One strategy for becoming not only a great online learning student, but an effective lifelong learner is to develop awareness of how and when you learn best and the strategies that work best for you. The tips and hints combine ideas from recent brain research, memory research and general time management to get you started in thinking about how you learn.
This list of strategies and tips for online learning has three sections. The first section focuses on some planning and time management strategies as you are getting started in your course (s). Section two compares learning in an online class with learning in a campus-based class and section three focuses on the special kinds of learning experiences in online discussion boards.
Section One: Planning and Time Management Strategies and Tips
Hint #1: Rebalance your work/life commitments at the beginning of your courses.
Taking an online course is a commitment of time and energy. This means that you will want to review your current work/life commitments and rebalance your weekly and monthly activities. A good question to ask is, "How much time should I allocate each week to an online course?" The answer varies from course to course and will also vary over the course of your program, but a good rule of thumb is that an online course will require from 5- 7 hours a week. This time is usually a mix of reading, writing, listening, and doing research and projects. So, what you will want to do is to look at how you are now spending your time and carve out periods of time each week for your online learning. It is best to plan for 2-3 periods of time each week for your courses. For example, you may want to dedicate Tuesdays and Thursdays for reading and lectures and discussion postings - just as you would for a face-to-face class and then some time on the weekend, either Friday or Saturday for other assignment activities. You will want to review your weekly plans with your family or close friends, so that you can manage their expectations of you while you are going through the program.
If you are a working professional you will probably want to discuss your plans with your manager. Some organizations provide for some release time for their employees who are in programs that "feed" back expertise to the organization. Also many professional courses incorporate projects that can enhance or supplement current work projects, so that project work can work for the organization as well as for a course requirement.
Key purpose of doing a weekly schedule is to ensure that you have time to do the work. When activities can be done anywhere and at anytime, they often don't get done at all. Be sure to answer the question, "When am I going to do this learning and participate with other learners in these experiences."
Hint #2: Make certain that you have the access to the appropriate tools and know how to use them.
A common question from learners is "How is online learning different from face-to-face learning?" The most basic difference is in the primary environment for learning. In face-to-face learning, the primary environment is the classroom. This is the "gathering place" for learning; in online learning, the "gathering place" is the course site. In each case, the gathering place is where the core communication takes place and where relationships develop.
In online learning, good tools are important. Online learning requires access to the gathering place with a computer with an appropriately configured browser, high-speed network access, and basic productivity software such as word processing, spreadsheets, etc. Some online courses also use multimedia resources that require your computer to have good speakers for audio output. Other courses may use a tool that creates a virtual classroom or use videoconferencing that require a computer with good audio and video input as well. A good place to check for the requirements for your course is the info page on the program web site. Most computers being sold today come equipped with everything you need to do audio/video conferencing and to do audio/video streaming. Many computers even have built-in cameras. If you do need to add speakers to an older computer, these are usually very affordable.
Hint #3: Define a place for yourself that is an efficient "Learning Space."
Since we can now work and learn wherever we have a high bandwidth connection and our computer or our textbook, we often think we can indeed "learn anywhere." Most tips about learning - and our now constant multitasking- don't remind us often enough that learning requires focus and engagement. Some of that focus and engagement - if passively reading or watching or listening - can be done more easily while often attending to other tasks. However, active productive activities such as writing, thinking, analyzing, etc. need a more focused time and place.
This hint suggests that you define not only one place but perhaps two or three places and times that work for you in doing your assignments and activities for your learning. I like to sum up this question by asking, "Where, when, with whom and with what resources handy will I do my reading, my watching the lectures, the discussion postings and writings and project work?" Ask your self and your friends regarding good places to do your work. Many people find it helpful to identify a "third place" - defined as "not work and not home" for doing their work. This includes coffee shops, libraries, airports, and places at work that are not your office, for example.
One of my sisters- while studying for her master's degree in Nursing - arranged with my other sister who had a quiet room in her basement to study there. It worked for her, away from her own family and children, and away from her work, but close enough to get home quickly. Another colleague of mine wrote most of her dissertation in a "learning center" area at her office - again away from her family and work obligations and reminders.
Of course, a basic requirement is setting up a Learning Place at home is ensuring that it is away from or outside the normal flow of activities. Another requirement is the ability to psychically support yourself by creating a space that works for you. For example, a friend has a favorite choral CD that she puts on in her learning space, specifically when she has writing to do. To sum up, you may want to identify a Learning Space in these places:
- At home. This can be as elegant as your own office or as simple as a corner of a room with a screen around it, or the kitchen table when the house is quiet.
- A place/or time at work, if possible, after conferring with your manager, etc.
- A Third Place - Neither home nor work. This is a place that you can use when the activity or psychic levels are too high at your home or work.
Of course, for those times when you need to have high-bandwidth access, your home may be the best choice, or your office. Also, you may be naturally gifted in being able to separate yourself from activity and only need one learning space. On the other hand, you may have small children and a small living area. In that case, you may need to re-create your learning space for each study session. Whatever you do, the key ingredient is defining a space and a time that works for you.
Section Two: Comparing the Experiences in Online Learning and Campus-based Learning
How are the learning experiences in online learning and campus-based learning the same? How are they different? Many of the activities in an online course are the same as those in a campus-based class. Most online classes have assigned readings, papers, and projects. Many online classes also have quizzes and tests. What is most different about an online class is how you communicate with the faculty and with other students.
Hint #1: Change your expectations about how much writing and communicating you will be doing.
In an online class the amount of time a faculty member is "lecturing" or "telling" students content is usually much smaller. The core concepts that a faculty wants to ensure students learn are usually emphasized in assignments and discussion board summaries and observations, and recommended readings. To balance the communication, students are expected to be more active learners. There is no "sleeping through" or "half-paying attention" while the faculty member is talking and hoping the content will just flow into one's brains.
Students are expected to be active participants, asking good questions, making observations and analyses of ideas. This communication is usually through more writing -usually postings and discussing ideas on the discussion board, and project work.
Hint #2: Get to know your fellow students In an online class a key resource for learning are your fellow students.
Most students in an online class are working professionals with years of experience in a related or relevant field. One of the lifelong benefits of classroom learning is the building of relationships with other students in your field. Relationship building happens as a result of shared experiences. So sharing the experience of a course within a program and field of study is a valuable opportunity. Time spent interacting with your fellow students and your faculty is time well-spent. This provides a time to test out and experiment with the ideas you are encountering, so that you build a useful and practical framework of knowledge in your chosen field.
Hint #3: Make the most of your course experiences!
Find opportunities to customize the course to your life experiences Any course that you are taking is a commitment of your time and your resources. Do what you can to make the most of this time and opportunity.
Every course usually has three types of content resources:
- Required resources
- Recommended resources
- Resources required for projects and assignments
As you are reading, writing and communicating with the faculty and other students, be mindful of what this new knowledge means to you and how it will be useful to you. Some courses incorporate requirements for a weekly journal to reinforce the value of always asking yourself how you will ensure that this knowledge becomes useful knowledge to you. Longer projects are valuable opportunities to link what you are learning to your professional life. Work on customizing the learning to your current and future anticipated interests and work. Project work closely associated with your professional life can increase the value of your study for your organization and build good will and potentially save you time!
Section Three: Three: Using Discussion Boards Strategies and Tips
As noted above, discussion boards are the communication tools - the "online place" - for talking to and discussing and giving and getting feedback on your ideas in an online course. This is the tool you definitely want to make good use of.
Hint #1: Make good use of the discussion board
The very first posting you are likely to make on the discussion board is the posting that asks you to introduce yourself. Be sure to "reveal" something about yourself - such as where you live now or have lived in the past, and details such as where you like to study, and your motivations and hopes for the course. Students often like to hear about whether you have a pet, or have children, or your favorite vacation spot. I like to call these my cocktail party secrets! Each of these details help to build relationships and a basis for sharing future comments and ideas.
Hint #2: Post early - or at least not late!
Discussion boards are a place for conversation. This means that not everyone can talk at once or have the last word. So post insights, finds, ideas early in the week that your fellow students can respond to. Most faculty encourage this type of interchange by requiring a posting by Wednesday or Thursday of a week, and then requiring each student to comment or identify common threads by Friday or Saturday. When you are planning out your weekly schedule you will want to plan for time early in the week for some study so that the discussion boards can be useful to you.
Hint #3: Ask good questions or clarifying questions on the discussion board.
Keeping in mind that discussion boards are designed for active dialogue and interchanges, postings do not always need to be significant thoughts. At the same time, postings should be more than simple statements that "I agree." If you do agree, you do want to add/extend an idea, perhaps with a reinforcing reference. And if you disagree, providing a rationale and possible reinforcing reference or example is appropriate etiquette.