Whether online students are entering college for the first time, or going back to school after a break in their education, there are many things they should know about online schools. This page serves as a glossary of important terms that can help students navigate the online college landscape and find an educational environment that suits their needs.

1. Synchronous courses

Synchronous courses help students stay in "sync" with one another by setting up a regular academic schedule. Students attend lectures and discussion sessions during a specific day and time, the same as they would if they were attending a brick-and-mortar school. In addition, these classes usually have scheduled due dates for tests and assignments. Lectures may be recorded, so students can listen to them again at a later time or get caught up if they missed a class session.

2. Asynchronous courses

Asynchronous courses are the opposite of synchronous courses; they give online students the flexibility to watch class lectures at their own convenience. Lectures for these courses may be available through videos posted on the school's learning management system or on CD-ROM. In some cases, students may be required to complete class assignments and tests on a scheduled date -- as they would with synchronous courses -- while other programs may be more self-paced.

3. Hybrid learning

Hybrid learning, which is also known as blended learning, is a course delivery strategy that combines online and traditional elements. The ratio of in-person to online activities varies depending on the degree program. For example, some programs may require students to complete the majority of their work online, but come to campus to participate in some face-to-face activities, while others may conduct courses with a 50/50 split.

4. Transfer agreements

Transfer agreements make it easier for transfer students to complete their degrees without taking duplicate classes. When colleges enter into these agreements, they determine together which of their courses are equivalent, so students who move from one school to the other can easily earn credit for them. If there is not an explicit agreement between schools, students can request to have their completed courses evaluated to determine if they are transferable.

5. Degree completion program

Degree completion programs, also known as 2+2 programs, are designed to help students complete a bachelor's degree. By enrolling in one of these programs, students who have completed an associate degree program -- or part of a bachelor's degree program -- have the opportunity to complete a bachelor's degree at an accelerated pace, based on the courses they have previously completed. Schools may structure their 2+2 programs in a way that allows students to have a single major or more than one major.

6. Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning allows students to earn their degree based on the skills they acquire, not the number of credit hours they complete. In these programs, students demonstrate their understanding of specific competencies outlined by their school, and are judged as having completed the program once they meet the standards set by the school. In order to prove mastery of the school's established competencies, students are required to complete performance assessments, which may be exams, papers, presentations or case studies.

7. Cohort

A cohort is a group of students in an online degree program that progress through the program at the same time. When students are in a cohort program, they learn as a group and are able to share their knowledge and skills with each other as they progress through their coursework. This helps students build strong bonds with each other that can last long after they have completed their degree programs.

8. Virtual learning management systems

Virtual learning management systems (sometimes abbreviated to LMS) are the hub where online courses live. Examples include Moodle, Canvas and Blackboard. An online college typically utilizes one of these systems to store the materials related to their online courses, including the syllabus, class lectures and discussion forums. Students can log into the LMS to access these materials, and they may also hand in assignments and/or communicate with their professors through these systems.

9. Continuing education

Continuing education describes courses that people take in order to upgrade their skills and knowledge -- whether they want to accomplish that for personal or professional reasons. For example, some professionals, like nurses, are required to complete continuing education classes to maintain their license. However, other people may take a continuing education class for personal benefits, such as learning a foreign language or a certain style of cooking.

10. Flipped learning

Flipped learning occurs when professors require students to watch lectures before the scheduled class time and then dedicate the session itself to other activities, such as discussions, projects and exercises. This strategy allows students to spend their class sessions interacting with professors and each other, with the goal of maximizing the use of class time to promote a deeper understanding of the course content.

11. Proctoring

Proctoring occurs when online students take exams in a neutral location that is authorized by their school. A person known as a "proxy" stays in the same room as the student, acting as a surrogate instructor and preventing students from having the opportunity to cheat. Students who are required to complete proctored exams may have to schedule time at the testing site in advance, though some places allow students to drop in instead.

12. Stackable credentials

Stackable credentials are credentials that can be "stacked" on top of each other in a smooth, understandable progression. For example, if a certificate program and an associate degree program are "stackable," it means that the two programs have been designed to complement one another. A student could complete the certificate program, then complete the associate degree program, with the certificate program having covered basic topics that the associate degree would then be able to build upon. This setup has many benefits for students; it can result in clearer, more understandable course progression, and it can cut down on the number of duplicate courses or concepts a student might encounter.

13. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are classes from colleges and universities that students can take online at no additional cost, whether they are enrolled at the school or not. In some cases, these classes are made available through the college directly, while other classes are posted on sites like edX, Udacity, and Udemy. Although students do not earn college credit from taking MOOCs, these courses can help students better understand other courses in their degree program or teach additional skills that may be of use later in life or in the workforce.

14. Gamification

Gamification occurs when elements of games are applied to an education context. These elements can include the rules of a particular game, the ability to score points and/or the introduction of a competition. This term can also refer to the direct use of video games in education. In either case, this strategy can help students become more engaged with course material, helping them to learn it more easily and make connections between different concepts.

15. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

A Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is the process that online students go through in order to earn college credits for their prior knowledge. During this process, students demonstrate how their work, military or volunteer experience is relevant to a degree program and the learning objectives of a specific course. To have past experience considered for college credits, students may be required to submit resumes, portfolios and/or narrative essays.

16. Virtual library

A virtual library is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of informative resources that are available to students via the virtual web of the Internet. These resources may include academic journals, newspapers, magazines and indexes. Virtual libraries put research at people's fingertips, allowing busy online students to access them at their convenience, rather than worrying about getting to a brick-and-mortar library and only viewing the resources they need for a limited time.

17. Webinar

A webinar is a seminar that is made available on the Internet. Webinars allow students to listen to the content being presented multiple times, as well as making accompanying documents more accessible, such as PowerPoint slides or Word files. In addition, webinar attendees may be able to communicate with the presenter through a text or voice chat feature. Depending on the specific webinar, people may be able to reaccess it after the presentation has ended as well.

18. Distance education

Simply put, distance education is any form of education that allows students to take courses without the need to regularly visit a college campus. Although the Internet has made distance learning through online education commonplace, it's not the only way students can engage in distance education. Correspondence courses, which allow students to complete classes by mail, are also distance education options, as are audio conferences, where students take classes that are made available by phone.

19. Accelerated learning

Accelerated learning helps online students earn their degrees faster. This can be especially beneficial to older students who are working a full-time job and taking care of personal responsibilities, but younger students who are looking to get their lives and careers started may find plenty of use for this style of learning as well. Accelerated degree programs allow students to move through course material in shorter sessions -- perhaps lasting five to ten weeks, or in rare occasions an even shorter time period -- so they can earn credits at a quicker pace than they might in more traditional programs.