For many students, the decision of whether or not to start college this fall has become a difficult one.
This is especially true for immunocompromised students, students whose families are now facing economic difficulties due to job layoffs, international students and other students whose selected programs are located far from home, and for adult learners already raising a family.
One option that many of these students are taking advantage of are online degree programs. These programs provide a way for students to earn their degree safely and efficiently, without the burden of undo economic strain or health and travel concerns. There are even financial aid programs available to help make this happen.
But even students who decide to attend a traditional college with in-person classes are likely see a move toward more online classes. As schools prepare action plans for reopening, many are already instituting more online offerings.
Potential students may be afraid of the unknowns that come with online learning.
Whether you’ve decided to earn your degree online or you will be taking a mix of online and in-person classes as a result of COVID-19 precautions, here’s what you can expect when you take an online class.
One of the most significant barriers for most people is the perceived technological requirements of online learning. Some courses are taught entirely online, while others may be blended (using a combination of face-to-face and online instruction). Either way, some degree of technical skill is indeed needed.
For example, you need to be able to install software, record yourself on the computer, upload recordings, use and share various types of documents, and participate in live (or “synchronous”) class sessions.
While you do need to be tech-savvy, you don’t need to be a tech genius. As long as you have a working computer and internet access you should be able to succeed in online classes. After all, most online learning programs (or platforms) are reasonably intuitive to use if you are comfortable working on a computer and using a smartphone. And if you do run into problems, colleges and universities running online programs have extensive IT support services to help students navigate the process.
Perhaps the most personal requirement for taking an online class is your ability to manage time. It’s up to you to go to class. Since no friend is waiting for you to arrive, and there is often no scheduled or required time for class, you are on your own.
While there may be some scheduled events associated with an online course, most of the time is spent working independently. You need to plan for time to read what your instructor and peers post online, review content modules, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and attend or watch recorded online sessions with the instructor. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses related to time-management and plan accordingly.
The content for traditional versus online courses is almost always identical. The workload will be the same regarding assignments, projects, reading, and tests. Don’t expect it to be easier. In fact, it could take additional reading time because you need to read your instructor’s and peers’ comments rather than just listening to them in class.
Discussions in an online class typically happen in one of three ways:
- You post responses to the instructor’s questions and respond to your peers’ posts.
- You “meet” in chat rooms or virtual classrooms where you can interact in real-time.
- You schedule times to meet (either in person, on the phone, or virtually) to work on group projects.
Tests and quizzes will also be done online. These may be timed, so you will still be expected to know the material even though you may have access to course content (like an open book test). In fact, these tests and quizzes are sometimes more challenging to ensure that you do know and understand the material and are not simply copying and pasting from your notes.
All aspects of online instruction require greater independence on the part of the student. You need to be self-motivated, organized, and skilled at time management. It may take some time, research, and self-reflection to decide if online learning is right for you.
Instruction occurs within an online classroom. There, you can access the syllabus, assignments, and your grades, as well as contact professors and classmates, and access other course materials. Some of these systems are mobile-friendly, while others are not. Even those that are more mobile-friendly are still typically harder to use on a mobile device or tablet, so most students prefer using a laptop or desktop computer.
Some instructors will require attendance at specific times. This is typically done within the course and occurs similar to a virtual meeting or webinar. These synchronous classes are generally interactive and allow you to raise your hand, speak, chat, ask questions, and even break into smaller groups when appropriate to the lesson. These sessions do not usually occur more than once a week and are often held in the evenings or weekends to accommodate working students.
Other instructors may provide this option and record the class for students unable to attend at the scheduled time. It’s always best to talk to the instructor to find out his or her requirements and expectations. Getting to know your instructor requires extra effort on your part, but it’s worth it.
Online Courses vs Online Professional Development
Massive open online courses taken for professional development may be very different than online courses taken through a college or university.
Professional development courses are often taught by staff from within an organization or someone contracted through the organization to teach about a specific topic. Online college or university courses will be taught by professors or adjuncts, usually with a Ph.D. in the course of study.
Professional development programs may only require you to attend classes, while online courses will require homework, study, and assessments.
Every potential student should take the time to research the various online and traditional higher education options available. Online programs range widely, from creative careers in game design to business degrees. Ultimately, you need to decide what type of program best suits your needs and skills. And taking the time to research what to expect in an online program will help you make that decision.
About Crystal Ladwig: Dr. Crystal Ladwig has taught online and face-to-face college courses for 20 years. She specializes in training future teachers and conducts research on training teachers to work with students with challenging behaviors.