By Jim Norrena
Online learning continues to evolve as a valuable way for people everywhere to increase their knowledge base and skills, both personally and professionally. Sometimes referred to as “distance learning” or “e-learning,” online learning is quickly becoming a favorite option for students interested in furthering their education. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Sloan Consortium and Babson College confirms that 2.6 million students are currently enrolled in online learning courses, a 24.8% increase over last year. At the same time, the survey also reveals that more and more “traditional” colleges and universities plan on offering some sort of online component to their curriculum over the coming months and year.
Online learning has proven itself to be a path to success – but how does one assure a successful online learning experience?
START WITH THE BASICS
The primary difference between online and traditional classroom courses is the method of delivery. Online learning covers a wide range of potential formats – from live, real-time webcasts and interactive workshops, to traditional 12-week instructor-led courses to self-contained software in the form of CDs or downloadable PDF, Quicktime or Flash files. Deciding the best format for you will help you get the most out of your education.
Choose Your Format
The first thing to consider is: are you looking for an environment where you interact with an instructor and your fellow students? Or, are you interested in getting the information and studying privately - on your own? Or something in between? Do you want a fully-structured course or program, including exams and projects, or do you want to just get the information and run with it?
The answer depends on what you are studying and why. If you are a salesperson, and you have a pitch to make on Monday to a major cellular company, it may make sense on Friday to download a three hour course on the basics of cellular technology plus an overview course on the global telecommunications industry, and plow through it all on a single afternoon. By Monday, you’ll sound like an expert. On the other hand, if you are a designer who is revamping your portfolio, you may prefer a 12-week project-oriented course with a lot of teacher and peer interaction and feedback. A couple who is planning to buy their first home may want to “attend” a two-Saturday, live online seminar for first time home buyers, where they have the option of asking an expert specific questions about their situation. An executive looking to earn an M.B.A. may want a combination of online and “on-ground” (in a real classroom) courses.
Keep in mind that every online delivery format is utilized differently on your end, and should be chosen to suit your particular needs.
Collect Information about the Course and its Instructor Up Front
You will probably find several online courses and/or programs that appear to cover the same subject area. How do you choose between them? Start by getting as much information as you can about the courses, programs and instructors before you sign up.
Read each individual course description and syllabus carefully to see if a particular course fits your needs. Pay attention to what is required on your end: a broadband connection? specific software applications? Instant messaging?
Read the instructor’s bio – the long version, if there is one. Google the instructor to see what else he or she has done, who they are associated with, awards or recognitions they may have received, and what else they may have published elsewhere. Is this someone who knows what they are teaching? Are they truly an expert? Are they someone you can learn from that you’d like to interact with as a student?
Look into the specifics of how the course or the program is delivered and what’s expected from students. Are there a mid-terms and final exams? Are you expected to upload exercises into a discussion board for your fellow students to see? Will you need to complete a final project?
Preview if Possible
Is there a demo you can look at? Samples of course materials? If you are considering a more elaborate, more expensive course or program, is there a “lite” version you can take first? Sometimes a 12-week course may have a 3-hour introductory version that you can take to see if you really want to commit to a 12-week version.
If you end up unsatisfied with a particular course, can you transfer, get a credit towards another course, or get your money back? Look for “satisfaction guaranteed” or “no risk” offers.
EVALUATE YOUR RESOURCES AND STUDY HABITS
Before making any final decisions about which course format to choose, think about your situation: How much time can you allocate to studying? Can you find more time? Will you have time to do any assigned homework and/or readings?
Think about your learning modes
How do you best learn? By reading? listening? By watching? By doing?
If you enjoy reading and can learn well by doing so, a simple course format with downloadable PDFs may be ideal for you. If you are a good listener and learn best by simply listening, a basic audio course may be very effective for you. If learn best by watching, a course featuring lots of still or animated graphics and even Flash or Quicktime movies may be the best way to go. If you learn best by doing, a course featuring exercises, assignments, feedback and projects may be ideal.
Of course, in the real world, most instructors present their content in a variety of ways. But if you have a choice between two courses covering the same subject material in different ways, choose the way that you will respond to the best.
Analyze your study habits
Do you study best alone in the middle of the night when it’s quiet and peaceful? Or do you study best in a crowded, active environment like a café, library or hotel lobby? Do you prefer to study alone, or with fellow students? Do you love conceiving and developing projects, or do you simply want the raw information?
Really think about your ideal study environment and choose your courses accordingly. For example, it may be impractical to take part in a live, interactive workshop from the noisy environment of a popular coffee house, particularly if the workshop included “live call in” features via your laptop microphone. If you learn best while studying with fellow students, a course featuring group projects may be the way to go. If you study best alone, in the middle of the night, an asynchronous-type (time shifted, without specific class meeting time) course would be ideal. If writing things down helps you learn, courses with many exercises that require students to post their view in discussion boards would suit you well.
Set aside the time
Managing and scheduling your time effectively is the greatest ingredient for personal success with online learning. Regardless of how the course is structured, your participation is mandatory—meaning you have to schedule your availability to ensure regular “attendance” and participation.
The best way to approach any online course is to “make an appointment” with yourself to make sure you’ve allocated adequate time for your course. Then defend those appointment times like any other. Don’t let your learning time get superceded by other issues – or even responsibilities – that may arise. Pretend like it’s a doctor’s appointment or a job interview. If you have an important meeting, everything else gets scheduled around it. Your education is important. Enter your “learning appointments” in your calendar, then schedule around it. Be sure to also schedule time to work on exercises and projects. Don’t answer the phone while you are “in class” any more than you would in an actual classroom.
Pay attention to your own rhythms
When are you the sharpest during the day? When are you typically sleepy? When do you have the most energy?
If you are most sharp during the morning hours, schedule time before you leave for work to do your assigned readings. If you work best in the middle of the night, schedule your project time at 10:00pm to 1:00am. If you get sleepy in the middle of the afternoon on weekends, use that time to take a nap or to take a walk – don’t schedule your study time during that period.
Remember that you have to be alert to study and learn well, so schedule your study time at optimal points in the day, not when you know you’ll be tired.
A special note to parents: Most parents with small children really can’t do much of anything until late at night when their kids are in bed. This “quiet time” may be ideal – unless you are exhausted. If you are, consider going to sleep when your kids do and scheduling study time very early in the morning, before everyone else wakes up. Or, schedule specific times on the weekends, shut the door and let your family know that you are not to be disturbed during those hours.
Time management checklist
Drive your own desired results with these effective time-management skills that keep your online learning on track. Use this checklist:
Set time aside throughout the week to participate in discussions and ask questions
Schedule time to match your personality—that is, when you study best
Monitor how motivated you are
Apply self-discipline as necessary
Allow for “off-line” writing, researching, and studying time
Print longer documents for easier reading
Read all comments to avoid duplicating responses
Develop relationships with other students
Use word-processing programs for longer responses to ensure accuracy
Report technical difficulties immediately to administrator and/or instructor
Motivate yourself to do assignments or prepare for online discussions
COURSE DELIVERY FORMATS
Live vs. Synchronous vs. Asynchronous vs. Self-Study
There are basically three types of instructor-led course formats: Live, Synchronous and Asynchronous. Self-Study courses make up the fourth common online format. Let’s look at these four formats in more detail.
Live: These are real-time seminars, panel-discussions, workshops or other presentations that are delivered online by technologies known as webcasting or streaming. The events are “streamed” into your computer over the Internet in real time. These types of presentations fall into two other sub-categories: one-way or interactive (bi-directional). One-way means you sit back and watch the presentation on your computer like you would watch television. There may be exercises or projects involved, but you are not contributing to the online discussion in real time. The other option, interactive, means that you can participate live, in real time, buy live chat, calling in, instant messaging or emailing questions to the presenters. Usually, in these cases, there is a moderator who takes the questions from the online audience and feeds them to the presenters.
Note that participating in live streaming requires specific software on your computer, a high-speed broadband connection and the ability to live chat, IM or email in real time.
Synchronous: A synchronous course is one that takes place at specific times, with everyone “meeting” online. Unlike a Live course, a synchronous course can be as simple as an instructor designating a specific “class time,” such at Tuesday night from 7:00pm to 10:00 pm, where he or she will be “present.” During that class time, students can access lessons, reading, post exercises and assignments and get feedback from the instructor via message boards, email and sometimes telephone or conference calls (students dialing into a toll-free conference line). Unlike real time streaming, a basic synchronous course is all about “meeting time” and less about technological capabilities. A synchronous course could be conducted with downloadable PDFs and message boards only, if such a case could even be accessed by the student via a dialup connection.
Asynchronous: An Asynchronous course is one where the student can access the course information at any time of the day, 24/7, and post their exercises and assignments at anytime. Feedback from the instructor is intermittent, as the instructor is also reviewing student postings anytime of the day, 24/7. In this scenario, a student may post a question on Monday evening and receive an answer from the instructor on Tuesday afternoon or evening. All of the interaction is thus, “time shifted.”
Self-Study: A Self-Study course is one where there is no instructor involvement at all. The instructor is more of an “author” who creates the material, but the student accesses it and interacts with it on their own. Classic examples of Self-Study material are language and motivational tapes or CDs. Sometimes there may be workbooks and other documentation included that the student can utilize as they learn.
There is another presentation format to be aware of: Start time. Some of the above formats require pre-set “start times” (the Live and Synchronous courses in particular), or they can start whenever any particular student signs up (the Asynchronous and Self-Study in particular).
An inventive Instructor may configure his or her course to incorporate elements of all of these formats into the delivery process.
Read the Instrument Panel
Pay attention to what technologies the class incorporates to facilitate student interactivity: chat rooms, discussion boards, video-conferencing, and other multimedia that build classroom community. (Caution: the more interactivity and multimedia a course offers, the greater the minimum technical requirements become.)
Chat rooms and bulletin boards allow students to post live or static messages, respectively, for expanded discussion offline. Features that offer a greater means for communication between students (and instructor) are key to successful learning. The semi-anonymity allows you to speak your mind without intimidation, making conversations lively and enriching. Private one-on-one email exchange encourages useful feedback. Chat rooms also offer students with visual barriers or who are easily distracted in traditional classrooms a place to thrive because they accommodate greater concentration.
(Remember—bulletin boards and discussion boards aid instructors in assessing a student’s overall participation and/or enrollment, so be sure to document your contributions frequently.)
Update Your Tools
Whether on a PC or a Mac, you’ll need an Internet connection—preferably using a high-speed Internet Service Provider (ISP)—and at least 64 megabytes of RAM (memory), preferably more – RAM is cheap and makes a huge difference in the performance of your system. Because most home systems are older (and slower) than office systems, most many online courses are designed with this in mind. Contact the site’s administrator before enrolling if you have specific questions pertaining to your system.
Summary: Review the Checklist
Review the following statements and check off the ones that apply to you. The more affirmative responses you provide, the better your chance of learning effectively in the online environment. (The list is not exhaustive—but rather a general overview of key characteristics successful online learners posses).
Enjoy working independently
Accept direct instructor feedback
Access to computer and Internet
Can meet deadlines
Appreciate exchanging of ideas
Understand common computer terms, such as “URL” and “hyperlink”
Possess basic typing skills
Comfortable asking questions and having one-on-one dialogues with instructor
Curious to explore new things
Enjoy learning in a diverse “classroom” setting
General computer skills
Responsible study habits (setting own schedule)
Ten–fifteen hours per week (on average) available for study
Understanding online coursework is not inherently easier than traditional coursework
Effective writing skills
Desire to read material online
Online Learning is a Two-Way Street
Ensuring online learning success means showing up—not literally, of course—but rather being present for self-growth. Education is an investment in oneself. Expect back only what you put in, and don’t treat it as a spectator sport.
Remember—successful online learning is measured by your participation.
Accomplishing your goals means taking responsibility for your work, as well as interacting with peers for feedback and support. In short, it’s an exchange of ideas and information.
Don’t Give Up Before the Finish Line
Each course is a unique experience. What you put into a course is what you’ll get out of it. Online learning approaches are vast… choose carefully, then dive into it with vigor.
“90 % of success is showing up”
- Woody Allen
Jim Norrena is a writer for http://www.searchforclasses.com Check there for information, tips and articles about online education. Read our Education News blog at http://sfcednews.blogspot.com/