Sonya Ratliff

What Do I Do Now? Remembering What It Feels Like Being A First-time Online Student

Can you remember feeling nervous, anxious, and fearful about the upcoming online course you registered for at the advice of an academic advisor? While the advisor gave you some basic information about the course and told you not to worry, the little voice inside would say, “Are you sure you can do this”? That little voice never really went away until the end of the course.

The online world of learning is so very different than the face-to-face classroom. Students don’t have the opportunity to speak to the instructor after class or stop by their instructor’s office on the way home to ask a question. Everything, everything is done virtually.

So what does this mean for the first-time online student? It means adapting to a new way of learning. It means being proactive, a self-starter, and being able to articulate your concerns in writing.

Are we instructional designers and faculty making these requirements known to students? I am not sure we are—at least not at every institution. Here’s a list of what I wish I’d known before my first time taking an online course:

The importance of being ready for online learning

Make sure you are ready to take an online course. Do you have the necessary writing skills? There’s a lot of reading and writing required in most online courses. Many institutions provide courses to bring you up to speed in writing and math. However, they can carry you only so far. To be successful, an online student has to want to succeed. Online learning requires independence, internal motivation, responsibility, and a certain level of maturity.

Where to go for help!

One crucial factor for choosing an online course is whether learner support is provided. Going to the public web site of the online program can easily provide you with this information. Some colleges or universities may provide a general student advisory service and help with online learning. Some institutions also provide peer-to-peer tutoring, where more experienced students help those less experienced. It is important though to check whether such services are available online, or whether you have to go to the campus to access them.

Time management is key

Another critical factor is the amount of work involved. 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.

If you are not a self-starter, 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 someone can’t answer this question, the course may be poorly designed.

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.

Communication is essential

Communication skills are vital in online learning because students must seek help when they need it. Teachers are willing to help students, but they are unable to pick up on non-verbal cues, such as a look of confusion on a student’s face. Follow these tips:

Use the tools provided by the school to communicate with your teachers. Many online schools and programs provide several ways for students and/or parents to communicate with teachers and staff. These might include e-mail, discussion groups, chat room office hours, cell phones, and even text messaging.

Teachers and staff want to help you to succeed in your classes and will answer your questions. It may feel awkward to talk with your teachers this way, but don’t worry. If your teacher has chat room or cell phone office hours, don’t be shy about using those tools to communicate with your teacher.

Many students are used to a very informal style of writing in chat rooms, blogs, text messages, and so forth. But you should use appropriate style and language for school. When communicating with teachers, staff and other students, you should write in full, grammatically correct sentences, and use a respectful tone.

Because of the distance, it’s tempting for some students to say things out of anger or frustration that they would never say to a teacher in person. Online teachers are professionals. Treat them with respect and courtesy.

Computer literacy is a must

Online learners need basic technical skills to succeed. These include the ability to create new documents, use a word processing program, navigate the Internet, and download software.

Most online schools have new student orientation programs. These often teach students how to use the school’s learning management system and other online tools, but they typically don’t cover the basics.

If you lack basic computer skills, you will find it difficult or impossible to succeed in an online course. You might attain these skills following online tutorials.

You’ll also want to check the online school’s main website for their hardware and software requirements. Make sure your own computer meets those requirements.

How we can help

As instructional designers, we may not have direct student contact, so it’s important to convey these important points to faculty as we help them develop their courses. Faculty are sometimes not able to see online learning from the student’s perspective. This is why it’s so important we help to create engaging and collaborating learning environments.

Sonya Ratliff

About Sonya Ratliff

Sonya joined DePaul University’s School for New Learning in February 2016. She has more than 20 years of experience working with faculty/students at higher education institutions including; Chicago State University, City Colleges of Chicago, and the University of Phoenix. During that time, she held various positions in Student Services, Information Technology, and Academic Affairs. Sonya earned a BS in Health Information Administration and an MS in Education and Technology from Chicago State University. Sonya has dedicated her career to helping faculty/students bridge the gap between the traditional classroom and the online learning environment. In her spare time, Sonya likes to read, shop, and spend time with her family. She is an Instructional Designer with Faculty Instructional Technology Services assigned to SNL.

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