Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tips for Being a Successful Online Learner

Online classes can be pretty different from face-to-face or even hybrid/blended classes. I strongly prefer online classes over face-to-face classes due to flexibility and because I don't learn well from lectures (not that all face-to-face classes are lectures anymore). I've completed around 70 graduate credits online, so I thought I'd share some tips from my experience and the research on online learning as well.

Time Management 

Probably the biggest tip I have is about managing your time. It can be very easy to put off an online course and work at the last minute. I get it - I'm a huge procrastinator by nature. However, I learned that being a huge procrastinator and a successful online student don't go together well. First of all, technology problems can occur or you might get sick, and these excuses don't always fly in a class you can take from home, especially if you can work ahead.  

You may also have questions about the assignment and you can't expect an instantaneous reply from your instructor. I like to at least get a good start on an assignment ahead of time to make sure I understand it and start mulling it over. My goal is to finish an assignment at least a day before it is due. 

I basically schedule myself to work on my classes like I would a meeting or appointment. Then my husband knows I am uninterruptible and I schedule other activities around that chunk of time. I find I work best in the am, so I try to get started around 9. If I miss that timeframe and end up working late in the afternoon, things take twice as long because I just can't concentrate as well. Maybe you work best in the late evening, so work then. That's the beauty of online learning. 

Maybe you're distracted by your phone or social networking. There are actually apps like Anti-Social that block Facebook and other sites for you! You usually have to restart your computer to get around them once enabled.

Use Otherwise Wasted Time 


I would be interested to know how much of my education has occurred in a car! My family lives around 2 hours away, so I usually take advantage of that time to do school work. My phone can be turned into a hot spot so I can get internet on the road as long as I have a signal. Thankfully my husband usually prefers to drive. So whenever you have time like this, where you can be doing something else, make use of it! 

Find Your Place

Working on an online course at home is fantastic because it's so convenient, but it's also very easy to get distracted. Sometimes fun things come up at the last minute and it's difficult to say no, which is a good reason to work ahead. (Also, sometimes not fun things come up and you now will have an excuse that people cannot argue with! Use it!)

It may also help to leave home and work somewhere else, like a coffee shop or library to appear less available to your family or roommates. If it's nice out, maybe you could work at a picnic table in a park. You might be able to work at a local university or college, even if you don't attend there - just make sure they have guest wireless or you have a hotspot if you need internet. I converted a spare room into an office, so at least I'm not working out in the kitchen, exposed to all the goings-on of the household.

Technology Tips 

It's best to use a reliable computer (Mac or Windows) or a Windows tablet like the Surface to do your school work rather than an iPad or Android tablet or a smart phone. These other devices may not have all the functionality you need to complete a course. 

Make sure to have at least two different browsers on your computer because the easiest fix to a technology problem is just using a different browser. I recommend having both Google Chrome and Firefox in addition to the default browser (Safari on a Mac or Internet Explorer on Windows). 

Remember to just restart your computer if it is acting funny and your problem is not fixed by trying another browser. 

Also, if you're not sure how to do something technologically, just Google it or look it up on YouTube and it is highly likely you'll find some information that will point you in the right direction. Remember you can call or email the Help Desk if you're a UWEC student (helpdesk@uwec.edu or 715-836-5711). 

Taking a screenshot when you have a problem is a good idea so that your instructor or the technology person helping you can see exactly what is going on. Here is a video showing how to take a screenshot on Windows 7 and here's one for Mac users.

  Reading, Writing, and Working Independently are Typical

Although it is becoming more common to include videos, movies, and live meetings into online courses, there is usually still a lot of independent reading and writing. For instance, online discussions are usually written. In a face-to-face class, your instructor may go through a lot of the textbook material or course concepts in a lecture, but that is less likely in an online course and you will often be required to read the textbook or other materials to learn the content. If you are a person who really needs synchronous back and forth communication, you may be dissatisfied with an online course. However, if you are a person who is pretty good at working independently, reads quickly, writes well, and prefers time to reflect or digest information, you will probably like online learning. 

We don't want this.
I'm not saying you need all of these characteristics to do well in an online class; it's certainly possible for people to learn in less than ideal circumstances. However, it is something to be aware of if you have the option to take a course face-to-face instead. I personally have found that if I am naturally inclined toward a topic, I can learn really efficiently and effectively online, but in a dreaded statistics class I took recently, I wanted a human! I wanted to hear that material explained a few different ways, to ask questions, and to be able to work on it with the instructor and others nearby so I could get help right when I needed it. My instructor provided good feedback and she answered my questions, but I always had to email her and wait for a response. The key here is that I still learned a lot and got an A; it just wasn't ideal. (This was actually the first time I would have preferred a face-to-face setting in all of my credits taken online!)

On a related note, make sure to read instructions really well in online courses. On multiple occasions, I've emailed my instructor and then realized I actually did have the info I needed. I've worked with many online instructors who are frustrated that students don't read the materials provided and just ask whenever they have a question. However, if you have confirmed you don't have the information needed or you don't understand, definitely ask - your instructor has no idea if you are confused or not. 

It's likely we've all experienced difficulty communicating in writing, whether it's email, social media, texting, etc. I read a study that found it takes 17 times longer to communicate in writing vs verbally. It's easy to misunderstand people or come across abruptly without visual cues and immediate verbal elaboration. Make sure to read over what you write to ensure you are communicating as you intend. My advice is to lean toward giving people the benefit of the doubt and try to be positive. Don't go overboard with the emoticons, but an exclamation point here and there and conversational language can make you seem friendly. I have actually connected with other students better in some of my online classes than I have in some face-to-face classes, so it's certainly possible.

Get the Support of Family and Friends 

I've kind of alluded to this, but research backs up the importance of support from friends and family to be a successful online student. This probably applies more to people who are completing entire degree programs online than a course here and there, but still it's helpful to emphasize to the people around you that this is important and you would appreciate it if they could help you in whatever ways you need it - making supper, walking the dog, keeping it quiet, leaving you alone, or just being supportive. During my dreaded statistics course, I asked my husband to just pat me on the back periodically and tell me this will be over soon and it will all be worth it when I finish my degree :) It actually did help! 

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