According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is estimated that nearly four million students will be enrolled in online-only degree programs by 2014. That large number is still increasing, due in no small part to the online college learning model, which places an emphasis on flexibility and affordability, with an especially strong focus on being beneficial to working adults. However, despite the growing prevalence of online courses and degree programs, prospective students may still be unsure about the process of online learning and have questions about what they might expect on their first day of class. They wouldn’t be alone in that insecurity, either.
“I was really nervous the first time I logged into class,” said Jeff Kennedy, alumni of Liberty University’s online program. “I was also very uncertain how I would adjust to the online class environment. But before long, I was a pro at the online interface.”
Preparing for Your First Day
The first step is to visit your school’s portal page. This will lead you to your school’s online learning platform. Different schools use different platforms, such as Blackboard, eCollege, or Moodle. It is beneficial to log in to the platform prior to the official start date for the class and click around the interface so that you may explore all the different functions in order to familiarize yourself with the learning space. In addition, if you have any browser or plug-in compatibility issues, you will have time to resolve them before you are trying to complete coursework.
At the very least, schools will have a guide for students to review, highlighting the major tools and functions of the online learning platform. Strayer University has a series of video tutorials to aid their students, while the University of Phoenix offers a three-week online or on-site orientation for new students entering with fewer than 24 college credits. Once familiarized with the learning space, students can start preparing for the first day of class. Most instructors will post a syllabus and textbook list before the course is scheduled to officially start.
“I set up my courses prior to the start date to include any lectures or extra information. I have a welcome message that I post and any helpful materials I think they will need,” explained online instructor Diane Hamilton, who teaches at several schools, including the University of Phoenix and Ashford University.Reading over the schedule for the term and ordering any books or course materials ahead of time is a good idea as well. Courses may either utilize traditional textbooks or electronic textbooks. Students may have the option of choosing which they would prefer.However, there certainly is a movement towards entirely electronic resources. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, four major text book publishers recently announced that they will be collaborating with Blackboard, a popular online learning platform, to develop more advanced e-textbook resources.
Your First Day of Class
Students new to online education might be surprised to find the information covered on the first day of class to be similar to that of on-campus courses. It is simply the format that is different. If you have already logged in prior to the official first day of class, reviewed the syllabus, and familiarized yourself with the platform, nothing should be too surprising.
“The first day is usually about getting to know everyone in the course and understanding what will be required in the course,” said Hamilton.
Since most online colleges use an asynchronous structure for their courses, students will likely be coming and going at different times of the day according to their individual schedules. To try to encourage a sense of community within such a fluid environment, instructors will often have students post short biographies to introduce themselves to their peers.
“Not all of the instructors require personal introductions of students, but they should,” said Kennedy, the online Liberty University graduate. “This was very helpful in knowing who the person was that you were interacting with.”
In addition, students may have to complete a course requirement checklist or answer a few simple questions, indicating they have reviewed the course materials to get credit for having attended the course the first day. Moving forward, students will typically be held accountable for participation and attendance requirements based on posting in the discussion forums, turning in written assignments, or submitting a test or quiz.
Time Management: Working Ahead and Falling Behind
Students may be able to work ahead by reading forward on the syllabus and completing future assignments, but it depends on your instructor’s discretion, the course structure, and whether or not assignments are posted ahead of time. However, it is important to consider how this might influence your overall learning experience.
“Whether students can work ahead or not depends on the policy at the university,” said online professor Colin Murcray, who teaches at the University of Phoenix and Ashford University. “I have no problem with them working ahead a bit as long as they understand they may not do as well on the assignments.”
Students should also keep in mind that some courses have a strict format that builds on previous information covered in the course. Some instructors, or some of the pre-designed courses, do not encourage or allow working ahead for this reason. In addition, be mindful that even if students are allowed to work ahead, they must continue to participate until the end of the course and meet all institutional attendance requirements or risk being dropped from the class.
On the other hand, if a student falls behind, it can be very difficult, but not impossible, for them to catch up. This can depend on instructor and institutional policies, but most importantly, a student’s motivation to continue in the program.
“I tend to want to see them succeed, and will allow them to catch up, especially if there were extenuating circumstances,” said Murcray. “However, if they fall too far behind, I may not allow it, and they are never allowed to make up for lack of participation.”
Each institution has their own policy about when a student should be dropped from a course. Typically, your instructor will try to get you back on track before this occurs. However, keep in mind that the main challenge in online learning that prospective students often under estimate is the need for self-motivation.
“I highly encourage students to practice being a self-starter now,” said Liberty graduate Kennedy. “This is often the biggest hurdle for those considering online education.”