What you need to know before you enroll for an online course
Although most students adjust very quickly, studying online is different in some ways from studying in class. In particular, it requires discipline to keep ‘on schedule’ when there are no daily set lectures or classes to attend.
The importance of online course design
The way a course is designed can make an enormous difference to how easy it is to study online. Well designed courses do provide strong guidelines for when work, and what kind of work (writing assignments, tests or online class discussion), needs to be done. Poorly designed courses place much more onus on the student to organize their work, although a well designed program will deliberately encourage more and more independence and self-management as students progress through the program. However, if you are taking an undergraduate or two year college online course, it should be well designed, and that means being very clear about what is expected of you as a student.
What help will you get?
One crucial guide to choosing an online course or program is the quality of the learner support provided. This can easily be checked by going to the public web site of the online program you are interested in and look at the learner support section (it may be called Guide to Studying or something similar.) If you can’t find anything, then it’s a good indication that the program designers have not thought through the needs of learners, or are not giving it the importance it deserves. (In some cases, the learner support or student guide may be available online only after you’ve enrolled – if so, ask about this.)
Other colleges or universities may provide a general student advisory service, which may or may not include counselling and help with online learning. Some institutions also provide peer-to-peer tutoring where more experienced students help less experienced students. It is important though to check whether such services are available online, or whether you have to go to the campus to access such services. Also it is important to check whether these services are being provided by people with specialist knowledge of the challenges of studying online.
Managing the work load
Another critical factor is the amount of work involved. You should be able to reach the same standard in an online course as in a class-based course with about the same amount of work, but again this will depend on how well the course is designed. However, one thing you can be sure of. Most online courses will require as much work and will be no easier than a face-to-face class. The main difference is convenience. You can study where and when you like, so long as you cover all the work and meet all the course requirements. So if you don’t want to do the work needed to learn (and unfortunately learning does require effort on the part of the learner) then don’t do an online course. It’s not going to be any easier than the campus version. However, it should be possible to get an estimate from the program administrator as to how much work is involved in studying a particular course online (for instance, 10 hours a week for a three credit course over 13 weeks). If they can’t answer this question, they probably haven’t designed it well.
Also, don’t take too many online courses at once. This is one of the most common reasons for students dropping out. For instance, many students who choose to take an online course are doing it because it enables them to combine work, family and study. If the average course takes 10 hours a week, and you’re working full time, you will do well to manage two courses at a time. Indeed, it makes sense to ease your way into online learning. By far the majority of online students are full time students combining one online course with other face-to-face courses. Most of these students do just as well as their counterparts in the campus version.
Are you ready for online learning?
Make sure you are ready to take a particular course or program. This advice applies as much to campus-based programs as online courses, but make sure you have the necessary prior learning before taking on an online program. Do you have the necessary writing skills in particular? (There is a lot of reading and writing required in most online courses). If you are wanting to do a science or engineering program, have you the prior math skills needed for the program (for example, calculus)? Many institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, UBC and the Open University provide courses to bring you up to speed in writing and math. However, they can carry you only so far. It would be better to get your high school completion (perhaps online) in many cases than to jump into a program at university or college before you are ready for it, even if you technically qualify.
Instructors make the difference
Perhaps the most critical factor though for your success as an online student will be the quality of support you get from your instructor in the course. Again, how this is provided will depend on the design of the course. Some courses in the ‘hard’ sciences such as math, physics and computer science, may be almost full automated, in the sense that tests or exams are computer-marked, there are self-assessment questions with online answers, etc. Some courses deliberately require students to help each other, which can be a great way to learn. However, even in such courses, you are likely to need some help from an instructor at some point during the course. You need to know who they are, when they are available and what kind of help you can expect. This information should be provided before you enroll for a course.
In particular, find out if the instructors have had any training or experience in online learning before you take the course. (For this reason, be cautious if this is the first time an institution has offered an online program. Let someone else be the guinea pig.)
Institutional guides to studying online
For these and other reasons, it is difficult to provide a single, comprehensive guide to studying online. Different institutions have different requirements, different course designs and different sets of regulations that need to be followed. So rather than write a guide to studying that will end up being too general for most students, I provide below links to excellent online study guides that are publicly available from some of the better online programs.
Lastly, although there are some special requirements for learning online, such as managing your schedule, there are many things about studying online that are also common to studying in class. So I have also included below some general guides to studying.
The UK Open University: It could be argued that ‘modern’ distance learning started with the UK Open University in 1971. They have conducted serious research into how students study at a distance, what works, and what doesn’t. They have perhaps the most comprehensive guide to studying at a distance at: http://www.open.ac.uk/skillsforstudy/ This guide however applies as much to print-based as to online distance learning.
University of British Columbia: UBC, which is one of Canada’s premier research universities, has also been offering distance programs for over 80 years and was one of the first to start putting its distance courses online, so it now has a great deal of experience in designing, developing and delivering online courses. They have an excellent set of resources for learner support at: http://ctlt.ubc.ca/distance-learning/learner-support/
Contact North, Ontario: Contact North provides local support for distance students from a wide range of colleges and universities in Ontario. It has a useful set of tips and guidelines for students considering online study: http://click4onlinelearning.ca/getting-started/should-i-study-online
Penn State’s World Campus is one of the major online distance programs from a US public higher education institution. How Online Learning Works is a set of frequently asked questions – and the answers – about online learning, developed for its students, but also applicable in most cases to all online students.
The University of Phoenix. This for-profit institution has received a lot of criticism, partly for its marketing activities, which in the past have encouraged students to take programs when they weren’t ready for distance study. However, partly as a result of this criticism, the university has put in place a number of valuable support services: http://www.phoenix.edu/students/how-it-works/student_experience/student_services.html (For more on the University of Phoenix, see: How does the University of Phoenix measure up?)
General study skills
There has been a lot of research done on what leads to learner success in post-secondary education. Graham Gibbs and colleagues at the Open University did a lot of this research. Buying his book could be the best $10 you’ll ever spend as a student. Reading it may save you more time than you can imagine. It’s also a pretty useful book for instructors, as well:
Gibbs, G. (1981) Teaching Students to Learn: A student-centered approach Milton Keynes: Open University Press
The Study Guides and Strategies Web Site: Since 1996 the Study Guides and Strategies Website has been researched, authored, maintained and supported by Joe Landsberger as an international, learner-centric, educational public service. For 2011, there were 10.4 million SGS visitors with 21.7 million pages viewed in 39 languages. January 2012: over one million visitors viewed 2,762,284 Webpages. (Thanks to Richard Elliott’s excellent e-Learning Watch for directing me to this site)
But be careful. The best way to learn these ‘generic’ study skills is within the context of a particular course. For instance, writing an essay on English literature requires a different set of skills from writing an assignment on marketing for a business course. While there are some skills that will apply to both (e.g. correct spelling and sentence construction) other skills will be specific to the subject area (e.g. drawing on examples from particular literary works in the former, and drawing on key concepts and principles taught earlier in the class in the latter).
This is the Latin for: buyer beware. Be very careful about where you choose your online learning from. Well designed courses make study not only easier but more fun. ‘Big name’ campus-based institutions do not necessarily provide the best online courses from a studying perspective. Experience in online course design counts. So finding the right balance between quality content and quality design can be tricky. Look for either specialist institutions such as Western Governors and the University of Phoenix in the USA, and Athabasca University or Télé-Université in Canada, or quality public institutions with a long history of successful online teaching, such as Penn State, University of Central Florida, and University of Maryland University College in the USA, and UBC, Laurentian University, Memorial University, and Laval University in Canada.
However, the world’s your oyster. Because you can study most online courses from anywhere so long as you you meet the minimum entrance requirements (and residence or rather nationality may be a factor), you can be choosy. You can even take courses from another institution while you are studying on campus at your own institution. But make sure that any individual courses you take from another institution will be acceptable for credit in your home institution, if you decide to take courses online from elsewhere.
Learn from other online learners; and guide other online learners
Lastly, please don’t ask me to recommend or comment on specific institutions or programs. There are simply too many for me to know how good they are. Even the best online programs will occasionally have a poor instructor who doesn’t provide the services expected. I have made some suggestions above about the institutions I know and trust but there are many more that will provide excellent service; I’m just not familiar with them.
However, please use the comment section of this post to share your experiences as an online student, and in particular to recommend a good institution, or warn of bad practices at other institutions. This way, you can help other students in their choice. (I reserve the right, as always, to edit comments, particularly if they are unnecessarily vitriolic or libellous).
I would also welcome contributions, either as comments, or separate posts, from others experienced in guiding online students.
Above all, I would strongly recommend that if you are contemplating studying online, you at least give it a try. Start by taking just one or two courses, but with a longer term goal (such as a qualification) in mind. I think you will be surprised not only about how well you find yourself learning, but also what fun it can be.