12 tips for online learning success

Going back to school doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the classroom — online courses offer flexibility and convenience as well as knowledge. Students can work through the material at their own pace and on their own schedule, and the interactive environment encompasses many learning styles beyond traditional tapes-and-texts correspondence courses.

Trading a teacher and a classroom for a computer and an internet connection can take some getting used to. If you’re trying an online course, here are some tips to make it a success.

12 tips for success

Learn the course first. Even if you’re tech-savvy, take some time to learn the course’s software and interface before delving into the content. Go through the course materials and make sure you can find everything you need including course notes, assignments and readings. Make sure your computer’s software is up to date, and check that you are able to post items and submit assignments well in advance of deadlines.

Know your “go-to” people. There are often many different people involved in an online course: the author (who created the content), an instructor or teaching assistant (who currently teaches the course and marks assignments) and a system administrator (who maintains the software). Take note of whom to contact for what purpose — like when you have a question about your marks or if you experience a technical problem.

Also, find out how to get in touch with your fellow students. You may be able exchange email addresses or contact each other through a built-in email system.

Set a schedule. Online learning offers plenty of flexibility, but many people benefit from some structure to help them stay on track. Make the course part of your routine: set aside some regular time each day or each week for your course. (Remember some courses like foreign languages require frequent practice.)

Set limits too. It’s easy for emails, chats and forums to gobble up study time and for the course to impinge on your other commitments. It’s okay to step back — just because the course is “always on” doesn’t mean you have to be.

Participate. While you won’t have the face-to-face interaction of a classroom, this doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Take advantage of opportunities to participate in online forum discussions and class communities. If you have classmates in your area, meet for coffee or a  study session.

Don’t be shy — the greater the exchange of ideas, the better.

Be patient. You’re not glued to your computer 24/7, and neither are your classmates and instructor. Make sure to ask any questions well ahead of assignment due dates so you have time to receive a response. Find out if your instructor offers virtual office hours and what his or her expectations are for response times and assignment turnaround.

Don’t be afraid to “go old school”. Old study habits die hard, but they too have a place in online learning. Get out a pen and paper to take lecture notes rather than typing them, and print course materials if you find it easier to work from a hard copy. Everyone has different strengths and styles when it comes to learning, so use the strategies that work best for you.

Revise, revise, revise. Online courses often rely on the written word as their primary means of communication — but once you post or submit content, you can’t change it. Always take a moment to proofread your work to make sure your grammar and spelling are correct and that your ideas are clear and concise. Print out your work for a thorough edit if needed, or try reading it out loud slowly and carefully.

The same applies to emails and forum posts — treat them as you would any professional communication.

Mind your netiquette. Without cues like facial expressions, body language or tone of voice, it’s easy for writing to come across as aggressive or angry. Save communication for when you’re calm and collected, and avoid writing when you’re feeling stressed or angry. Try saving a draft of your work and returning to it later with fresh eyes rather than posting right away. When re-reading your content, think about how your audience may react — get a second opinion from a friend or family member if needed.

Also, stay clear of shorthand or texting short forms (such as “ur” for “your” and “lol”). Keep your writing at a formal tone.

Don’t take it personally. Another downside to the online environment is that it’s easier to attack other people and their ideas. (After all, people don’t have to face their classmates or instructor in person.) There are often people out there with an axe to grind or who are simply having a bad day. Most people aren’t professional writers, so communications skills aren’t always an indicator of intelligence or mood.

If you find yourself the target of an attack, try asking for clarification to diffuse the situation rather than reacting in kind. Or wait it out — you’ll be calmer when you respond and your classmates may come to your defense.

Find the best resources. Time to brush up those research skills! You’ll be surprised at what you can find online including journal articles, periodicals, digital editions of books and research databases. (Check the websites for your public library and school’s library for more information.)

A word to the wise: Stick to high-level sources. Instructors usually favour peer-reviewed journals, books by recognized experts and articles from credible sources. Content from blogs, self-publishing websites or user-edited wikis can be helpful for research, but user-generated content often doesn’t stand up to academic scrutiny.

Understand how to properly cite sources. The copy-and-paste nature of the internet has instructors paying careful attention to plagiarism and the misuse of information (like taking information out of context or failing to acknowledge paraphrased ideas). Avoid trouble by reviewing your institution’s academic policies and know how to properly cite any sources you use. (Your school’s library website can show you how, and there are even software applications to help you manage sources and citations.)

Anticipate issues. Alas, computers and internet connections are not infallible — but “my email ate my homework” isn’t an acceptable excuse for missing a due date. Instructors expect students to anticipate technical difficulties and not leave submissions and completing online components (like quizzes and tests) to the last minute. You’ll run into fewer slow-downs and issues if you aim to be early rather than on time.

Also, after submitting assignments, double check to make sure they were posted properly or email your instructor to confirm the file was received.

Overall, online learning can be as challenging as it is rewarding — so it may take a little patience and a willingness to learn some new skills as well as new information.

Have you tried an online course? Tell us your favourite tips in the comments.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Paul Hart

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