Degree In Sight

Computer keyboard

Chances are you'll take an online course within the next five years, whether you're supervised via Skype for a clinical class or taking an elective at a university three states away. In fact, online course enrollments are growing by 12.9 percent a year, while the higher education student population is growing at 1.2 percent, according to a report by the Sloan Foundation.

"There are now even online courses in piano tuning and phlebotomy," says Babson College statistician I. Elaine Allen, PhD, who co-wrote the report.

But while e-learning courses are gaining in number, not every student is prepared to learn that way. Faculty who teach online frequently encounter students who come to class with the misperception that online is easier, that they can participate Twitter-style or proceed at their own pace. In reality, most online courses require stronger organizational skills and more self-discipline than traditional courses, as well as polished academic writing skills. Many online courses also maintain a rigorous schedule of biweekly or daily homework postings and group discussion requirements that can cripple procrastinators.

"We've found that students who take online courses need to be very self-motivated," says Allen.

If you're bound for cyberschool, consider these tips from e-learning professionals:

  • Remember it's school, not Facebook. The Internet is a source of fun and leisure for many, so some students find it difficult to treat it as a classroom. Case in point: In many courses fifth-year graduate student Bill MacLaney is taking at Capella University, the instructors pose one or two questions a week. MacLaney says he spends 15 to 20 hours researching and writing each answer.

And unlike traditional essay-writing, responses posted on class discussion boards can be viewed by fellow students, says Nicholas Ladany, PhD, a professor at Lehigh University. So, keep your tone respectful, personal anecdotes to a minimum and your prose typo-free, he says. "Re-read everything you write before you post it," he says.

  • Have a Plan B when technology fails. While "the computer ate my homework" excuses sometimes work in traditional courses, faculty who teach online have far less tolerance for technology-related pretexts from students. They all should have up-to-date computers, software and browsers, as well as backup plans for getting online if a virus attacks or there's a power failure. "Recently, a fellow classmate was in a flood in North Dakota and didn't miss a post," says MacLaney.

Ladany suggests students talk with a tech expert before they start a course for tips on what to do if their computer freezes just before a deadline or how to back up their work if they don't already know how.

  • Know your learning style. Most online courses require a shift to learning independently, says Sue Kuba, PhD, of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant.

"These classes don't work well for students who prefer to sit in a class and be taught and take notes," she says. So, consider how well you learn on your own and read a course's syllabus in advance to get a sense of whether you'll be organized and disciplined enough to do well, Kuba advises.

If you suspect you aren't quite ready, try easing into e-education by taking a hybrid or "Web-assisted" course that uses some online features but also includes classroom meetings. You might also see if your university offers online instruction in real time, called "course capture systems," which are more like traditional classroom experiences with videos of lectures and online assignments, says Kuba.

  • Plan to keep up. The flexibility of many online classes may lead some students to procrastinate and fall behind. "If you miss something one week, begin the next week fresh with the current postings," says MacLaney. "Then you're only late on one thing, rather than 10 or 15 as the semester rolls on."

  • Trust you're not alone. Many students fear that online classes are socially isolating. In truth, say faculty, these classes require every student to participate through posts and group discussions—not always the case in traditional classes. As a result, students—and faculty—often develop close camaraderie.

"In the regular classroom, I can't know every thought or observe every group, but online I can look into every discussion group for information on how they are doing," says University of Minnesota educational psychology department lecturer Michelle Everson, PhD.

  • Value your hard-working professor. A common misperception among students, and even administrators, is that teaching online classes is easy money, says Allen. In fact, many faculty say it takes longer to prepare to teach an online course, and they spend more time keeping up with students' questions and postings.

"Faculty say they do it because they meet students' needs for flexible learning," she says. "Money is way down there."

Kuba, who teaches a graduate-level history and systems of psychology course online and face-to-face, concurs that the "e" doesn't stand for easy. "In my experience, faculty work harder in online courses," she says.

Similarly, students shouldn't expect less attention than they'd get in a brick-and-mortar class, says Ladany. A good class means plenty of faculty interaction, regardless of the venue, he says.

By Jamie Chamberlin