The digital classroom
a complete guide to remote online study

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An introduction to remote learning

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Deciding what’s right for you

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The importance of a good learning environment

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An introduction to remote learning

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Has your studying moved online because of COVID-19? Are you looking to study courses that offer remote learning? The digital classroom is a great place to learn. Interest has shot up recently because of the pandemic, but it’s always offered students a greater level of flexibility.

However, you do have to learn how to prioritize your studying. In this guide, as well as looking at which colleges offer online learning, we explore the importance of a good working environment and how to embrace the right learning style at home.

The rise of online study options

Long gone are the days where you had to be sat at a desk in a classroom to learn. If lecture halls aren’t right for you, then there’s the option to study remotely. This means you won’t meet your teachers or fellow students in a traditional classroom setting. Instead, all learning will be done online.

It means you can study in a more flexible way, and this has proved popular among many students. But how remote learning is implemented does vary. Most courses will be structured in a way that best suits the curriculum and professor’s teaching style.

Teaching can be delivered synchronously or asynchronously:

Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning

The teacher, lecturer or professor is engaged with students in a specified time frame – during which everyone should be present. This type of virtual learning allows students to learn, participate and ask any questions in real time.

Synchronous learning

Asynchronous learning

This refers to any learning which relies on course material which can be read, viewed or watched at any time. For example, a presentation narrated by the teacher but watched by students at all different times.

However the teaching is delivered, students can learn from wherever they are. This is one of the greatest appeals of online learning. It can fit in with your lifestyle.

Online learning can refer to platforms such as Udemy, Coursera, Lynda, Skillshare, or Udacity that deliver a huge variety of courses to millions of people. But universities – including top tier ones such as Stanford University and Harvard University – are also making their courses accessible online. It’s a huge catalyst for learning.

It’s also a huge market opportunity. Before the pandemic, Research and Markets forecasted that the online education market would be worth $350 billion by 2025. And according to data published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2019, 34.7% of all enrolled college students in the US took at least one online course in 2018. That was a 1.6% rise on the previous year.

Students also have more choice than ever. Around 76% of degree-granting institutions offered online degree courses in 2016-17, compared to 70% in 2012, according to an American Enterprise Institution report. This number is predicted to continue growing.


Offered online degree courses in 2012


Offered online degree courses in 2016-17

Arguably, higher education has been slow to adopt a more digitally-focused business model. But there’s a good reason for this. For a long time it was restricted by the “50 percent rule” of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1992. It prevented learning institutions from accessing federal funding if they offered predominantly or exclusively distance education programs – in other words, courses which are taught remotely. Across an institution, if more than 50% of their courses (or 50% of their students) were distance learning, then the whole college and every student wouldn’t be eligible for federal student aid programs. This included Pell Grants, subsidized loans, and work-study funding.

Fortunately, the HEA was amended in 1998 to allow the Distance Education Demonstration Program (DEDP) to grant colleges waivers from the 50 percent rule. It was later amended again to discontinue the 50 percent rule in 2006.

Now higher education institutions can generally offer online courses unrestricted by state or federal policies. And by 2030, technology is predicted to reshape the university experience – with 63% of leaders of prominent global universities expecting to offer full degrees online by 2030. What’s more, this data was collected before the coronavirus pandemic encouraged many industries to provide remote offerings more quickly than they had planned to.

Student with mask and books

The impact of COVID-19 on student learning

Coronavirus has affected every aspect of life – including education. Classes moved online, football games were canceled and ceremonies held virtually. Although all colleges have taken different steps to control the virus on their campuses, one thing remains the same across all. Students – who are already juggling the pressures of studying – are feeling anxious.

=In a recent survey by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), which asked 3,500 full-time students currently enrolled in four-year degree programs, the vast majority of college students were experiencing anxiety regarding the coronavirus pandemic:


described feeling very anxious


described feeling somewhat anxious


described feeling slightly anxious


said they were not anxious


were unsure

The main takeaway here is students, not surprisingly, have been challenged by these last seven months, […] It’s also highlighted the challenge that students have had in adjusting to either an entirely online or hybrid environment.

NASPA CEO Kevin Kruger told CNBC Make It that remote learning is a significant cause of elevated stress levels this year. [reported in Nov 2020]

Indeed, coronavirus threw us in at the deep end. The unplanned and rapid need to move to online learning will no doubt have had some effect on user experience. Institutions have been relying on video conferencing platforms, online learning software (such as Canvas, Blackboard or Google Classroom), and other apps or online tools they might not have had experience with before.

With no training or preparation, the rapid move to online learning is unlikely to be the roll-out anyone would’ve wanted. Indeed, struggling to stay engaged with online learning was one of the largest student concerns from the NASPA survey. Whether it’s colleges lacking the tools and training or students without the technology or self-discipline, no one could have anticipated the stresses of learning that started in 2020.

Percentage of students 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% Staying engaged while learning online My mental well-being Making friends/maintaining relationships Catching COVID-19 Your personal finance situation Getting a job after graduation The economy Social/physical distancing on campus Graduating on time Balancing child care/schooling Other None of the above 0 Students taking just remote class Students taking both remote and in-person

Source: CNBC

However, very few colleges and universities were doing absolutely nothing with online education before the pandemic. And students did get a variety of learning opportunities, according to Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic. These included live sessions and lectures, as well as group projects and personal messages. It’s just important to remember that unexpected current teaching efforts of colleges don’t always resemble high quality online learning programs. They are high-input operations which take time and investment to run.

Instructional Practices Students Instructors
2 Year 4 Year 2 Year
Live sessions for asking questions/participating in discussions 59% 71% 67%
Real-world examples 64% 67% 49%
Recorded lectures 54% 69% 55%
Frequent quizzes 72% 60% 53%
Live lectures by the instructor with students watching 56% 62% 44%
Videos from external sources 57% 53% 59%
Personal messages from the instructor 66% 49% 79%
Assignments having you express what you had learned 54% 46% 45%
Breaking course activities up into shorter pieces 40% 32% 34%
Group projects 25% 37% 22%
Breakout groups during a live class 24% 25% -

Source: Inside Higher Ed

As we move forward, we can start to make sustainable changes to ensure online learning is a feasible option – either temporarily for those who wish to return to campus when it’s safe to do so, or for the longer term for students who prefer remote learning. According to Kruger, the impacts of coronavirus on the education sector will be felt for some time.

In the new world going forward, we’re not going to go back to what it was like before. That probably means that collegiate education will be more hybrid than it was before the pandemic,

NASPA CEO Kevin Kruger, Nov 2020

So what are the main options?

Synchronous learning

Online courses from physical institutions

More and more campus-based institutions are offering online courses. You could complete a course fully online, or just opt for some online courses.

Synchronous learning

Online courses from remote learning institutions

You will find courses available from dedicated remote learning businesses. They have no campuses.

Synchronous learning

Hybrid or blended learning

Hybrid courses mix online curriculums with offline experiences. The online experience is a complement to face-to-face learning – not a replacement.

Within the industry, there is definite enthusiasm for blended learning to reap the benefits of both face-to-face interactions and online flexibility.

Whether you’re interested in online-only or a hybrid approach to learning, there are exciting things to come. For some time the go-to approach for online courses relied on video conferencing. But, in a market that’s now worth billions of dollars, powerful new platforms and technologies keep springing up.

There’s the potential to make use of cloud computing, enormous datasets, and artificial intelligence. Platforms such as Coursera and EdX offer adaptive content, massively open online courses (MOOCs) and use machine learning to automatically grade assignments.

Like any commercial business, colleges and universities have the opportunity to use technology to support students further – for example, using AI-based chatbots to answer questions when teachers may be unavailable, or using pattern recognition to provide important reminders on course enrollment and assignment deadlines. It’s likely we’ll see technology-driven disruption in the education sector for some time to come. According to the latest data from the US Department of Education, reported in a Harvard Business Review titled ‘The Pandemic Pushed Universities Online. The Change Was Long Overdue’, 2,500 colleges offer online programs, but the 100 largest players have nearly 50% of student enrollment. It’s big business and online students will reap the benefits.

Deciding what’s right for you

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It’s never easy to make big decisions about your education. Deciding whether to go to college, whether to study remotely, what college to choose and what courses to take are all big decisions. Having more options doesn’t always make things easier.

Remote learning – where teaching is done using tools such as discussion boards, video conferencing, and virtual assessments – does attempt to recreate a classroom environment, but it is a different experience. You need to work out if it delivers what you’re looking for from a college experience. You’ve got the best chance of success if you know what online learning entails before enrolling in a course.

The pros and cons of remote learning


It’s flexible

As a student, you can usually engage with your classes at a time when it’s most convenient for you. Even if there are set times for some classes, there’s no need to commute – saving you time and money. You can also plan when to work on your assignments and revision.

It can be more affordable

Once set up, online courses can be cheaper to run so savings are passed on to remote students. For example, Harvard Business Review calls the University of Illinois “forward-thinking” for using technology to reduce faculty labor to scale programs to thousands of students. The result? The end of their traditional residential degree offering and a new online course costing $22,000 for an entire M.B.A.

You could retain more information

Ever left a classroom and wondered what you had learned at the start of the class? Interestingly, research from the Research Institute of America>shows that students can retain between 25% and 60% of material when learning online. The information retention rates for face-to-face learning are only around 8-10%. It’s largely down to remote students having more control over the learning process and the opportunity to revisit the material.

It could be quicker to learn

You also have the opportunity to retain more information simply because it’s quicker to learn online. Because remote students can engage with the work at their own pace – re-reading some material, skipping other bits, or accelerating through – it can take around 40-60% less time to learn when compared to a traditional classroom, according to eLearning Industry data. The control over the pace of learning also equalizes different learners.

You still have fellow classmates

Some remote students worry about the lack of social interaction. But, typically, you’ll still have opportunities to learn together. For example, Yeung Yau-Yuen, an expert in IT and science education at the Education University of Hong Kong, says “there’s a sense of spirit, of enthusiasm, when you’re all together, even if on a screen. When you’re just learning online by yourself, it’s hard. You need learning companions. It’s good to see other students asking questions.”

Learning is accessible for international students

You could attend courses run by universities in other countries, and students from other countries can join remote classes from US universities. Although this already happens at colleges and universities around the world, it’s easier and cheaper when done virtually. It also provides access to courses that can’t be found locally.


Connectivity issues

In 2019, The International Telecommunications Union found that while 97% of the world’s population live in areas with some internet availability, either mobile or wired, only 53.6% are connected. Does this mean online remote learning leaves out some potential students? Eliminating these problems and creating greater access to online learning relies on both universities and governments.

Technology can be fickle

Even if you have a connection, the internet and technology in general isn’t always reliable. You will need a laptop or computer, which will be an upfront investment in your education, and things could still go wrong. WiFi can drop out, computers can freeze, and teachers can disconnect. Technological difficulties and disruptions are common challenges for remote learners.

A lack of social interaction

For many students, a huge part of the college experience is the social aspect. Meeting new people, living away from home, going to parties, joining clubs and so on. It’s hard to recreate this online. The social aspect of college is also credited with offering students a chance for personal growth too – improving confidence and developing emotional intelligence. These are key social skills needed for the working world.

Harder to maintain student accountability

Remote learning primarily takes place on a computer, where it can be surprisingly easy to get distracted. You have to hold yourself accountable for keeping up with the workload, meeting deadlines, and maintaining a good standard of work. Avoiding the temptations of endless distractions is a skill remote learners need to learn early on.

Student at a laptop

Is it right for you?

There are plenty of benefits of remote online learning, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. After all, everyone starts studying wanting to succeed. But it takes a lot of effort to pass courses or get a degree. You’ve got to put the work in. Do you think remote learning would get the best out of you? According to Minnesota State University, to be an effective home learner you need to be:

Computer literate

You need to be able to use a computer to successfully complete an online course. Being able to use software such as email or Microsoft Word, as well as using internet browsers, is essential. You should also be able to manage your computer well, keeping it up-to-date and downloading virus protection.

A self-motivated and independent learner

With the extra flexibility of an online course comes the need to be self-disciplined. Some students need the face-to-face interaction with a teacher and peers to keep them on track, which would make them unsuitable for remote learning. But if you work well on your own and can keep motivation levels up throughout the class schedule and course deadlines, then it’s suitable for you.

An active learner

You’re in control of your learning process. When you don’t understand a concept or are having trouble keeping up, you have to ask questions and seek out additional support. Otherwise no one will be aware if there’s a problem.

Have strong reading and writing skills

Online courses often rely on text-based material. Your assignments will be mainly written too, making reading and writing skills important to any online college course. You must feel comfortable reading through textbooks and expressing yourself in writing.


You need to have the time (and time management skills) necessary to complete the course. Remote courses aren’t necessarily shorter. They require the same time commitment and you still need to show up and participate.

The three main questions you need to ask yourself are:

Do you have the self-discipline to study?

You have to be committed and determined in order to study alone at home most days. There won’t be people reminding you to log on or walking with you to campus. You have to motivate and discipline yourself in order to keep up.

Will you miss the college experience?

If you want to go to college to also experience the social side, online learning might not be the right choice. Although you will still meet your classmates and make friends, it isn’t the same as spending lots of time on campus and living nearby.

Is your course suitable for online learning?

Finally, not all courses are suitable for remote online learning. The requirements of some degree courses mean you need in-person learning opportunities. Always check what courses are available for your area of interest.

Sometimes it can help knowing why other students choose an online course over on-campus learning. When asked, online students in the US in 2019 said they opted for online learning for these reasons:

Reason % of respondents
Existing commitments do not allow for attendance in campus-based courses 52
Employer incentive or partnership 22
Online learning was the only way to pursue the field of interest 17
Reputation of a specific school 5
Other 5

It does seem that the flexibility of online learning is a huge driving force. It means learning can work around your other commitments – for example, people can choose to study alongside employment, or parents might return to education after having children. Indeed, many employers back further study by providing incentives for employees to gain more qualifications.

Examples of online college options

Across colleges and universities, there’s a wide variation in the degree to which online courses are central to an institution’s strategic planning. That will influence how much investment they put into remote learning – so it’s important to identify colleges prioritising the online learning experience.

When students were asked what the most important factors were in deciding which school to choose for an online program, they responded:

Percentage of students 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% Affordability Reputation of the school / program The school awarded academic credit for my work / life experience Offered quickest path to a degree I can take both online and on-campus courses during my program Proximity to where I live or work Quality of faculty Had favourable admissions requirements Recommendation from people I respect The school’s mission / values align with my values Familiarity with the school Positive interactions with staff during search process My employer had a relationship with the school Alumni achievements Something else 0

Source: Statista

Of course, you’ll have your own ideas about what is important to you when choosing a college or course. But it does help to know where to start with some of the best colleges offering online courses:

Online Master’s

Data from the QS Rankings 2020 list (restricted to US colleges which offer fully online Master’s degrees)

Online Bachelor’s

Data from the U.S. News 2020 list (restricted to ones which offer fully online Bachelor’s degrees)

1Johns Hopkins University 1Arizona State University
2Northwestern University 2Oregon State University
3University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) 3University of Florida
4New York University 4Colorado State University
5University of Texas at Austin 5University of North Carolina Wilmington
6Georgia Institute of Technology 6University of Oklahoma
7Boston University 7Colorado State University
8The Ohio State University 8Washington State University
9University of Maryland 9University of Massachusetts Lowell
10University of Pittsburgh 10Pace University

Source: studyportals

The importance of a good learning environment

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Choosing the right college and course is just the first step. Once you become a student learning remotely, you need to embrace the reality of online education.

Although it varies, remote learning shouldn’t be too dissimilar from the classroom environment. It’s likely you’ll follow some kind of structure which requires you to log on daily to listen to lectures, participate in group activities or complete your assignments. You may be required to log a certain amount of time online. You’ll work within a learning management system where your teachers can share information and you can submit work. You should be able to contact your teachers and other classmates. And most courses will use video conferencing tools to maintain that personal connection.

Before you sign up to any online course, make sure you find out what systems and resources are available to remote students. And ask about your obligations as a student too. It can take a while to familiarize yourself with the software you need to use, so it’s good to be clear about what’s required of you from the start.

To summarize, the structure of remote learning is pretty straightforward. You’ll regularly log on, attend virtual classes, complete work and get assessed. But it all revolves around your home learning environment – so you need to get the setup right.

Student studying at home

Getting the right setup at home

Your home is where you live, relax, and spend time with family and friends. You might spend time watching movies in your living room or having a lie-in at the weekends in your bedroom. Perhaps you enjoy a cup of coffee with friends in the kitchen.

But when you then need to study from home, you not only need to find the right space to work from, you also need to make sure there’s a divide between the time you spend studying and when you can relax. After all, you should still be able to enjoy downtime in your home.

To create a good working environment at home, consider the following:

A designated space

The ideal workspace will be dedicated to studying. Not everyone will have an entire room to study, but you can still create a space that’s well-lit, comfortable and used mainly for studying.

No distractions

Ideally, you’ll have a study zone that’s away from any interruptions or distractions. This is particularly important if you have young children. Everyone in the house should know when you are studying. An interruption when you’re revising can be frustrating, but on a live video lecture it could be quite embarrassing.

A good desk and chair

You could be studying for years. You’ll sit at your desk for hours at a time. So make sure it’s a comfortable place to be. For the ideal setup, your eyes should be in line with the screen, your arms should be at a 90 degree angle and your feet should rest comfortably on the floor. You could also consider:

  • Setting up by the window to get some light
  • Investing in a standing desk
  • Using a keyboard and a mouse for the best position
  • Getting up regularly

Good internet connection

If you know you don’t have a reliable connection at home, consider changing providers or upgrading your deal. You can also buy boosters to increase the connection across parts of your house. A decent internet connection is essential for your working environment. It can be very stressful and frustrating to lose connection – especially if you’re on a live lesson or if you’ve forgotten to save your work.

The right technology

Once you know which course you’re taking, find out which online learning tools and software you’ll need to install. You might also want to consider investing in a webcam, headphones, a printer and any software which may support your studies. For example, note-taking software or tools for easy bibliographies.

Student studying with food

Creating a routine

One of the biggest challenges of remote learning is the need to motivate and discipline yourself to get the work done. The easiest thing to do is create a routine – and hold yourself accountable. Although teachers or lecturers may provide some warnings if you start to fall behind or miss a deadline, higher education tends to place the responsibility on the student to keep up.

Being strict with a daily routine means you should be consistently making progress – even when it might not feel like it. You could even keep a diary or record of what you’ve completed to reflect on. And with a longer term schedule, you shouldn’t have to worry about completing assignments last minute. You can plan what’s necessary into your daily routines.

When making the commitment to a daily routine, don’t forget about the mundane tasks you have to do. Even these can become a way to procrastinate. If you really struggle with time management, you may want to consider scheduling the following:

Times to get up and go to bed

Sleep is so important. Without enough of it, it can be hard to concentrate on your work. Tips for getting a good night’s sleep include going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, avoidings screens an hour or two before bed, and exercising earlier in the day.

Time to get ready

Sitting around in your pyjamas might be tempting, but it doesn’t feel great. Make sure you give yourself time to have a shower and get dressed for the day – even if it is sat in front of a laptop.

Time to eat

It might sound silly, but some people do need a reminder to make time to eat – or more importantly, to plan and prepare meals. Try and strike a balance between having healthy tasty meals to look forward to and meals which can be easily prepared – perhaps even in advance.

Time to have breaks

You can’t study efficiently without some breaks. Your brain needs it. Try not to eat your lunch in front of your computer. Instead, use it as an opportunity for a longer break in the day.

Time to exercise

Exercise is important for both our physical and mental wellbeing. Not only will you need the exercise after sitting down for most of the day, but once the endorphins start flowing you’ll feel better too.

Time to switch off

When studying from home, you need to create a clear divide between your time learning and your time to relax. It can be a struggle to switch off when your laptop is close by. So make sure you don’t keep checking your emails or returning to your books when you’re finished for the day.

Without a doubt, a routine will help you progress through your course.

Student in front of computer

Overcoming common challenges of remote learning

However you choose to learn, you’ll come across some challenges. The sections above should have helped set you up for success, but don’t expect an online college course to be easy. If you’re struggling with the workload, you’re not alone. At the end of 2020, 21% of students from one survey said keeping up academically was their biggest challenge.

Stress, anxiety and loneliness were the top challenges for most students. Without a doubt, the problems are sadly linked. If you’re anxious or stressed, it’s harder to keep up – and if you’re falling behind, it’s likely to make you feel isolated or worried. It’s important to do something about it:

Be proactive

Try not to wait until things get too much before you act. If possible, learn to recognize your personal warning signs and take action sooner rather than later.

Talk to your teachers or lecturers

One of the best things about remote learning is the flexibility. But sometimes you can have too much freedom. For a successful remote learning experience, it’s essential to communicate with your teachers and set clear expectations. Make sure you know what’s expected of you and reach out to them if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Improve your time management skills

Did you know that 87% of students say that better time management and organization skills would help them get better grades? Learning how to manage your time and prioritize tasks is a huge advantage if you want to get things done on time. Further results from the same study highlight key problem areas for students


Of students manage their contacts, assignments and deadlines by handwriting on a personal calendar


Of students do not use a single system (software usage or handwriting) to manage all their contacts, assignments, lecture notes and research


Keep track of schoolwork and to-do items in their head, by memory


Only of students organize their research and lecture notes using database software.


Email is the most common way that students exchange course-related information

Although organization and time management strategies are somewhat personal, and it’s a case of finding what works best for you, it’s important not to try and keep it all in your head. Keep some record of all your course-related information.

Connect with your classmates

Online learning doesn’t allow the same natural opportunity for conversation as you’d get wandering around a campus. Socialising needs to be more intentional. You can create opportunities with your classmates for revision or study groups, as well as starting to get to know each other and make friendships. It’s an important part of learning which can help you through shared challenges.

Increase collaboration

As well as getting to know your classmates better, you should also look for chances to collaborate and share best practices. Not only will it cultivate a sense of camaraderie, but everyone finds different topics difficult. One week you might be helping a classmate through a concept and the next they can support you in return.

Opt for a change of scenery

Fed up of the same four walls? It’s a simple suggestion, but sometimes you just need to get away from your usual surroundings to feel inspired again. You could choose to study elsewhere for the day – head to a cafe or library, for example.

Signs of stress

Despite your best efforts, sometimes juggling studying can get too much. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s important to look after yourself. Signs of stress can be varied, but if you start to experience physical effects of stress, emotional reactions or stress-related behaviors, it’s time to make some changes.

Physical effects of stress Emotional reactions to stress Stress-associated behaviors
Sweating Anger Food cravings and eating too much or too little
Pain in the back or chest Burnout Sudden angry outbursts
Cramps or muscle spasms Concentration issues Alcohol and drug misuse
Fainting Fatigue Higher tobacco consumption
Headaches A feeling of insecurity Social withdrawal
Nervous twitches Forgetfulness Frequent crying
Pins and needles sensation Irritability Relationship problems
Nail biting

Source: Medical News Today

One of the best things you can do if you’re experiencing stress is to lean on the support available from your college. Remote learners should get the same access to any support as on-campus students. Talking to the right people early on helps to make sure that problems don’t escalate.

Most student support services will be able to offer professional advice, mental health support and counseling services. They can help you stay on track even if you’re struggling.