Many schools plan to hold online classes this fall due to COVID-19. Staying open minded about online education can help you make the most of the upcoming term.

How to Prepare for Online Education in 2020-21


  • Nearly half of U.S. colleges plan to hold courses online in some capacity this fall.
  • Many schools intend to adopt a hybrid model, offering both in-person and online classes.
  • Students considering a transfer should look at accreditation and support services.
  • Tuition costs and academic goals are key factors students should prioritize.

Many colleges are spending the summer preparing for a new reality this fall: continued online education. The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of colleges' plans currently shows that a little less than half are planning for something other than an in-person semester. Of this group, most are considering a hybrid approach, which offers a combination of online and on-campus instruction.

As schools make decisions and announce their plans, two primary goals have emerged: Colleges want to keep students, faculty, and staff as safe and as healthy as possible, while also allowing students the opportunity to continue making progress toward their degrees. It's a tough balance at best, and no one has all the answers.

What will online classes be like in the fall? Should you rethink your plans for the semester? Find out what to expect as you weigh your options.

A woman in a white cardigan studies intently from her laptop computer, pencil in hand, as she sits at her dining room table.

Remote, Online, and Hybrid Learning Formats

Before the pandemic, many colleges already had some online presence, even if it was only a limited number of courses or programs. This includes rising online enrollments at large public universities. But not all schools had this experience to build upon.

Amid the unexpected and unavoidable circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, remote learning didn't always go well. Many students felt frustration as their classes made the transition.

Effective online classes focus on specific learning objectives, provide clear instructions, and offer opportunities to collaborate.

Shifting to a remote setup was a rushed reaction that led colleges to conduct a sort of triage so they could keep classes going in some form during the emergency. Since that time, however, a lot of lessons have been learned — and many institutions are applying these lessons to build more robust online learning experiences for students this fall.

Effective online courses take time to design and develop. College courses designed to be completely online possess the following qualities:

  • Focus on specific learning objectives
  • Provide clear instructions
  • Include opportunities to collaborate and communicate
  • Provide interactive and engaging activities and materials
  • Use technology to enhance the learning experience

The hybrid-learning approach, which incorporates both in-person and online components, is often said to offer "the best of both worlds." Hybrid courses are typically structured so that students can complete readings and online assignments on their own and participate in face-to-face meetings with their professor and classmates for discussions and collaborative activities.

This fall, many schools plan to adopt hybrid learning in order to reduce the number of people in classrooms and on campus. HyFlex and low-residency are two examples of hybrid models you may encounter. Colleges are structuring their classes and services in a variety of ways to achieve multiple goals, including a positive campus experience, social distancing, and flexibility.

Comparing Online Learning Opportunities

You'll need to be ready to embrace online education in some form as you prepare for the upcoming semester. Whether you decide to continue with the program you're already enrolled in or switch to an established online program — perhaps one that already exists at your school — you should do some research to help you make an informed decision.

Below are some key factors to consider as you compare online learning opportunities.

It may come as a surprise as you read through these considerations that "good" classes can be offered in person or online. That said, online courses do come with additional logistical considerations, as they require a reliable set of tools and technologies for students to be able to engage with their classmates, professors, and course materials.

Accreditation

The accreditation process is essentially the same for online and on-campus institutions. But why is accreditation important?

Whether a school is accredited or not affects your ability to receive financial aid, as well as how academic credit might transfer from one school to another. For traditional schools that also offer online courses and programs, distance education is part of the periodic evaluation by their accrediting body.

U.S. Department of Education waivers to the process for review and approval to offer distance education have been extended through the end of 2020, allowing institutions to rapidly develop and offer remote learning earlier this year.

Graduation and Retention Rates

An important factor in any college decision is how many students enroll and successfully progress in their programs to reach graduation. These rates are well documented for traditional schools, but not as easy to find for online institutions.

Try to search college websites for more details about their latest retention and graduation rates. Some schools may also provide this information for specific academic programs.

Faculty Experience and Qualifications

One of the most important relationships you'll develop in college is with your professors. These professionals can become helpful mentors as you navigate school and the transition to a career. Talented instructors also enhance the learning experience.

You can look at faculty bios on school and program websites to learn more about professors' teaching experience, both online and on campus, as well as their interests, research, and other activities related to the subjects they teach. If you're already working with a professor you admire, contact them for information about their fall classes.

Support Services

Colleges and universities across the country are working to get academic courses online, in addition to all of the services that support student success. Look for virtual options to attend orientations, seek academic advising, and consult career services.

Other helpful online services include writing and math centers, tutoring, disability services, libraries and research librarians, and physical and mental health services.

Social Activities

The typical college experience is more than just going to class. If you're concerned about the implications related to changes in the campus experience due to COVID-19, explore the ways your school and any other schools you're considering are preparing to connect you with other students outside of class.

Online student clubs and organizations have gained popularity in recent years. Southern New Hampshire University and Ashford University provide some examples of what kinds of online groups you might find at your own school, such as honor societies, professional associations, book clubs, and fitness groups.

Technical Guidance and Assistance

The tools and systems schools use can change, update, and periodically experience issues. Find out where you can turn to if you need support, such as online tutorials or a 24-hour help desk. Knowing that there are resources to assist with the technical side of online learning is important for both students new to online education and students with more experience.

Think about how and where you'll access your online courses. Most online classes are made available through a learning management system, like Blackboard, Canvas, or Sakai. Many of these platforms also offer apps for mobile access.

Class Schedules

Setting expectations about when you need to be in an online class is critical to your success as an online student.

Many online programs follow accelerated schedules that last 10, eight, or five weeks, instead of the usual 15-16 weeks.

Many online programs adhere to accelerated schedules, so you'll need to prepare yourself to complete classes in a condensed time frame. Instead of following a full 15- or 16-week semester, online courses often run for 10, eight, or even just five weeks. To help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many traditional colleges are considering shorter academic terms for their fall schedules as well.

This spring, professors relied heavily on web-conferencing programs like Zoom and WebEx — helpful tools that'll likely play a crucial role in your upcoming online classes. Our BestColleges 2019 survey found that even before the coronavirus outbreak, almost half (49%) of online students participated in real-time, virtual meetings in their online classes.

An Active Learning Approach

One of students' biggest complaints about the switch to online learning this year was the reliance on recorded lectures and tests. Well-designed online courses often use recordings and exams but also incorporate active learning strategies. Furthermore, they tend to include collaborative activities that revolve around problem-solving and reflection.

Finding evidence of active learning before you enroll in an online course is challenging but doable. Look online for copies of sample syllabi or request them directly. Sample online classes and course demos may also be available, particularly from some of the more established online programs.

You can check out some examples of course demos from Webster University, the University of Iowa, and Colorado State University Global. These demos include sample assignments and demonstrate how you'll communicate with your professor and classmates.You will also see how support services, such as the library and tech help, may be embedded in your own classes.

A landscape photograph of an empty college campus in the autumn; fallen leaves litter a brick path next to a forlorn bench.

What Will You Do This Fall?

Many students are trying to answer this question now. Some have decided to take a gap year or leave of absence, whereas others are thinking about switching to an established online program or school, or transferring to a community college closer to home. Some will simply continue with their current program.

Ultimately, what you should do in the fall is up to you. There are many variables to consider and what's right for you might not be right for all of your classmates. As you decide what your choice will be, understand that as the weeks and months go by, your plans will likely evolve.

  • Consider Costs

    Paying for a college education has never been easy. Right now there's a lot of push-back from students and parents. Many don't want to pay on-campus tuition rates for classes that will be held fully or partially online. Some schools are raising tuition, while others are maintaining last year's rates or lowering them. Research the tuition plans at the schools you're considering and ask what additional discounts or funding may be available.

  • Think About Transfer Credit

    You're never guaranteed which of your college credits will transfer or how. Ensuring the successful transfer of academic credit takes a lot of coordination in advance. If you're considering transferring credit to or from a specific program, connect with the school(s) to learn more about the process. Understand what you can realistically expect, especially as guidelines change due to the coronavirus.

  • Prioritize Your Goals

    Why do you want to go to college? What made you interested in pursuing your chosen degree or major? It can be helpful in uncertain and stressful times to return to your original goals for direction and clarity. Whether you're more focused on career preparation or the college experience, now is a good time to review and potentially reset your priorities.

  • Make No Assumptions

    Online institutions and traditional institutions with long histories of online programs may be able to provide more robust services to online learners at this time. Find out what your school is planning for the fall so that you can make a decision based on a realistic comparison of the available options.

  • Be Your Own Advocate

    All the items on this list require you to ask questions, research your options, and take an active role in gathering the information you need to make decisions about your future as a college student. Your initiative is required, even if it may be difficult when you get started. Be persistent.

With the fall term inching closer each day, you likely feel a lot of pressure to make the "right" decision. As you conduct your research, you might find several viable options are available. Try not to be overly focused on finding the "best" option — all will require at least some form of compromise.

Preparing to Be a Successful Online Student

As higher education moves toward technology-integrated learning experiences, it's important to understand the challenges and opportunities you'll have as a student. Online learning isn't ideal for everyone, and never has been. Many didn't envision being an online student when they first started thinking about college.

If you enroll in online courses this fall, understand that success will require specific skills and attitudes, including time management, self-motivation, and a willingness to participate.

Success in an online class requires time management, self-motivation, and a willingness to participate.

Additionally, your professors and programs know that this may be new to you and want you to succeed, so don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You might find that there are more resources available than you thought.

Never stop asking questions, and stay up to date with the latest developments, particularly as colleges continue to adjust their plans for the fall semester and beyond.