Online Learning

How do online classes work? What you can expect from the virtual classroom

How online classes work

Online learning in higher education has been on the rise for many years. This growth has been accelerated by COVID-19, as students have flocked to the virtual classroom due to widespread social distancing guidelines. But the benefits of distance learning are poised to outlast the pandemic.

The flexibility offered by this modality has attracted many students who may not otherwise feel they have the time in their busy lives to make school a priority. Brad Bourdon, director of competency-based education program UMass Global MyPath, explains why.


For students who are really busy personally or professionally — students who have schedules that are kind of unorthodox or unpredictable — online classes can provide the flexibility they might need.

If you’ve wondered whether online learning could help you advance your education, you likely have a handful of questions, including, “How do online classes work, anyway?” We spoke with Bourdon and a handful of other UMass Global professionals to help give you an idea of what you can expect from the virtual classroom.

How do online classes work? 6 Things to consider about distance learning

While you might be new to online learning, you’ll soon see it’s less of a mystery than you may have initially thought.

1. You don’t have to be a tech genius to navigate the online classroom

Dr. Jennifer Murphy, associate vice chancellor of instructional innovation at UMass Global, notes that the technology incorporated into online learning platforms has grown increasingly easy for students to navigate.

“If you are able to do basic things on the internet — Google searches, navigating through a website, sending email — online learning management systems will come pretty intuitively to you,” she says.

That said, some schools do a better job than others of ensuring student success when it comes to the technological aspects of online learning. For example, Dr. Murphy says UMass Global makes sure to only incorporate a tool if there’s a real reason for it.  

“We do have a huge range of student ability, so we work very hard to ensure there’s adequate training for students who need it,” Dr. Murphy elaborates. “We want to be able to meet them where they’re at.”

2. You’re still expected to participate in class discussions

Some students thrive in group discussions with their peers. Others may find that participating in those discussions doesn’t come as naturally. But it’s important to note that even without face-to-face conversations, class discussion is a fairly universal virtual classroom student expectation.

“All classes at UMass Global will have a discussion board component that includes required engagement throughout an eight-week session,” Dr. Murphy says. That could be synchronous video conferences or asynchronous discussion board participation. Regardless of the format, this collaborative aspect of the virtual classroom is important.

According to Mitali Gadhia, assistant director of academic advising for UMass Global’s online campus,


Industries are becoming so globalized that long-distance technological communication is becoming the norm in the workplace. Students can take their online learning experiences and use them to their advantage in their professional lives.

Gadhia goes on to explain that honing these online teamwork skills during college will help set you up for success in the job market. “Knowing how to make connections with others in the class can be a challenge, but also an important advantage,” offers

3. Group projects could be a notable component of your online classes

Mastering collaborative communication in this digital environment is also important because group projects are another common aspect of the virtual classroom student experience. Dr. Murphy explains that group projects are incorporated into most of UMass Global’s online courses to prepare students for the workforce.


Much of what we do in education in general is try to create a sandbox for students to fail in, do well in and practice things in a low-stakes way — all while receiving feedback from instructors and classmates.

The tools built into the online student experience at UMass Global help make group projects in a virtual classroom environment both effective and productive. Students may utilize Google Docs for collaborative writing and editing. And they might use Zoom for its group video conferencing capabilities.

4. Tests and quizzes may be different in each online class you take

Just as with tests and quizzes in a face-to-face classroom, online assessments can vary. Some will be timed while others are not. Some will be essay-based while others are multiple-choice. High-stakes tests that need to be proctored may even involve the use of specialized software to monitor students through a webcam.

It’s also true that not all online courses utilize tests and quizzes. Some courses may be designed with a greater emphasis on collaborative projects, discussion participation or research papers. This is often common in graduate-level classes and above.

5. You’ll need to be proactive about connecting with your professor

Even with the numerous capabilities we now have to personalize the online learning experience, it can be difficult for instructors to gauge whether students are struggling with a course from a distance. “You need to be proactive about reaching out for help, because your instructors won’t know what’s normal or abnormal for you,” Bourdon says.

Gadhia agrees. She says students should recognize they may need to connect with their instructor by sending an email or picking up the phone. “Online students need to have a certain amount of patience,” she explains. “For example, if they email an instructor, they need to be comfortable with waiting one to two days for a response.”

Most UMass Global faculty are working practitioners. This means that the instructors, like many of the students, are actively working in the fields they teach. While the commitment faculty members have to staying active in their fields means students may get a slightly delayed response to their emails, it also means they’re receiving their education from experts who are actively immersed in the most up-to-date industry best practices.

6. You can still get the support you need as an online student

Gadhia points out that it’s not uncommon for students to be hesitant about taking online classes because they’re worried they won’t receive much support from their college. Schools like UMass Global place a particular emphasis on supporting busy adult learners and have ample resources available to students — the key is for students to reach out when they feel stuck.

“They have to take initiative to learn who to connect with to get their questions answered,” she says. “Besides just the instructors, they should become aware of the resources that the university has in place to help them, such as an online tutoring center, counseling services, career services and more.”

The instructional innovation team Dr. Murphy leads at UMass Global comprises nearly 40 people who work hard to support students, faculty and instructional designers alike. For example, if a student is struggling with one or more of the technological tools used in the virtual classroom, there are technology support services readily available to help walk students through everything.

There are also writing and math tutors who hold virtual office hours to assist online students who may be struggling in those areas. UMass Global even offers multimedia and design support to its distance learning students. According to Dr. Murphy,


We want to teach online students the different ways they can infuse their personality into their work.

He goes on to elaborate, saying that “Instead of simply instructing students to make a PowerPoint, we want to teach them about the handful of different ways they can present information, such as creating an infographic, a podcast, a videocast or something else.”

Are you ready for the online classroom? 

Now that you know a bit more about how online classes work, you should have a better idea of whether distance education is the right option for you. If the convenience and flexibility of distance learning appeal to you, it’s important to find a school with a proven track record of quality online instruction.

UMass Global has been a distance learning pioneer for more than 20 years. Learn more in our article “5 Ways UMass Global stands out as a leader in online education.


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