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5 Tips for Online Students from an Online Professor

Dr. Andrew Smith / Nichols College

I grew up a mile away from a good university—but only because my mom worked extra jobs so that we could rent a place in the nice part of town. She could have walked to campus, yet there was no room in her schedule to sit in a classroom. Today, as a professor and the chair of an undergraduate adult education program, I see elements of my mom in many of the post-traditional students I teach. The difference is: the majority of these courses are now online. Students can earn a degree in my program from anywhere, at any time.

That is the most important development in democratizing higher education since the Morrill Land-Grant College Act or the G.I. Bill. But online courses promise opportunity—they do not guarantee success. This is a different kind of learning environment, and to do well may require skills that even really good students have not practiced. If my mom were to approach me about enrolling in online courses today, I would give her these five important points of advice.

1. Before you get any homework, do your homework

Before starting a new online program, know what resources you need and what is included with your tuition. In particular: Time, Technology, Teachers, and Support.

Time: Do you have some time to read, write, study, and engage with an online course? Does this program require you come to campus at all or log-in at a specific time? If so, can you accommodate that in your work-life schedule?

Technology: Can you guarantee reliable internet access? Do you meet all the software requirements of this program? Are you required to have, say, a webcam, microphone, or any other specific equipment to participate in your courses? Are you comfortable using all the required tools?

– Teachers: Will you take courses with full-time faculty members?  Can you be sure that part-time professors have the requisite credentials or teaching experience? You should have some access to full-time faculty that teaches every day in the school you choose. No matter what, you deserve professors with teaching experience and/or graduate degrees. Know what kinds of teachers you will have before enrolling in a program and always expect the best.

Support: What does this school provide for you? Do you get IT support to solve any technical issues? An academic advisor to help you navigate a path to graduation? You are investing time and money into a degree, so it’s reasonable to ask what kinds of investment a school or program will make in you.

2. Think like your professor

For me, the big difference between teaching face-to-face and online is the “front-loading”  required. Everything needs to be planned and posted up front, before the course even opens. Students who want to do really well in online courses should approach it just like their professor and front-load as much as possible.

Read the syllabus, review assignment guidelines, and take stock of the deadlines as soon as you can access the course page. What days of the week are assignments due? When does your work-life schedule allow you to do them? Can you work ahead on anything now to save you time later in the course when things might be more hectic? Just like your teacher, front-load the work.

3. Ask lots of questions

Unfortunately, there are a lot of unanswered questions in online courses. When you are face-to-face and a question comes up you can blurt it out. Sometimes a classmate asks the question first. Either way, you get an answer before you leave. Without a classroom, however, it is up to you to ask questions—immediately. You cannot afford to wait until you are noticed in an online course.

Spoiler alert: good professors post a syllabus that answers most questions. Also, even really good professors make mistakes. My suggestion is to read your syllabus very carefully. If you are unsure of anything, look back through emails or announcements. If you do not find an answer, ask! Professors want you to do well, and if you are proactive we’ll be responsive.

4. Get in the game!

In cyberspace, there is no back of the room. Everyone is front row center. You need to engage in every activity and prove that you read, learned, or applied the material when you submit a post, paper, or presentation. Make it impossible for the professor to miss you.

Remember, you also have the opportunity to re-read and revise everything before you hit the “send” button in an online course. If you have time, you should ask someone you trust to look over your work before turning it in as well. If you have access to tutors or online mentors, turn to them for help as well. As long as you have front-loaded your coursework and left yourself enough time to study, you’ll be able to show your best possible work every time.

5. Perception can be your (Virtual) Reality

Online classes can be exactly what you make of it. Even full courses without any face-to-face interaction can feel like a small room where you talk to your peers regularly and have access to a great professor. But if you get caught off-guard by a school requirement, wait to ask a question until it’s too late, or miss a deadline, your online class can become very big and very lonely, very fast.

Earning your degree online is truly a great democratizer of education, but success with it requires more than just pointing and clicking. While it might feel harder than a traditional course at first, if you follow this advice, you should have a great experience and result.

More About Abound: We’re here to help. Abound: Grad School narrows down your options and gets you in touch with schools that we can confirm are Accessible, Affordable, Accelerated, and Advanced. Take a look at the schools we trust and find the program that works for you.

More Helpful Guides:

Resources for Working Parents Going Back to School

Free Money: Go Back to School on Your Employer’s Dime

7 Tips to Help You Balance School and Work

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