If you’re considering an online degree program, you’re probably excited to achieve a stellar education in your own home, on your own schedule. But learning online is different than the way you’re used to going to school, and requires different skills to succeed.
Fortunately, there are some tried-and-true ways to thrive in an online education program. Done right, the learning experience can even be better than the face-to-face classroom. Here are eight tips to help you rock your online learning.
1. Pick a Program that’s Right for You
Online programs have a variety of structures, and some may be a better fit for your schedule and learning style. Some require you to attend video lectures at a specific day and time. With others, you can work at your own pace.
The amount of teacher-student and student-student interaction can vary greatly from program to program, too. At Loyola’s Master of Arts in Emerging Media program, each class has 20 students or less. At other schools—especially MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)—can have hundreds or even thousands of students enrolled in your class.
As part of your initial research, check out videos that feature online learning students, such as this one from Loyola’s Master of Arts in Emerging Media program, to learn what their experiences have been like to help you choose a program that’s a good fit.
2. Research the Faculty
Check out each school’s website for a list of faculty members and their academic credentials, research, and publications. Has the economics professor worked at the World Bank? Has the chemistry teacher consistently published new research in their field? If you’re looking at online graduate degree programs, the faculty’s experience is very important. Look for programs in which your education is the faculty’s top priority.
For example, Loyola’s online Master of Arts in Emerging Media Program is taught entirely by tenured or tenure-track professors or by affiliate faculty who have graduated from the program itself—and they all have cutting-edge, real-world experience to boot. Half are female and 20% are of color, offering students the opportunity to learn from a diverse community of instructors. So you can assess the faculty on credentials, experience, commitment and diversity.
3. Practice Using the Technology
Online courses are usually conducted through a learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard or Moodle. Think of it like a social media site, built just for you and your classmates where you can:
- Send and receive email
- View content posted by your instructor
- Collaborate with classmates using discussion boards, blogs, wikis, or other tools
- Submit assignments, usually via a drop box or Turnitin (a drop box-style tool that also checks the document for plagiarism)
Most online programs offer some kind of orientation to the technology before courses begin. Whether or not it’s officially offered, you’ll want to be sure to practice using all these tools before you actually need them. Struggling to figure out how the drop box works isn’t an excuse for turning in that assignment late!
4. Find a Rhythm for Your Schedule
The first time you take an online class, you might miss the routine of the traditional classroom. Having a dedicated time and place for learning, the structure of a face-to-face class, and a routine for homework and studying can be a comfort that’s hard to let go of.
To succeed in your online bachelor’s or online master’s program, you’ll need to create new, comfortable patterns that keep you working regularly throughout the semester. First, find the work spaces that work best for you, whether it’s the library, a coffee shop, or even your coffee table in your living room. Feel free to move locations, too, as research that shows if you mix it up and study in different places you can actually learn more.
Remember to carve out time to focus exclusively on class. No matter what they hype around online education says, you simply can’t study effectively while you’re cooking or doing child care, too. Schedule your learning sessions just as you would schedule attending a traditional class, set it on your calendar, and whatever happens, don’t skip it.
5. Understand Expectations
In an online classroom, the professor should provide clear guidelines up front. But if they don’t, be sure to ask questions.
How often should you post on the discussion board? How flexible are deadlines? When and how can you ask for additional help or guidance? Get an understanding of this early in the class to set yourself up for success.
6. Get to Know Your Professor
Ironically, in many programs it’s easier to build a relationship with a professor online than in a face-to-face setting. Try asking questions in the discussion forums, emailing your professor interesting articles related to the class, and taking advantage of any office hours they may have set up for video conferencing. Learning isn’t just about readings and videos, but also relies on interaction with your teacher.
Faculty and staff don’t mind if you ask questions or need help—all you have to do is ask. Remember, they can’t help you if they don’t know there is a problem to begin with!
7. Remember Your Learning Community
Unlike a traditional classroom, where the teacher is part of every conversation, an online classroom gives you the chance to discuss material with other students on your own, where you can grow together and learn from one another. Particularly in an online graduate degree program, your classmates have a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer.
Use the discussion boards to pose questions to classmates or respond to their posts, and make an effort to attend any online chat or video conference scheduled for the class.
8. Enjoy Some School Spirit
Whether enrolled in an online baccalaureate or online master’s degree program, online students usually have the same privileges as traditional students—library resources, financial aid counselors, academic support services, etc.—so be sure to take advantage of these.
If you live close to campus, try to attend some sports or social events, and make a visit to see professors or program advisors in person. If you live far way, purchase a school t-shirt or coffee mug to enjoy when you watch your class’ next video lecture. Whether you’re sitting on campus or at home when you attend class, it’ll help remind you that you’re part of a broader community. Your school is proud to have you, so take the time to show your pride in it!
If you found this article helpful, check out Loyola’s white paper, “How to Thrive in Online Education” for in-depth advice and insight.
1. Smith B. (2010). E-learning technologies: A comparative study of adult learners enrolled on blended and online campuses engaging in a virtual classroom (Doctoral dissertation).