How Online Learning Works

What is Online Learning?

With the use of technology on the rise, online learning continues to develop into an accessible, practical education option. Students of all ages and education levels are learning through internet-based courses instead of face-to-face in a physical classroom. The many applications used in online learning programs — from learning management systems to videos — provide educational information to students at a distance. The chance for students with geographical barriers, jobs, personal commitments, and/or financial limitations to learn remotely is gaining footing in the realm of education.

This convenient and often inexpensive education route requires students to have a basic knowledge of computer and internet skills and be able to communicate effectively through writing. Due to the remote nature of online learning, students should also be independent and self-disciplined, as they’re often expected to manage their class schedule and meet deadlines without an in-person reminder from instructors.

In considering online learning options, it is important to note if the school is accredited, signifying that a school meets education standards set by a board or government. The U.S. Department of Education has a searchable database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs, which is a reliable way to check if certain online learning programs are sources of quality education. Reputable online education programs of all levels — from kindergarten through post-secondary education — can be valuable sources of learning that provide greater access to students in a more affordable way.

Online Learning for K-12


As many as 1 million children are already participating in K-12 online learning programs in the United States. The potential for online learning to reach more young students and provide them with academic courses that meet their specific needs paints a successful picture of the impact of online learning on the education system.

More and more school districts are offering distance learning options that include tutoring or blended-learning courses (a combination of online and in-person learning). Offering these online programs involves the support of local, state, and federal policymakers. Currently, 27 states offer statewide online courses.

K-12 students who can access these offerings are immediately provided more options to make school fit into their lives. In particular, students with families that frequently move or live far from school may view online learning programs as a rich resource. Those who have disabilities, injuries, or illnesses can also utilize online learning programs to stay caught up in school when unable to attend class in person. As a result, web-based education provides alternative opportunities to help K-12 learners from falling behind in school.

Online Learning for College Students


Online learning programs at the college level usually follow the same academic calendar as the institution facilitating the courses. Some classes are self-paced, while others adhere to a calendar that mirrors the schedule of an on-campus course and it’s corresponding assignments, deadlines, and exams. At the collegiate level, students have the opportunity to take online degree programs for credit at various institutions. Other online education opportunities include OpenCourseware, a web-based publication rich in content from college courses from universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With programs like OpenCourseware aiming to make educational resources available to people across the world, everyone has the chance to learn in a more affordable, flexible way. These online learning outlets often require students to watch videos, complete written assignments, and participate in discussions through learning management systems. No matter their location, students who have access to a computer and internet have the essentials to complete online learning courses. This allows those who frequently travel or cannot commute to class to continue their education, often times on a flexible schedule with discounted tuition rates.

Online Learning for Adults


After taking off years from school, returning to academia can be difficult for adults due to many reasons. From the hassle of commuting to campus for class on top of existing jobs and family obligations, to the stigma of being older in a college classroom, returning to school as an adult can appear impractical and burdensome. But, online education options eliminate these potential barriers and allow adults to complete their education in a way that meets them where they are and and as it best fits into their lives.

Taking online classes allows students to more easily prioritize their lives. With this flexibility comes ownership over managing and completing coursework on their own. Those with access to technology — namely, a computer and internet — as well as the self-motivation to incorporate online school into existing commitments is essential for all online learners, especially those balancing jobs, family, and finances. Adults stepping back into education through online programs often find the flexibility of an internet-based platform with a self-driven schedule to be the key to educational success in their current lives.


  1. Daryl Ortiz

    November 26, 2016 at 5:32 am

    It works perfectly. My dad (69) year old has learned many android programming language. he was curious how this work. Online learning sites helped him.

  2. Will Heikkinen

    November 28, 2016 at 11:48 pm

    Learning new things means Life long learning process.

  3. Virtual Pedagogue

    December 12, 2016 at 8:02 am

    It’s so helpful to come across this balanced, straightforward description of online education. One of the disadvantages of the fact that online ed has been around for awhile is that, too often, it’s assumed that people know the basics. This is a mistake I often make in my work and it’s nice to have this posting to point folks to. Thanks!

  4. Andre

    January 9, 2017 at 11:51 am

    For some professions, attending classes does not make any difference, for example, webdesigner, photographer, app programmer and so on. I know a lot of great professionals who never got a degree, they just studied by themselves through online courses and developed their skills. Online learning is the future of education!

  5. Madison

    February 26, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    I found this to be a very interesting article as I took my first completely online class as a junior in high school and my second as a sophomore in college, both of which were structured completely differently. While I did see the benefits of having a less structured learning environment and flexibility regarding when I would complete my weekly assignments, I really missed the physical component of interacting with a teacher and classmates. On that note, I think this is a wonderful idea for students who may be at home due to sickness/injury, college students who are living in more rural areas and looking for a more affordable way to earn a degree, or those with jobs/families that consume time during the day. In these cases, I love that online learning is an option despite my preference for a face-to-face classroom. With this in mind, I wonder how we could make online learning programs easily accessible and affordable to those across the nation and the world? I can see this as a major step towards the global education initiative. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, Joni!