How Does It All Work?

For students interested in online education, mapping their educational futures can be a dauntingly ambiguous task. An online search for clarification often provides too-vague answers to your basic questions about how exactly online programs work at a detailed level.

In addition, you seldom can rely on past experience, especially from high school, to inform you of the challenges and demands of the online platform – though according to Tracy Gray, director of the Center for Implementing Technology in Education, high schools are utilizing “various types of technology, including many social media tools to support and enhance classroom instruction.”

Don’t Let Initial Reservations Dissuade You

Jeff Kennedy, an alumnus of Liberty University and one of many students who made the decision to continue his education online rather than at a conventional brick-and-mortar institution, had insecurities about making the transition to online learning. He had never having pursued or researched it prior to enrolling at Liberty.

“I was really nervous the first time I logged into class. I was also very uncertain how I would adjust to the online class environment,” Kennedy said. The classes turned out to be much less formidable than Kennedy expected, however, and the learning curve far more forgiving.

As with most things, it is probably the lack of specific knowledge that initially intimidates most prospective online students. But, as Kennedy discovered, once enrolled, students are often impressed with the ease of access and intuitiveness of the classes and their respective delivery platforms, quickly becoming familiar and proficient with the new technology.

Scheduling Your Classes

Most online colleges have rolling sessions rather than semesters, with each course lasting anywhere from five to sixteen weeks. You will often have minimal or no time off in between each session. Depending on the institution and degree plan, students usually take one or two courses at a time. For example, Strayer University has academic quarters with students enrolling in one to two courses at a time. At Ashford University, sessions last five weeks and students typically take one course at a time with the option for a break before starting the next class.

In some cases, if you are trying to earn your degree more quickly, you may be allowed to enroll in two courses at a time after completing your first two online courses.

Using Learning Technology

To deliver course materials, online schools partner with course-management software companies, such as Blackboard, Angel, or eCollege, which develop and license applications for each school’s particular needs. There are also open source options available to schools, such as Moodle, which are less expensive and more customizable.

Each platform is unique in layout, interface, and design, but they all perform the same basic function: provide students organized access to the learning modules, lessons, lectures, activities, assignments, videos, and any other relevant material professors include. One professor, Dr. Danielle Babb of Kaplan University, said of the course management systems that, “one isn’t easier to learn or more intuitive; they are just different. Students will still have assignments, lectures, discussions and full integration with popular tools and chat systems through [all] of these platforms.”

These course management systems are the basic building blocks of online learning, the online equivalent of the classroom in traditional universities. Instead of arriving to a room at a scheduled time, you will log on to whichever of the systems your school uses with a designated username and password combination. A successful login will bring you to your homepage, where all the online classes you are currently enrolled in will be listed; clicking one of the classes takes you to the portal for that class which presents all the class material and assignments.

Your Class Routine

If there are no scheduled class times or lectures to attend, you are free to log in and post to the discussion forum, browse course materials, or turn in an assignment at any time that fits into your busy schedule. This mode of learning, typical of online education, is asynchronous. However, Strayer University offers both asynchronous and synchronous courses for online students.

Synchronous courses will more closely resemble traditional on-campus courses with a scheduled time for you and your professor to meet in the online classroom periodically throughout the term or even every week. Each course may have its own participation and attendance requirements, but prospective students should except to participate in the course site at least two times per week.

Discussion boards commonly account for a significant percentage of your grades – the discussion boards strive to simulate the dialogue that is found in physical classrooms, and to keep you engaged in the material.

Student engagement with course content, classmates, and the instructor comes with a lot of responsibility in the online environment. Daniel McCrobie, a faculty member at University of Phoenix, said, “At the beginning of the week, I post the reading assignments, discussion questions and the assignments. Each student is responsible for showing up and posting their ideas on 4 of the 7 days in a week. This participation requirement is more stringent for the online students because in class there are several students that may not speak at all.”

A normal day in an online college involves logging into classes several times a day to look over lectures, and check and submit assignments. Some courses include synchronous features – Professor Mike Hubbel of Temple University’s online program, for example, delivers live lectures to students who all watch simultaneously from their personal computers and respond by chat every three minutes to discussion points in the lecture.

Other courses demand intense independent study, and, frequently, much reading and researching. Lectures in this format are typically videos, textbook-style readings, or PowerPoint presentations. If there is a video, it is likely not a live lecture, but rather another professor at the school who has had his/her lecture recorded. The lecture could even be from years ago or from an outside source such as Academic Earth or other educational lecture collections.

“Some teachers use a video camera and record themselves explaining a key concept on a chalkboard, and then upload it to their YouTube account, which can then be used over and over in the future with all students they have,” said Michelle Rogers-Estable, a doctoral student in instructional technology and distance learning and part-time instructor at the University of the People and the University of Montana. “Others use a word processing software like Microsoft Word to write up a tutorial or lesson and include graphics, online weblinks and resources, and then give that to students at the course or via email. Others just call the student and discuss the items by phone.”

Getting Your Course Materials

Course materials are comparable to those found in traditional classrooms, but in an electronic format: textbooks, ebooks, PDF files, documents, and so forth. Melissa Venable, an online education expert who used to teach at Kaplan University, offered a detailed account of the typical course materials used in online colleges.

“A lot of online courses still have textbooks, so chapter reading is common,” Venable said. “A list of articles available in the library may also be assigned each week. Some classes rely heavily on reading assignments. It’s not necessarily the best design, but quick to deploy, especially if a course has been developed around a specific textbook. Some items are actually embedded in the course to be downloaded by student. This can be tricky with copyright though, so you are more likely to find ‘reserved reading’ areas in an online library and/or students just search for the articles in the library’s online database.”

Outside of the Online Classroom

You might find that you have concerns about opportunities to expand your education to real-world applications in the form of internships or field training. However, online colleges are constantly improving their programs to meet the needs of students in this regard. For example, American Intercontinental University recently announced an internship program for online students.

This allows students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in any major to take an internship course in place of any general elective. In addition, Kaplan University uses capstone courses in their nursing program to get students the real-world experience they need from this type of education. This course is the culmination of study where students apply the nursing process in a real life healthcare setting and implement the concepts they have learned throughout the program while under the supervision of a qualified professional at the capstone facility.

Succeeding in an Online Class

How you choose to handle the participation requirement, along with the additional assignments, quizzes, readings, lectures, and tests, is largely up to you, but Liberty student Kennedy offered some advice: “Never ever fall behind in a week’s assignments. The weekly deadline of Sunday at midnight was a really helpful marker, and students should utilize it … I would encourage students to read the material from day one.”

In addition, there are a few technological skills and requirements you must have and meet. First and foremost, basic web navigation skills and competency in the primary productivity suite programs, such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, are paramount. Generally, course management systems are designed to be user-friendly and intuitive; Ernie Weeks, an online instructor at Kaplan University, even went so far as to say that, “if the students have to ‘learn’ how to use the course, then it is a major problem.”

But you still need a working knowledge of Internet browsing and should be comfortable, if not savvy, with technology. Some courses require knowledge of programs specific to their subject, such as InDesign for media design students, but the majority will only require you to be able to compose documents, tables, and presentations in programs with which they may already be familiar.

Perhaps more important than any technical know-how for online students, however, are the characteristics of self-discipline and persistence. “The teacher is no longer the leader of learning as they are in a face-to-face setting,” said Rogers-Estable. “The teacher becomes the aide, mentor, and facilitator of learning.”

This means you are the leader of your own learning experience and must be prepared to stay highly motivated and organized in order to keep up, even as you often face the demands of a full-time job and family.

“If you do not go in with a game plan, a schedule of study and work time, dates you plan on turning in papers, times you know you’ll have time to relax or times when you’ll have the opportunity to knock a paper out, you will fail at online learning,” warned Michael Wright, an online student at Liberty University.

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