or some might be attending college for the first time.

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    These individuals are always buzzing around, busy as they can be. They work full time, have multiple jobs, have family obligations, or a combination of all of the above. Online degree programs offer the flexibility and convenience to allow busy bees to work toward the advancement of their education – even if that means taking one course at a time.

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    Not everyone is lucky enough to have a reasonable commute to the nearest college. Those who live in rural areas may be hundreds or even thousands of miles from the nearest institution or program-of-choice. Rather than pack up their life and move, online colleges allow all students to get the education they deserve, regardless of where they reside.

Places to Earn an Online College Education

From large universities to private institutions, distance learning is widely available. However, online options are slightly different based on the schools offering them. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of taking online courses at a given institution.

Public Universities

Ability to graduate with a degree from a well-known university.

Potential for receiving in-state tuition benefits.


Out-of-state resident students pay full tuition costs.

Ideal for

Students currently attending a public university who wish to supplement their on-campus learning with online learning.

In-state residents who want an online degree from a recognized school as cheaply and conveniently as possible.

Private Not-for-Profit Universities

Convenience of remote learning along with the ability to attend a school featuring the same philosophy as the student – such as religious affiliation.


Can be one of the more expensive online learning options.

Ideal for

Individuals who place great importance in attending an educational institution with a particular affiliation or philosophy.

Students who want an online learning experience but need the additional attention and assistance that private schools can offer.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Students can take only the courses they want.

Many courses are available for free.

Generally, no admission or application required for enrollment


Course completion doesn’t automatically result in college credit.

Not always a reliable way of obtaining widely accepted credentials.

Ideal for

Students already enrolled in a school which has a partnership with a MOOC and would like to take courses online.

An individual not enrolled in a formal institution, but would like to take a formal class in a particular subject.

Advancing Your Knowledge & Career With Massive Open Online Courses

A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online class generally available to an unlimited number of students. MOOCs provide an online learning option independent of formal educational institutions, although many MOOCs do have partnerships with colleges. Some colleges, such as MIT and Stanford provide their own MOOC platform. Here’s a brief overview of the key players in the MOOC field.


Coursera is a for-profit technology company that offers many of its courses in multiple languages and on multiple technology platforms. Coursera is also the online course provider for hundreds of premier colleges and universities.

  • Founded: 2012

  • # Courses Offered: Over 1,300

  • Partners: University of Florida, IBM, Northwestern University, Princeton University and UC San Diego

  • Unique Features: Courses can include quizzes and projects, and allow students to connect with others to discuss what’s being taught. Certificates are available indicating completion of a particular course or specialization.

  • Offers College Credit? The American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE-CREDIT) recommended a limited number of Coursera classes for college credit, though it is up to colleges to accept them.

  • Ideal for: Professionals who want to supplement their current skillset or test new fields. Also ideal for students who want to improve or enhance their knowledge during semester break.


EdX is made up of dozens of schools and organizations worldwide who provide online education to anyone who wants it. Courses are offered free, but for an extra charge, verified certificates are available to prove completion.

  • Founded: 2012

  • # Courses Offered: Over 650

  • Partners: MIT, Harvard University, Caltech, Boston University and University of Michigan

  • Unique Features: Many courses are available at no charge. Advanced level courses are taught by professors from elite colleges and universities.

  • Offers College Credit? Yes

  • Ideal for: Individuals not currently enrolled in an educational institution, but who would like to receive high quality classroom instruction in any number of subjects.


Udacity offers students the opportunity to take courses with a vocational and technical slant. Since the courses are designed to teach practical skills, students can expect to apply new skills and knowledge to the workforce–and their resumes–quickly.

  • Founded: 2011

  • # Courses Offered: Over 100

  • Partners: Georgia Tech, Facebook, AT&T, Google and Cloudera

  • Unique Features: Many classes are offered for free, but students may also enroll in a Nanodegree program that provides a validated certificate of achievement verifying students have learned and mastered a particular set of skills and information.

  • Offers College Credit? Only students enrolled in approved computer science courses at Georgia Tech University. Other institutions may or may not follow suit in the future.

  • Ideal for: Working professionals seeking practical skills and knowledge for immediate professional advancement.

Khan Academy

The Khan Academy offers a large variety of online videos and learning tools, free of charge to anyone with access to the Internet. The Khan learning experience is devoted to providing the best learning experience possible.

  • Founded: 2006

  • # Courses Offered: Over 5000

  • Partners: Google, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Valhalla Charitable Foundation and more

  • Offers College Credit? No, but the classes can be used to prepare students to obtain college credit through competency-based programs and College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams.

  • Ideal for: Individuals looking to study traditional academic subjects for the sake of learning or to obtain extra assistance with their schoolwork. The Khan Academy does not provide degrees or academic or professional credentials.

MIT OpenCourseware

MIT OpenCourseware is an online archive of almost all undergraduate and graduate course materials offered by MIT. This open source repository is free and accessible to anyone.

  • Founded: 2001

  • # Courses Offered: Over 2,300

  • Partners: iTunes U, Lockheed Martin, MathWorks and Accenture, among others

  • Unique Features: All the educational materials from MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses are not only available online for free, but are open and can be used in any way as long as the materials are properly attributed and not used for commercial gain.

  • Offers College Credit? No

  • Ideal for: Anyone looking high quality undergraduate or graduate educational materials. While not designed to provide a degree or formal credential, MIT OpenCourseware serves as an excellent platform for anyone to learn about a particular topic.

Is Online College the Best Choice for You?

Even though online colleges boast many advantages, online learning isn’t for everyone. The following quiz will help prospective students decide if taking classes online is right for them. Answer each question with a YES or NO.

I am very disciplined and organized. I can stay up to date with course requirements and class work.
I don’t need to have the full college or graduate school experience, such as living in a dorm, attending sports events or engaging in on campus activities.
I have access to a broadband internet connection and a computer which can run any modern software or apps that an online course might reasonably require.
I am pretty good with computers and can fix any technical problems I may encounter while taking classes.
My total free time available for taking classes and studying adds up to at least a few hours per week.
I don’t need to have in-person interactions with my professors or classmates in order to get the most out of my education.

Online college is right for you! Your answers suggest you are not only prepared and positioned to study online, but have the qualities necessary to succeed in online programs. Just as with campus-based programs, however, finding the right school and program for you is key. Take some time to research online schools and programs before applying for admissions.

Accreditation for Online Universities and Colleges

Accreditation verifies that online colleges and programs meet certain quality standards. Put another way, accreditation means students’ degrees, certificates or diplomas hold universal value. Accreditation is generally offered on a regional or programmatic basis, but certain organizations focus on a special type of education, like online learning. Many professional organizations accredit academic departments rather than specific degree programs, or limit accreditation to undergraduate or graduate programs specifically.

Anyone thinking about attending an online college should investigate its accreditation status. Accreditation is especially important for students who need the education for professional advancement. Organizations that provide certifications, employers and graduate schools will usually accept only those with an education from an accredited institution.

Even students who don’t care about getting a degree or receiving an academic credential should care about accreditation. Accreditation provides a means of quality assurance that the education received meets certain standards; it also ensures that their time and money won’t be going toward a ‘diploma mill.’ Note that some accrediting bodies are more reliable than others, however, so students are encouraged to confirm prospective programs are accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

From the Expert: Interview with James Howard

Q What traits or characteristics does it take to really excel in online courses?

Like other educational experiences, the trait that drives success in online education is perseverance. Many schools have adopted shorter terms, but even eight and ten week terms require planning and dedication to complete with a good understanding of the material. A sixteen-week term requires even more dedication. However, the instructor has typically provided a road map to completion through the syllabus and keeping up with deadlines, turning in assignments on time, and answering questions from the instructor will keep you on track. 

QHow is the rise of MOOCs changing online education? 

MOOCs, somewhat predictably, have developed a reputation as a plaything for people who are bored and already over-educated. I have a doctorate and I complete 6-10 MOOCs a year, as a student. The real value in MOOCs will come in their ability to provide, for free, elementary and remedial courses in mathematics and English, giving students the ability to be college ready with lower financial risk and a student-set timetable.

QWhat is one of the biggest challenges of taking a course or degree program online?

The biggest problem with online education, from both the instructor and student perspective, is knowing when something has gone wrong. In a face-to-face classroom, the instructor can see when a student has zoned out or looks confused. In the virtual classroom, it’s not so easy.  A single bad grade does not, necessarily, belie a problem. The student may have just had a bad day, and either way, the mark is already on the gradebook by then. So it is really incumbent on the student to stop and ask when they think something is amiss, they feel lost, or think they are not getting it.

Program Types & Course Delivery Methods
at Online Universities

Not all online degrees, programs and courses are taught the same way. Here’s a rundown of the different program types and course delivery methods students should be familiar with as they research online college options.

Program Types

Online programs that are fully online are exactly that, with no on campus or in-person elements required. This means students can complete the entire program without leaving their home.


Sometimes referred to as blended learning, hybrid online programs mix online instruction with more traditional methods, such as on-campus classroom or practical learning experiences, including internships or practicums. Depending on the program, students might be required to complete a few days of study on campus or work a local organization to complete clinical study.

Course Delivery Methods
Synchronous (Real-Time)

Synchronous instruction exists when the course material, usually a lecture, is offered in real-time. This means students must be ready at their computers to sit in on the lecture when it’s scheduled. While not the most flexible learning option, students are still able to avoid travel.

Asynchronous (Self-Paced)

Asynchronous learning is the most common option for online course material as it allows students to receive the substantive course materials on a flexible schedule. This allows students to tailor their time, such as watching lectures during a break at work.

Popular Software and Digital Tools for Online University Studies

Attending college online requires a computer and an internet connection, as well as software or hardware to interact and participate in classes online. Some of these special tools used for online learning are discussed below.

Computer and Communication Hardware

Students will need to have the physical tools to participate in online learning. The single most important will be the computer. Computer hardware requirements vary, but a computer purchased within the last two to three years should suffice. Other necessary hardware tools include:

  • Web cam
  • Microphone
  • Speakers or headphones


A very reliable broadband internet connection is necessary; dialup probably won’t cut it for taking online courses. Connections that should work are:

  • DSL
  • Cable
  • Fiber optic

Communication Software

Chatting, voice chatting or video chatting may be the norm when communicating with classmates and professors. Some programs may require students to establish accounts meet certain technical requirements. Popular communication services include:

  • Skype
  • Google Hangouts
  • Facebook Groups

Web Browser

A reliable web browser is also essential for online courses. Note that schools may require students to use a specific browser and supporting programs, like Adobe Flash and Java, for the sake of compatibility. Popular browsers include:

  • Chrome
  • Firefox
  • Microsoft Edge
  • Safari (Mac)

Learning Management Systems

Most online colleges use a learning management system (LMS) to deliver courses. One could think of an LMS as a virtual learning space where students access lectures and materials; reviewing course timelines and resources; communicate with classmates and instructors; submit assignments and more. The five most common LMS platforms are:

  • Blackboard Collaboration
  • Canvas by Instructure
  • Brightspace by D2L
  • Moodle
  • Sakai

Productivity Software

Because online courses tend to require more independence and self-direction than face-to-face courses, students can really benefit from productivity tools. While some programs must be purchased, there are a number of free and open source alternatives available today. Types of productivity software commonly used include:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Microsoft Online
  • Google Drive
  • Google Drive
  • Google Calendar
  • Apache’s OpenOffice

Resources for Online University Students

For those considering online college, the following list of resources will help answer any questions and explain more about what it’s like to take classes online.

eLearning Guild

The eLearning Guild is a professional membership organization helping e-learning professionals network with each other and advance the online education field.

eLearning Industry

A network of online sites focused on all things relating to e-learning. Resources available include articles, videos and symposiums.

International E-Learning Association

The IELA works to promote e-learning in the United States as well as internationally.

Online Learning Consortium

The OLC is a prominent professional organization that provides resources to educators and online learning providers.

Online Learning Insights

A blog which discusses current topics and issues within the online learning community.

Online Learning Tips

Online Learning Tips is an all-in-one website for information on online learning. Resources include articles, advice and tools for helping students learn.

United States Department of Education – Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

The US Department of Education provides a list of colleges and universities that the US Department of Education recognizes as being accredited.

United States Distance Learning Association

The USDLA is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to improving, advancing and developing online learning possibilities.