These guidelines will help you determine whether online learning is right for you
By Wendy Gordon-Hewick
This is the first in a two-part series. In the next issue of the PDC Post, Wendy will provide tips for online learning success.
Online learning provides a convenient way to fill skill gaps, earn credits toward a degree, and gain personal enrichment. Many options are low-cost or even free.
There are many advantages to online learning: generally speaking, all you need is a computer and reliable access to the Internet; you don’t need to commute anywhere, and you can participate in your pajamas.
For working professionals, especially those with non-standard working hours such as nurses and firefighters, earning a degree or taking a class online makes education more accessible. Meanwhile, non-credit options may offer completion certificates that are great resume enhancers.
Today, the variety of subjects you can learn online is virtually limitless. For example, I teach psychology for a community college. At my institution, there also are online versions of: accounting, allied health, anthropology, biology, business, computer-aided design, composition, computer science, criminal justice, early-childhood education, economics, and so on.
Bottom line: Online classes can be a wonderful way to learn. But my experience teaching online for more than a decade is that some students think online classes will be easier than learning in a traditional classroom — that is, they will need to spend less time and exert less effort. This may be true for some students. For the rest of us, online learning actually requires extra “bandwidth.”
In particular, people who meet the following criteria may find online learning easier: prior successful completion of several online classes (not just one or two); exceptional self-directed study habits and technology experience, and limited other commitments.
Before you decide if online learning is right for you, consider some other pros and cons that I have listed below. It’s helpful to reflect on your own learning style as well as your strengths and weaknesses, and how they relate to each topic.
Interaction. Most online learning options are asynchronous, which means that you, the instructor, and your peers can log on anytime to read materials and complete assessments. Discussion boards and blogs can be useful to simulate classroom participation, but the dynamic is different as the “conversation” is not in real time. Meanwhile, synchronous courses require you to log on at a specific time. Comments and questions can be captured through email or a chat feature.
It’s also important to note that some courses might not be a good fit for an online format. You wouldn’t take swimming lessons online because direct feedback from the instructor while you actually are swimming is necessary. But other considerations might be more about preferences or learning style: an online accounting course might be a great fit, while a drawing course might be better in a traditional classroom format.
Reflection: Is the course you are considering asynchronous or synchronous? Do you love the real time, face-to-face connections of a classroom or workshop? Would you miss them? Or does this interaction overwhelm you (you’re an introvert or appreciate time to process information and then respond) and you prefer less direct interaction? How will learning be assessed? Will you be able to get the feedback needed to learn effectively?
Flexible time. Classroom learning has set beginning and end times. People notice when you are absent, arrive late, or depart early. These subtle social pressures help us to attend class, be on time, and stay for the entire session.
In an online course, you set your own schedule for when and how you engage with the material, so a time management is critical to success. For non-credit courses, usually an hour per week is required of your time. For credit-based courses, a simple calculation can help you know how much time you will need: Take the number of credits and multiply them by 3. This is the low end of hours per week you should expect to spend on a course. Next, multiply the number of credits by 4. This is the high end. So for a 3-credit course, 9 to 12 hours a week is what you need to spend for engaged learning (e.g., reading, discussion boards, quizzes, papers, correspondence with instructor). This calculation applies to standard 14/15-week semesters, so if it’s a 7-week summer session, consider doubling the weekly time estimate.
This estimate may be a bit high for some courses, but it’s better to set aside this time rather than be caught short, especially if you are new to online learning or a beginner in the content area.
Reflection: Do you like defined start and stop times? Do you have the capacity to set start and stop times for yourself and be accountable to them? Do you have the time to commit to an online class?
Writing. Many online courses are writing intensive. As mentioned in the interaction section above, discussion boards and blogs are often used to simulate discussion. Writing comes easier to some than others, but even for people who are good at it and enjoy it, it takes more effort and time than talking. Writing often requires outlining, drafts, revisions, proofreading, and citations.
Reflection: How are your writing skills? Is there writing help available that you can easily access?
Self-advocacy. An online course in many ways is directed study. You are given materials, access to the instructor’s expertise, and assessments. But it’s really up to you to evaluate your own progress and know when to access the instructor’s expertise. The instructor of an online course cannot read the expression of confusion on your face as you read about a new concept.
Some instructors hold virtual office hours, where they are available to chat online every week. Others will respond to questions via email, text, or phone.
Reflection: How good are you at evaluating when you need help to support your own learning? How comfortable are you asking for help?
Technology. Online courses generally run on a platform — a Learning Management System (LMS). In higher education, the common ones are Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. Most of these have an online orientation to help you understand how to access the course, navigate content folders, submit assessments, view feedback, etc. You may need Microsoft Office (at least Word) and Adobe or other applications, so be sure to check the syllabus.
Some online learning environments such as Lynda.com, Khan Academy, and Coursera are quite intuitive and straightforward and contain easy-to-load videos and/or PowerPoint slides. Lynda.com offers many technology courses. An advanced Excel course I took had a link to practice exercises, which was very helpful. Meanwhile, Khan Academy offers built-in quizzes for some of its topics.
Reflection: What platform will your online course use? Do you have the time to learn a new platform before the course begins? How quickly do you adapt to new technology? Do you know how to access technology help?
It’s wise to carefully think through these reflection questions above before deciding on enrolling in an online course. Are there other questions you might need to ask yourself? Remember, you are not Superman or Superwoman. Any course you take (online or otherwise) should be a reasonable challenge and not completely out of your comfort zone.
Here are a few examples of people who should not have enrolled in my online classes:
- A student who was a single parent of three young children who had just become homeless
- A student with full-time job and a part-time job who not only was taking my online class but another online class, and a classroom-based course at the same time
- A student who would not have been able to pass English Composition
- A student who continually submitted items to the wrong course area after my initial messaging about the first error
All of the cases above either withdrew or failed my course. These cases are extreme, but they demonstrate a point: Know your strengths and weaknesses before enrolling in an online course. Be able to identify why an online format is a good fit for what you want to learn.
If after reading this article you decide the pros outweigh the cons, go ahead and enroll!
Wendy Gordon-Hewick, M.A., is an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College. She has been teaching online since 2007. Last year she also started executive function coaching (part-time) to help high school, college, and adult learners navigate the challenges of coursework and other real-life applications. For ten years, she worked in specialized advising, assisting at-risk undergraduates persist in their studies through graduation. She is currently seeking a full-time opportunity to continue work in this area. Wendy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.