Tips on ways to navigate online coursework and get the most out of them.
Over the years, online learning has emerged as a practical medium of education for students around the world. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a constituent program of the U.S. Department of Education, 6.9 million students were enrolled in distance education courses at a U.S. university or college in fall 2018. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, online education has assumed a renewed stature and meaning for students globally. Most U.S. universities already have cutting-edge technology-enabled instructional systems, which empowered them to respond to the pandemic swiftly and move students to online modes of instruction.
Universities offer online courses in a synchronous format, with all students in the course participating in live sessions at the same time, or in an asynchronous format, which gives students the flexibility to access the course per their convenience. Universities may even create a hybrid program in which some aspects of the course require live participation and others take place “on demand” for the student.
As students adopt online learning as the primary medium of instruction and academic engagement, it is important to think about ways to mitigate concerns and maximize the experience of e-learning.
Here are some suggestions that may help students who are planning to take online classes in the near future.
Familiarize yourself with the environment
Coursework at U.S. universities, whether in-person or online, is often facilitated through a learning management system (LMS)—a virtual platform that provides access to course-related documents, videos, syllabus and other content uploaded by faculty members. It also allows students to engage with peers on group projects, have discussions, make paper submissions and take assessments. Some of the most widely-used platforms include Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace and Moodle. Over the years, these platforms have become intuitive, with easy interfaces and design, and can be accessed through computers or mobile apps. It is always a good idea to explore the LMS once you receive a login and password, and go through the tutorials and videos that offer tips on maximizing platform usage. Students should also check if their institutions offer orientation programs to help acclimatize them to the platforms.
Try an online course
There are several free and subscription-based online courses that students can explore to not only learn a new subject or skill, but also understand their learning patterns. A few popular platforms include Coursera, Udemy and Udacity. The number of disciplines and topics covered on these platforms is astonishing and a testament to how far online learning has come.
Create a support network
With just your computer or phone as companions, online learning can sometimes feel like a lonely business. However, you can build a network to support you in this journey.
a. Professors and teaching assistants: Remember to interact regularly with your professors about the course, how you are coping and aspects that you may need help with. Professors at U.S. universities are always willing to help students, and provide guidance and mentorship. If the course has teaching assistants working with the professor, seek their help too. Teaching assistants are students who have successfully completed the course or a similar program and will be able to support you with your learning needs.
b. Peers and classmates: Engage with other students and interact with them about the course and their online learning experience. Peers can often be a source of shared experiences and, therefore, a strong support system in your online learning experience. This will even help you later when you arrive on campus, as you will already have a group of people you know through the online classes.
c. Library and resource center: U.S. universities are known for their expansive library infrastructure and resources, most of which are easily accessible online through student logins. Support staff provide orientation and training to help students navigate the resources and search for e-books, journal articles and much more. Make sure you attend the library orientation and ask for extra help from the library support staff, if you need it.
d. Reading and writing center: If your U.S. university has a reading and writing center, access its services and office hours to get help with academic writing and coursework. You will find yourself churning out a lot of reports, essays, research papers and other written work for your classes. The staff at the center can review your work, and give feedback and tips on how you can improve your papers. Several reading and writing centers also have student tutors who can guide you through the course, if you need extra help.
e. University IT support: Do not hesitate to reach out to university IT support if you experience any technical issues with your LMS, the course, your email account or other platforms used to facilitate online classes.
Maintain a calendar
As you begin an online course, you will be given a syllabus and important milestones. You can add these to your virtual calendar to keep track of important deadlines. This will be especially useful for asynchronous courses, which do not have regularly scheduled classes, but do have specific timelines for assessment and submission of papers.
While teaching-learning may take place online, it is essential to think about the physical spaces you will use for online courses. Find a quiet corner of the house with good Internet connectivity, where you can sit comfortably for a prolonged period of time. Working and studying from home can adversely affect the body if you maintain poor posture and use furniture that do not support your back. Invest in basic equipment like a desktop or laptop with webcam and headphones with mic for improved audiovisual interaction.
Online courses allow students to become self-aware learners and contribute to long-term retention of concepts, as students are compelled to apply themselves differently than they would in a regular classroom setting. Individual contributions and achievements are very clearly visible in the virtual space because effort is quantifiable through deliverables and active participation. In addition, students will find that the life skills they develop through this process will hold them in good stead, whether they take a face-to-face class in 2021 and beyond or prepare to join the workforce.
Bhavvna Jolly is a senior program officer for EducationUSA at the United States-India Educational Foundation.