How Do Online Classes Work?

November 14, 2017

As technology becomes more prevalent, online degree programs are increasingly common. While the appeal is clear -- advancing your career on your own schedule and getting your work done anytime, anywhere -- there’s still some hesitancy, even a stigma around online classes.

Are they as rigorous as traditional courses? Does an online degree hold the same weight?

The answer to all of the above: yes! Often, the hesitancy for online programs comes from the unknown. We’re familiar with earning degrees in person, but in fact, online programs are just as rigorous, and the name of the institution and the degree you earn is what carries the weight, not the means by which you earn it. If you’re still not fully convinced -- your transcript will not even indicate that your program was online!

If you’re considering a program that’s either hybrid or entirely online, you’re likely full of questions right now -- the most pressing probably being, How do online programs even work?

Here’s how online classes work and how to know if an online program is right for you.

Application Process

The application process for an online program is the same as any program application process. At Canisius, that means the typical graduate admissions process: completing the online application, submitting letters of recommendation, uploading undergraduate transcripts, and providing a personal statement. This process varies slightly depending on the degree you choose to pursue, but overall, the application process for online programs does not vary too much from the process for on-campus programs.


Orientation, like the application process, is comparable to traditional programs. Graduate Admissions provides a virtual orientation, familiarizing all graduate students with Canisius programs and services. Some graduate programs have their own orientation or an introductory phone call -- but again, that varies by program. 

Additionally, the Center for Online Learning & Innovation at Canisius has created an extensive guide to online programs to help students prepare and answer any questions, available here.

Course Structure

Online programs take place primarily on a learning management system. At Canisius, we use Desire2Learn (D2L), located right on your myCanisius portal. Some programs may require an in-person component, even if the program is online; for example, our Anthrozoology students start each semester with a four-day series of meetings and workshops on campus, and then complete the remainder of the semester entirely online.

Course structure within D2L depends on the course and the professor. At some universities, instructional designers put together the course within the learning management system, but at Canisius, our professors design their own courses. What’s that even mean?

It means the professors are proficient with the technology they’re using, and they create courses in the optimal way to present the material to you, the student. Our professors are trained in D2L and choose the means in which they believe their students will best succeed and learn the material. They’re not only equipped to handle your questions about the material, but your questions about the technology, too. Different approaches include webinars, calls, emails, and discussion boards, for example.

Online courses at Canisius are not self-paced, which means work is presented in modules. Students in self-paced courses at other universities can see all of the work for the entire semester at once and complete it whenever they wish throughout the entire semester -- meaning students aren’t very engaged. Our online programs create a weekly experience and help students form learning communities with each other, which isn’t likely in a self-paced course. Professors present work in modules, and students complete work within allotted timeframes outlined by their instructor. 

Even if the program is entirely online, the professor is actively involved, facilitating the course. Some of our online professors teach on campus, too, and all professors work diligently to ensure that online students receive just as rigorous an education.

Is an online program right for you?

An obvious perk of online classes is their convenience. You can complete the work from your kitchen table, your favorite coffee shop, or even your bed! You aren’t required to drive to class at a scheduled time each week and spend three hours sitting in a classroom -- and you aren’t even required to live in the same city as the college you’re attending. Online classes are ideal for people who desire flexibility with their career advancement.

However, keeping up with the work does require a level of discipline. Good time management skills, written communication skills, and computer/technological skills are key to succeeding in an online program. Often, the students who thrive most in online courses are professionals. 

Have you heard that old saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”? 

It’s applicable to online learning. While online courses allow flexibility, they still require time; after all, regardless of whether the program is online or in person, it’s still graduate school. Professionals, despite having less free time, tend to be the most successful in online programs. Why? They’re motivated, and they value their time. They have structure in their lives, and they value the opportunity to advance their careers and earn their degrees.

Canisius offers 12 unique online programs and five online certificates. Currently, we have around 400 students around the world enrolled in our online programs, and according to, Canisius ranks #5 of the top 150 colleges and universities in New York State for online learning.

If you’re interested in pursuing an online degree program, visit our Graduate Admissions page to connect with our Graduate Admissions staff.