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How to be a successful online student

By Paul Epstein / July 2005

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There are 2.6 million students currently enrolled in online learning courses, according to a recent survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium and Babson College. However, a large percentage of those students either don't complete their courses or are unable to optimize their participation. Why? Because they lack the knowledge to select the most appropriate online courses based on their skill sets and areas of interest, or to succeed in those courses once enrolled.

Following are some tips for evaluating individual courses and getting the most out of the online learning experience. These tips can be used not only by prospective students seeking academic success, but by organizations running online programs that want to design better information and support for prospective and new students.

First Steps: Selecting the Right Program

Educate Yourself. Start by getting as much information as you can about courses, programs, and instructors before you sign up. Read each individual course description and syllabus carefully to see if a particular course fits your needs. Read the instructor's bio-the long version, if there is one. Conduct a Google search on the instructor to see what else he or she has done, other organizations with which they are associated, awards or recognitions they may have received, and what they have published. Look into the specifics of how the course or the program is delivered and what's expected from students. Understand what is expected of you by the end of the course to ensure your schedule will enable you to meet those demands.

Consider Information Delivery and How It Matches Your Lifestyle. Online learning covers a wide range of potential formats-from live, real-time webcasts and interactive workshops to traditional 12-week instructor-led courses and self-contained software in the form of CDs or downloadable PDF, Quicktime, or Flash files. The topic of your study may impact your desired mode of education.

For instance, if you are in sales, attending a 12-week class may not be realistic based on your on-the-road schedule; therefore, you may opt for a three-hour course that can be reviewed and studied in a single afternoon. However, if you are a designer who is revamping your portfolio, you may prefer a 12-week project-oriented course with a lot of teacher-peer interaction and feedback.

Preview the Class. Make sure you understand what you are getting into before you register. A 12-week course may have a three-hour introductory version that you can take to see if you really want to commit to the entire class. Find out what options are available to you if you are unsatisfied with a particular course. Determine whether you can transfer, get a credit towards another course, or get your money back if you're dissatisfied. Look for "satisfaction guaranteed" or "no risk" offers.

The Second Step: How to Succeed in Online Learning...Without Really Trying

Think about Study Habits. Most instructors present their content in a variety of ways. To get the most out of your class, think about your ideal study environment and choose your courses accordingly. It may be impractical to take part in a live, interactive workshop if you do not have a quiet environment in which to study and participate.

Set Aside the Time. Managing and scheduling your time effectively is the greatest ingredient for personal success with online learning. Regardless of how the course is structured, your participation is mandatory-meaning you have to schedule your availability to ensure regular "attendance" and participation.

Get Technically Ready. Pay attention to what technologies the class incorporates to facilitate student interactivity: chat rooms, discussion boards, video-conferencing, and other multimedia that build classroom community. In addition, bulletin boards and discussion boards aid instructors in assessing a student's overall participation and/or enrollment, so be sure to document your contributions frequently. It's important to note that the more interactivity and multimedia a course offers, the greater the minimum technical requirements become.

Make the Commitment. Ensuring online learning success means being present for self-growth. Accomplishing your goals means taking responsibility for your work, as well as interacting with peers for feedback and support. In short, it's a two-way exchange of ideas and information.


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