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Online classes are usually either synchronous or asynchronous. Some courses may be a combination of both. There are also blended courses for students who want a limited amount of on campus attendance but prefer to do the rest of their work online at home. Blended courses and synchronous courses are good choices for students who wish to have a transition path from on campus attendance to fully online study. There are also independent study courses, taken online, for students who prefer to work at their own pace, either faster than a traditionally-scheduled course or at a slower pace as best fits their own schedule.

Students have different preferences about which type of course they prefer. Let’s talk about how each type of course works.

Synchronous courses are those in which all students and the instructor are online at the same time. These usually include lecture, discussion, and sometimes group work. Students may text during the session or there may be video and audio components where students can see and hear each other during the session. There is a weekly schedule when students all meet together with the instructor. Attendance is usually counted just as if students were attending class on campus. The disadvantage of this type of course is that students must be available to meet online at a specific time every week. Sometimes these meetings are optional and are archived for viewing at a later time, but sometimes the meetings are mandatory and attendance counts in the weekly grade, just as attending class on campus counts in weekly grades.

Asynchronous courses are those in which students and instructor participate in a discussion board at various times during the week. Generally there is a discussion question and students are expected to write a substantive answer to the question and post by mid-week. By the end of the week, students are usually also required to post a substantive response to two or three classmates original posting. The basic answer/respond requirements vary at different schools. Some may require students to log in and participate in discussions two days a week while others may require logins four or five days each week. Asynchronous courses are the best choice for most students as these provide a weekly schedule that helps students meet time management challenges, yet allow for personal study scheduling during each weekly time frame.

Independent study courses are similar to asynchronous formats except that there are no discussion/participation requirements. There may be due dates or there may just be a time frame in which students must complete the course. Some independent study courses begin upon enrollment and then students have up to six months to complete the course. I’ve taken independent study courses in which the instructor wanted each unit of study submitted and graded before the next could be submitted. I’ve also taken independent study courses in which the instructor wanted all units of study submitted at the same time at the end of the course. Independent study courses are a good choice for students who are self-directed and do not need an instructor to keep them on track to complete a course. These types of courses are not a good choice for students who have scheduling or time management challenges.

Blended courses take place both on campus and online. Many colleges are using this format now. Students attend class on campus at the beginning of the course for an orientation and sometimes at the end of the course for the final exam. All other discussions and work are completed online in an asynchronous format. Sometimes there are optional class meetings on campus for students who wish to attend.

Students should think about what kind of course suits their study habits, time management challenges, and personal/business schedules when deciding what kind of online program would be suit their needs. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of online course and the choice ultimately comes down to individual needs.