How to Succeed as an Online Student

by Julie Rains on 9 March 2010 1 comment
Photo: Frerieke

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.

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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.

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Chris

Having earned a Masters Degree from a Top-10 College of Education (read: issues MA, EdM, and EdD degrees in education related fields of study), I can say that online courses can be just as good as an in-person course. But, unlike what most people may think of them, they often require more work to earn a good grade.

In a typical online course, a student is expected to actively participate in online forums - especially since they can participate asynchronously. That is, a student can leave a message in a forum at any time of day *and* not interfere with another student who may also answering the same question at the same time. More discussion tends to occur, and online teachers often say they do more work for an online class than for the in-person class.

But there is a big problem with online classes. One has to be self motivated. If you are the type who needs the discipline of a fixed time to attend class, many online classes will not serve your needs - discussion topics, reading assignments, etc. are posted on the class's bulletin board, and it is up to the student to make sure that he/she fulfills all the requirements of the course.

Yet, there are some online courses which have simply moved the lecture and q/a sessions online, mimicking the traditional classroom approach to education. These courses may be best for those who need immediate feedback while learning. If possible, a student who prefers the traditional learning approach should look for this type of online education if an online course is to be attempted for the first time.

The author's advice of creating a portfolio holds well for both online and traditional education - it can give a prospective employer a better of who you are and what you can contribute to a firm. It is something which I wish I had known to do earlier on in my career....