How to Succeed as an Online Student
If you’re considering online studies, don’t underestimate the workload, discipline, and communication skills needed to succeed. Here are tips on excelling as an online student.
Choose courses carefully.
Make sure that you have the time to commit to classes, especially if you are pursuing a degree. Don’t let the lure of flexibility fool you into thinking that you can easily fit studies into an already full schedule. Some classes may take a few hours each week; others may require several hours weekly plus extra time to complete projects. And, beware that new degree programs and courses may be particularly difficult as content and technologies are in the process of being perfected.
If you are interested simply in learning a specific skill rather than earning a degree, consider online classes through the community college or specialized training offered by professional associations.
Become familiar with online learning technologies.
Try to do this before class starts or as quickly as possible after the session begins. Some tasks, such as uploading assignments to a designated location on BlackBoard, can be intimidating on a first try but simple after you've done them a couple of times. The less exertion expended in mastering online tools, the more effort you can place on learning course content.
Read recommended materials.
I know this advice may seem incredibly obvious. But many lecture-format classes require students simply to show up and listen; even if you complete the reading according to the syllabus, having an instructor provide you with context and give explanations makes it easier to glean pertinent information from written materials. Many online classes require students to react to materials in forum discussions, which is difficult if you haven't done the reading.
Participate in discussion forums.
If you are the first to post in the forum, you can share basic observations to start the conversation; but if you arrive later in the discussion thread, then you’ll need to offer deeper, unique insights.
Don’t presume that classmates share what you might perceive as cultural norms. Framing comments with mentions of professional and personal life experiences, or sharing these experiences when introducing yourself at the start of each course, can help classmates to understand your perspective and avoid antagonizing them.
Finally, don’t be a hit-and-run poster who visits the forums just once a week, makes comments, interacts with no one, and then exits. This approach may mean that you comply with course requirements but doesn’t really advance your knowledge. Even if you are an expert in a topic, you can learn from the uninformed perspectives of newbies. Just getting insight into what other people understand about a topic is useful — you can then tailor your communications in class forums and outside of these forums more effectively.
Turn in assignments on time.
Online classes may place more emphasis on projects rather than tests so you’ll need to plan your workload carefully. While you might be able to cram for a final exam, most people can’t wait until the last minute to get topics approved, find credible sources, compile research, and collaborate with project partners.
Try to turn in projects ahead of time so that if something unusual happens — a snowstorm-induced power outage or even a brief loss of broadband — you’ll still meet deadlines. You might be able to fudge a turn-in time in the offline environment but, online, time-stamped submissions of uploaded research papers and PowerPoint projects make it difficult to hedge on when you actually turned in an assignment.
Serve as project manager.
You can influence the direction of projects and add to your leadership skills. If you don't think you can handle planning and leading projects, be an active participant by contributing your talents, completing project tasks on time, and helping the project manager with compiling components into a finished report.
Create a portfolio of your projects.
Showcase your knowledge and skills. Some potential employers and clients may not fully grasp that an online degree is just as valuable as one earned in a traditional setting. The portfolio is evidence of your work, and can help you land deals for similar projects and serve as a point of conversation in interviews.
I experienced the demands of online learning when I earned a graduate-level Certificate in Technology and Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a longstanding brick-and-mortar institution of higher learning. And, recently, I spoke with a 20-something female about her degree studies at the University of Phoenix, well-known for its online programs. Despite the differences in our backgrounds and universities, we had similar encounters as online students.