Are You Ready for the Start of a New Online Class?

Are You Ready for the Start of a New Online Class?

Your new online class is about to begin and you will have to hit the ground running with little time to prepare, as most online schools don’t allow full access to the course until the day it is scheduled to begin. Online degree programs are often developed with an accelerated schedule, which means that classes range from five to ten weeks, instead of a traditional 16-week semester. As a student, every week of your class counts and you cannot afford to spend a week or two trying to get adjusted to the class. As an online instructor (and former online student), I can share strategies with you that will help you get started quickly so you’ll know what information to look for and what information you’ll need to get to work right away.

1. Check your computer for hardware and software requirements.

Every online school provides students with a list of requirements and it may include a specific browser (Internet Explorer or Firefox) and specific software needs, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Review the list to make certain that you have everything you need before the start of class. Some of the most common technical issues that students experience include computer settings (security and download settings) and missing programs (Adobe Acrobat, Javaâ„¢, and other essential plug-ins). You can avoid running into those issues yourself by checking your school’s technical requirements before class.

2. Become oriented to the school website and classroom platform.

Most online schools offer orientation materials, either through an orientation class, workshop, demonstration, tutorial, or video. The most common online classroom platforms include eCollege, Moodle, Sakai, and Blackboard. Becoming acclimated to using these platforms is essential, especially if you are unfamiliar with the online learning environment. You’ll find many introductory videos available through YouTube, including a series of Moodle videos for students.

3. Develop a list of important contact information.

Consider these questions as you prepare for your class: Do you have an email address and phone number for Student Technical Support? How do you contact your instructor? Every instructor will provide their school email address at a minimum, and some instructors may also provide an alternate email address or phone number in case of an emergency. Keep this contact information written down or printed out in the event you are unable to use your computer and need to tell your instructor.

4. Locate and review resources that are available through the school website.

One of the resources you’ll rely upon as a student is an online library. If you are not familiar with the services provided or the databases that will offer access to articles, the best way to get started is through a review of the library tutorials, handbooks, and guides. You will likely find a research tutorial and library handbook, along with a list of general and specialized databases within the library homepage. Many online libraries also offer a feature referred to as Ask a Librarian, where students can reach a librarian by email, phone, and/or chat.

But don’t stop with the library. As you review the school website, check to see if any other writing services or resources are available. For example, many online schools may offer a review service, access to a plagiarism checker, writing handbooks and guides, tutorials, and sample papers and outlines, along with formatting information and guides. (The two most common formatting styles are APA and MLA)

5. Explore the features of your class once you access the classroom.

Are there course announcements listed when you access the classroom? If so, read those messages first because they often present supplemental information, resources, and updates. As you continue to navigate through the classroom, look for the location where assignments are submitted and the location of the discussion board. In addition, see if your instructor has posted any lectures that will help you prepare for the start of the class week. Keep in mind that in an online classroom, the lecture is often referred to as an overview or guidance. For instance, when I post a weekly overview, I’ll introduce the important concepts for the week, provide examples, and share additional resources that students can refer to for completion of their assignments and discussion board postings.

6. Allow time to review all of the course materials.

The very first document to review is the course syllabus because it is your guide for the class. Many instructors refer to the syllabus as a contract, as it will include items such as a calendar or schedule of learning activities, school policies, learning objectives, grading guidelines, and other expectations. For example, the syllabus may indicate what is expected for discussion board postings, including the number of messages required each week, a minimum word count, definition of quality or substance within the postings, and due dates. The course syllabus will also provide a list of required reading materials and often include supplemental resources, such as the rules of Netiquette.

The essential school policies may or may not be fully covered in the syllabus, so be certain to also review the school catalog and school website for information about the late policy, incomplete policy, Student Code of Conduct, and plagiarism policy. There will also be procedures in place for technical issues should the school server be down. You do not need to memorize these policies at the start of your class, but you should be familiar with the content and know where they are located so you can quickly access them when needed.

7. Develop a personal management plan.

As you review the requirements for the course, it is important to also plan how you will manage your time. Adding school work to an already busy schedule is going to require the development of a well-planned strategy because you will have assignment due dates every week that must be met. You should also be aware of the potential for stress and consider what steps you should take once you’ve identified indicators of anxiety. Students who do not plan their time well or manage the stress of a busy week often lose that initial self-motivation and struggle to keep up with the class.

8. Establish an effective reading strategy.

An online student needs to make the most of their time, and that includes reading in a productive manner. A method you can use to process what you read effectively is called SQ3R, which follows these steps: survey, question, read, recall, and review. This technique will help you discover the meaning of what you’ve read and increase your overall comprehension of the material. Additional reading strategies to consider include use of a note-taking method, such as Cornell, mapping, charting, sentence, outline, or mapping method. If you take an organized approach to reading the materials, you will likely feel productive, well-prepared, and in control of your time.

9. Conduct a self-check as you prepare for your class.

An additional aspect of starting a new class, and one that isn’t usually covered within new student orientation materials, is the impact of how you feel when you begin. You will likely feel excited, nervous, and perhaps even somewhat apprehensive about the requirements and expectations of an online student. All of those feelings are natural and what will help to ease your initial tension is the development of a plan for being prepared.

Before your class begins, make certain that you have the correct hardware and software, a list of important contacts, and strategies for managing your time, managing stress, and reading the materials. As you explore the course and become familiar with its features, the system will feel less intimidating to you. Also, one of the most important resources you’ll have throughout the class is your instructor – use this resource and ask questions, especially when you need clarification about policies and procedures. Getting ready for a new online class takes time, but it is time well invested because it means you’ll be productive and fully engaged in the process of learning once your class gets going.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Tetra Images/Corbis

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