Online Learning

Is an online course right for you? Here are several caveats about online learning before you take the plunge.

If you are interested in an online course because you think that it will be less work than a traditional face-to-face course, then this style of learning may not be right for you. Believe it or not, you may spend more time studying and completing assignments in the online environment than you will in an on-campus course. How can that be? The online environment is text- and activity-based. To communicate with your instructor and other participants, you must type messages, post responses, and upload written assignments that might occur more often than in traditional courses.  Also, reading lecture materials and engaging in learning activities can take more time than listening to an instructor deliver a lecture.  Many participants believe that an online course is at least as much work as an on campus course; some say that their online course involved more work. However, most participants feel that this additional work load is more than compensated for by the fact that they were able to "go to class" whenever they had the time, whether it be 2 a.m. or 6 p.m. Participants also like the fact that online courses involve many creative activities and learning experiences. Rather than being lectured at, you are an active participant in the learning process. Many participants believe this is more enjoyable and enhances their ability to apply what they are learning to real life.

One of the many advantages of online courses is that you will be able to work on your coursework when you want to and where you want to.  However, online courses are NOT self-paced courses.  There are assignment deadlines just like an on campus course.  It can be very easy to miss these deadlines and fall behind in their coursework. Not meeting deadlines is the leading reason why online participants do not succeed.  It is easy to procrastinate and put off reading, delay posting of messages on the discussion forum, and forget to upload written assignments.  As with most things, if you don't manage your time properly, you will find yourself buried beneath a seeming insurmountable mountain of coursework. Online courses require the self-discipline to set aside chunks of time to complete your studies.  It means you have to make online studying a priority and not let other activities interfere.

This means that one quality you will need to have to be successful is 'discipline'. While you will be a part of an online community and will be working with others online, it is your responsibility to log in and participate.  It can be all too easy to put off logging in when no is telling you to do it at a specific time every day.  It is up to you to create a schedule for yourself to make sure you participate in your class, and that you give yourself enough time to complete assignments.

Studying alone with only the computer as your companion may be unsatisfying for someone who needs high levels of social activity as part of their learning experience. The online environment is a much different atmosphere that takes some getting used to.  You should be aware of such feelings of isolation and be ready to seek help if they start to impede your studies. A quick e-mail to a classmate or your instructor can help you feel better connected if the sense of community you seek is missing.  This is not to say that you will not have interaction with your classmates in an online course. Indeed, many online participants attest that online courses tend to provide more interaction with your peers and instructors. In fact, many of our participants say that they got to know their fellow classmates better in this type of learning environment.

In a traditional classroom setting, participants will receive immediate feedback from their peers.  Such immediacy will be lacking in the online environment.  If you need more immediate feedback to your discussion comments, if you need to ask a lot of questions before you can understand a concept or an assignment, if you need the benefit of gestures or facial expressions to get your point across or to understand the comments of others, then online education might not be the best choice for you right now. 
Also, feedback from your instructor will exclusively be in the form of written comments rather than oral comments. In traditional courses, instructors do make arrangements for in-person office hours or make special arrangements to meet participants. In an online course there is usually no face-to-face contact with your instructor. If you feel that you need to see your instructor often in order to succeed, then online learning may not be right for you. However, you should plan on the vast majority of your contact with your instructor being via email or other electronic communications. Also, such communications will consist of delayed feedback, although most online instructors are good about responding to electronic communications within a short period of time.

Online courses depend on participants being active learners, in the sense that there is an expectation that learners will seek out additional information from the internet (e.g., articles and web pages) that will be inserted onto posts and in written assignments. Most traditional courses consist of passive learning in the form of transmitting information via lectures in the classroom, which takes away time from discussion. In the online environment, there will be short audio lectures to download, but most of the virtual classroom will consist of active learning activities, e.g., discussion forum, online group work, written assignments.
So, to do well in an online course you need to be (or become) an independent learner. There are, of, course, advantages to this as well. That online education offers the opportunity to be an independent learner is exactly what some people like about it.  Many participants enjoy online discussions more than face-to-face discussions.  Some participants are intimidated by speaking in front of a group, or are reluctant to answer a question unless they know they are right. Online discussions give them time to reflect and compose discussion comments, as well as to read and reread the comments of others before they jump in the conversation themselves. Also, participants for whom English is a second language often feel more comfortable with the extra time to understand and reflect since it can be easy to get a little lost in a fast-paced class discussion.
One of the major advantages of online learning is the focus on an active learning style and learning from your peers. So, if you can manage the extra work that online learning might entail, develop good management skills, get used to the lack of face-to-face interaction, and tolerate delayed feedback, then be prepared to reap the benefits of online learning!