The boom in online degree programs, from associate’s degrees all the way through master’s and doctoral programs, generally has been a significant boon to students: These programs allow for nontraditional students to work at either a traditional or accelerated pace, proceeding through lessons at a time that works for them without being deterred by family or work obligations. Despite the many benefits of these programs, they suffer from a pretty big misconception. Because they’re online and require no traditional classroom attendance or interaction, many people assume that they’re easier to complete and that the degree itself requires less hard work. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Online Programs Come with a Healthy Amount of Accountability

Take a look at any U.S. News and World Report ranking of today’s best online programs, and it’s clear that today’s online students are working just as hard as their offline peers. They even earn the same prestigious degrees, with master’s degree programs from a wide range of major state universities, Ivy League institutions, and everything in between. The way this works is simple: Students are given rigorous assignments, strict deadlines, and firm commitments that require class discussion, professor interaction, and general socialization throughout the course. Here’s a look at the basics:

Discussion Posts

Many online courses require students to engage in an effective substitute for classroom discussion, termed the “discussion post.” Professors make this post online, on a subject of their choosing, that relates to the text. Students provide an initial response to the prompt, and others can offer their take on each student’s response. The result is an online discussion forum for the course’s main topics, similar to any community forum found outside the academic setting. Students who miss this assignment do lose out on points, similar to how they would suffer if they did not enrich the discussion of a traditional classroom.

Strict Deadlines

Professors may be teaching nontraditional students, but they enforce very traditional syllabi, assignments, and deadlines for the entire class. Since everything online can be strict controlled by timers, scripts, and upload forms, students are given a date and time to submit each assignment due. If they miss out on turning in their paper or other assignment, they’ll suffer the same consequences as students in traditional classrooms. Lost points, or incomplete courses, can certainly result.

Videoconferencing Meetings

Students in some online programs actually have to schedule “presentations” and work within a group to present their ideas to a professor. This is all done by web-based videoconferencing solutions, and it presents a great substitute for presenting a project to the entire class in an offline program. Students who don’t contribute to the group, or those who don’t take part in the presentation, will see their grades suffer as a result.

Academic Rigor is the Same Across All Degree Programs

Online degree programs are offered by community colleges, public university, and Ivy League schools. They’re all designed to be an effective, online recreation of the classroom environment. That means group projects, individual papers and exams, and strict enforcement of deadlines for each. Students are put to the test, and only those who work hard throughout the program are awarded the master’s degree they seek.