Challenge Your Online Learning Expectations

It’s the middle of the night. You sit alone, confused with only the cold, harsh light from your email lighting the room. Are you ever going to hear from your online college?

If this is your perception of online education, wake up. It’s the 21st century and one-third of all college students are taking at least one online course during their college careers.

For students who’ve never taken an online course, especially those who are returning to school several years after graduation, fears about taking an online course are understandable. Many unfamiliar with the format believe that online learning will be drastically different from traditional in-class experiences, that they won’t be able to interact with professors and classmates, or that online classes may not be as valuable to a career or educational endeavors as those in a classroom. While these concerns are not entirely unfounded, many students, once enrolled, quickly realize that online courses often aren’t quite how they imagine them to be.

If you’re considering taking online courses but have some reservations about their value to your career or the online learning experience itself, it can be immensely valuable to take some time to learn about what you can actually expect from an online course. You may just find that many of the common concerns students like yourself have about online education have been mediated by new technology, highly trained faculty, and online curricula that’s benefited from years of development.

Isolation and the Online Environment

While it’s true that online students won’t head to class each week to see their classmates in person and to interact face-to-face with their professors, that doesn’t mean that online courses will leave students without social interaction and support. In many cases, students in online courses may actually get more individual attention than they would in a traditional course, both from professors and their fellow classmates.

Some of this interaction isn’t voluntary. Most online courses require that students interact with one another through chat rooms and discussion boards, and some students may even find themselves assigned to work with classmates on projects and assignments.

Dr. Dani Babb, an online educator at American Public University and Kaplan University, says that this is one of the most common misconceptions about online courses. “Many students don’t realize how much they will interact in discussions,” says Babb. “Most courses have a minimum number of posts and content requirements every week. Additionally, schools have engagement requirements; students must respond to peers and expand on the topic, add value in their engagement and further the conversation.”

Online Communities Help Students Connect

To help combat online isolation, some colleges are building special online communities to connect students to each other and the school. At Northcentral University, students will soon be able to take advantage of a Virtual Academic Center, a place where they can go to interact with professors and classmates and talk about everything from academics to their personal interests. While not every school has this kind of online environment for students, a growing number maintain social media sites that encourage students to connect not only as classmates but also as individuals.

While it’s great to get to chat with classmates and build camaraderie, students may have additional concerns that they won’t be able to get in touch with professors or find the support that they need to do well in the course. Many professors understand these concerns and actively work to keep in touch with students and cater the course materials to their individual needs.

How Professors Support Individual Online Students

Mary Stephens, founder of Prep Forward, an online professional development resource for teachers, and an online professor at both UMass Boston and Wheaton College, says that her students commonly believe that they won’t get the support needed to complete the course material but that those concerns are often unfounded. “Some have the misconception that an in-person class is the only way to get any individualized attention or support,” she says. “This is definitely not the case for the majority of online courses. For instance, my courses specifically diagnose the individual strengths and weaknesses of each student. This not only helps them identify what areas to focus on, it helps me understand what additional explanations or resources I need to provide each individual to help them understand the material.”

Some professors take connecting with students and ensuring classmates bond even further. “To overcome the ‘loneliness’ of completing an online course, I divide my students into teams of four students,” says Lewis University marketing professor Robert Bergman. “They are required to create accounts in Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Gmail, Pinterest, YouTube and Second Life. This allows them a variety of methods for communicating throughout the semester. In addition, I require they conduct a team meeting every week via videoconference on Oovoo.com, Skype, Facebook Skype, or Google Video. I strive to attend each team meeting to provide additional content, advice, guidance and help guide the meeting when needed. I am effectively part of each team.”

24/7 Tech Support Keep Students Connected

Support for students isn’t limited to faculty, however. Because online courses require a great deal of technology, students will also need to get in touch with support personnel should anything go wrong and they are not able to access their course materials or other resources. Unlike professors who may have limited “office hours,” these technical support professionals are available day and night. Matthew Curtis, a professor working in USC’s Master of Communication Management online program explains, “We offer our students 24/7 technical support. This means if they are working at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. and cannot access some material there is live human support to assist them.”

USC isn’t alone in offering this kind of support; students at nearly all online universities will be able to get assistance with technological problems at any time, which may allay some of the fears less technologically-savvy students have about online courses.

Online Courses and Your Career

One of the biggest benefits of online courses is their flexibility, a factor that often makes them a popular choice among those trying to balance their current jobs with taking college courses towards a degree or certification. As a result, many online learners are older, non-traditional students who are taking courses to help improve their chances of promotion, start a career path, or just to expand their knowledge and career potential. For the reason, concerns over whether or not online courses are a smart career move are common among new students.

Most Employers Value Online Degrees as Much as Traditional Ones

As far as employers are concerned, students don’t need to worry too much about the value of their online degrees. A survey done by institution Excelsior College and Zogby International in 2010 found that 83% of executives they polled felt that an online degree was as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. Still concerned about the quality and career prep offered by online programs? It may be better than you realize.

Online Courses can Offer Professional Insight and Career Preparation

“Assuming an online course is good, there is no difference in the amount of career preparation you would gain in a course in a classroom setting,” says Stephens. “In fact, in some classes you may gain more career preparation experience online as the online course has the benefits of allowing an individual to quickly access additional resources, links, and opportunities online.”

At many schools, online educators aren’t just teaching courses, they’re also working professionals in their area of expertise. “Probably the most important way that online programs can prepare graduates for the real world is the focus of faculty who are practicing the craft they are teaching,” says Northcentral University professor Darren Adamson. “Not only does this give a flavor of what is really going on in the profession, but it also helps with networking as the student creates connections with professors working as professionals in the field.”

Research Shows that Online Students Perform at Higher Levels than Traditional Students

Students may also have concerns over whether or not they’ll really be learning as much as they need to in an online course. A study in 2009 by SRI International for the Department of Education found that on average students in online learning conditions actually performed better than those in traditional classrooms with face-to-face instruction.

Part of the reason may be a focus on assessment, ensuring students are doing well throughout the course. Gordon Drummond, president of the online design school Sessions College, explains, “The reality is that online education generally has to be more focused on assessment– on trying to determine whether a student has mastered a concept or skill–than a traditional class, where the focus is generally on presentation. This is key to debunking another myth, which is that online classes are easier than traditional ones. If the school is a serious school, there will actually be more evaluation of your skills as you work through the program. It will be harder, but better for you.”

If you want to pursue a career in a hands-on or clinical field, online course alone may not be able to give you the experience you need. In these cases, however, many hybrid and blended opportunities are generally available so that students can emerge from a degree program adequately prepared to take on the challenges of the workplace.

How to Prepare for Online Courses

Even if some of the most common fears about online courses are unfounded, students who’ve never taken online courses will still need to prepare for the experience ahead of time.

1. Exercise your Technology Skills

One of the key aspects that differentiate online courses from those in class is the use of technology. Students may not realize how much their understanding of technology can plan a role in the ease with which they can complete assignments or how varied the tools they’ll need to use are. Not all online programs use the same types of technology or the same type of setup, however. “One thing that surprises students is how much technology is used,” says Babb. “Some schools have live lectures or what we call synchronous lectures. Other schools have live office hours, and others have entirely asynchronous communications. Students should know which they prefer and which the school has before attending to be sure it fits their lifestyle.”

2. Schedule for a Serious Time Commitment

Students taking online courses also need to prepare themselves for a serious time commitment. Online courses may be more flexible, but that doesn’t mean they’re less work. Adamson encourages students to not only set up time for listening to lectures and reading materials but also every other aspect of the educational experience. “I often suggest to students that they prepare to schedule time to ‘go to class’ every day,” he says. “Successful students ensure that each day (5-6 days per week) they have scheduled in their calendars time to study, read, research, reflect and complete the learning activity (assignment) each week. If school is left for ‘after everything else gets done’ then the student will fail in an on line environment. Online education requires that the student has a moderate level of self-discipline.”

3. Set Personal Goals to Stay Motivated

Self-discipline may be the key to being successful in an online course. Students must be able to motivate themselves, stay organized, and keep on task even without supervision from a professor or other outside source. If you’re the type who loves to procrastinate or can’t stay on task, online learning can help strengthen that weakness. The online format challenges students to use better time management. Just like a traditional classroom, not treating online classes seriously will negatively affect your learning outcomes.

 

Online courses won’t be a perfect match for every student, but they often aren’t as intimidating, isolating, or risky as students might believe. New technology, highly motivated professors, and an incredibly diverse assortment of programs and institutions have helped to make online education a more flexible and customizable alternative to traditional education. It is also quickly becoming as respected and rich as any students can take in a more traditional setting. Students who are unsure about taking online courses should reach out to administrators, professors, and online learners to get a better idea of what online learning is really like so that they know what to expect, how to prepare, and ultimately, how to be successful as an online student.

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