Many individuals would like to advance their education, but face difficulties in attending traditional college degree programs because of work or family obligations, geographical location or other obstacles. For those students, online degree programs may be the best or only way to get a college education. However, just because you may be able to complete a college course without ever leaving your house doesn’t mean that the work is easier or that there won’t be any challenges along the way.
Who Studies Online?
The National Center for Education Statistics says that 14 percent of undergraduates and nearly 31 percent of graduate students earn their degrees completely online. A greater percentage, however, take at least one online course. While undergraduates surveyed saw their programs as equal to traditional offerings, more than half of graduate students said that the online degree programs were better than traditional advanced degrees.
So, who studies online? According to the same website, 35.3 percent of students take at least one course online. In fact, in one four-year period the number of people studying online more than doubled. While enrollment at traditional brick-and-mortar schools is down by up to four percent in the US, the percentage of students enrolled in online programs has risen by double digits. The pandemic has resulted in an uptick of online students as well, but the growth from Covid-19 may be temporary. Students forced to take online programs view them more negatively than those who elected to forego traditional learning. That may be because online learning is not without difficulties.
Misunderstanding Effort Involved
The first big hurdle online students face is miscalculating their workloads. Some students take online courses because they can adapt their schedules and work full-time while earning a degree. Here’s the caveat. Traditional program courses average three credits each. So do online courses. Traditional students will spend three hours a week in the classroom. Online students should spend the same amount of time reading the materials and listening to online lectures. Additionally, schools recommend that students spend four-to-five hours a week for each three-credit course doing paperwork, completing assignments and participating in online forums. Some online courses, however, require more work than traditional ones, and students could be expected to complete the course load of one-and-a-half times that of traditional courses. Those estimates are for undergraduate programs. Graduate students should prepare to spend double that time on those activities.
Virtual Classroom Engagement
Perhaps the most common challenge students face in online degree programs is the lack of face-to-face engagement with professors and other students. Online courses are typically conducted through a virtual learning platform. This platform may include reading materials, assignments, and even a forum or chat room for class discussions. Professors can provide course instruction in a variety of ways, such as by sharing slide show presentations, posting videos of recorded lectures, or even streaming lectures live. However, despite the range of ways instructors can foster student engagement, some students simply do not find a virtual classroom as engaging as a traditional one. The lack of in-person communication can become problematic for students who are struggling to understand course material, according to The New York Times.
Besides increasing the difficulty of interpreting the material, the lack of engagement can leave students feeling isolated. That is because education is not only an academic pursuit; it is social. Isolation brought on by the lack of peer-to-peer and student-instructor interaction can bring on depression. That, in turn, can make concentrating on assignments difficult, decrease the ability to organize thoughts and disrupts memory. Of course, not all students taking courses or entire programs online will suffer depression, but many will. In fact, a US News and World Report asserts that students interact with peers in person less than they did a generation ago. While they do interact online, it is a different atmosphere. Half of traditional college freshmen reported feeling depressed when they entered school. Social engagement is necessary to good mental health, and students who study online must take advantage of virtual gatherings and forums for academic success and for their own mental health.
If you find yourself struggling in an online class, it is important that you address the problem sooner rather than later. One way to start is by contacting your instructor privately, either through the virtual learning platform or through email. Your professor may be able to help you understand the material more clearly. He or she may recommend supplemental reading to help you brush up on basic information that you are unfamiliar with. If necessary, your instructor may suggest tutoring, which is available at a number of schools that offer online degree programs.
The Importance of Staying Motivated
For some students, the convenience of online courses can encourage poor study habits. Without a set class schedule, as students would have in a traditional course, the temptation to procrastinate may be stronger. With no in-person interactions with the instructor or with fellow students, it can be easy to forget assignments and deadline unless the student keeps organized. Online courses often require just as much work as traditional college classes, so putting off coursework can leave students struggling when important deadlines approach.
Because online courses are not supervised in the same way traditional college classes are, the student must stay motivated and organized to succeed. Some students find that designating specific times for coursework helps them. They may treat these self-appointed times as a student in a traditional degree program would treat class times. Keeping an accurate schedule in a day planner and checking it frequently can make sure students don’t miss assignments or deadlines. You can succeed in an online class, but it may take more self-discipline, a greater commitment to staying motivated and better study habits than a traditional course would require.
How to Get Motivated
People start out motivated to study online, but once the novelty wears off, the romance ends. They begin to doubt whether they can succeed and become discouraged. Psychology Today says one answer to this problem is affirming self-talk. The theory is that people are inclined to do things that increase their perception of being adequate. If thy make a choice to affirm themselves, the resulting positivity can help them attain goals. It also enables them to make rational assessments about themselves. That all comes down to telling themselves that they are capable of success if they just take reasonable steps.
Organization and avoiding procrastination are great ways to begin. It also helps to cut down on distractions. The biggest distraction for online students is social media, but there are others. Identifying and ridding oneself of these time wasters can lead to feeling more organized. That means not answering phone calls or checking up on your Facebook “status.” There are apps that allow people to close certain websites and applications at a specified time and for a stated duration.
It also can help to get your family or those living with you onboard. The week of finals does not mesh with your “turn” at doing the laundry, for instance. Others can help at this time, becoming a part of your victory. Employers can also be encouraging by tailoring your work deadlines to not fall during stressful school loads.
The idea of setting up a planner is a good one, but students also need to break up study sessions into smaller blocks with smaller goals. When one of these goals is reached, students have feelings of accomplishment. Additionally, at the end of a block, there needs to be a short built-in break as a reward and a time to “rewire.”
Experts also advise students not to multitask. It is much easier to succeed if one activity at a time is mastered.
The biggest thing people can do to help themselves get motivated is to show up. Traditional students fall behind and become disinterested in classes when they don’t attend them. In the same way, putting in a virtual appearance can set up an attitude of purposefulness. Students whose virtual classes are synchronous check into a class. Those who have asynchronous courses, or classes that are accessed at any time, can show up by keeping self-appointed study times. Showing up in street clothes instead of pajamas may help achieve the right mindset as well.
Lack of Digital Literacy
Just as being unable to read cripples students when trying to use printed resources, being digitally illiterate can keep them from succeeding in online study. Recalling that education is a social activity as well as an intellectual one, it is imperative to be able to access forums to interact with peers and navigate email to contact instructors.
Additionally, students must be able to use programs like Word to create documents. It is completely frustrating to write a three-thousand word paper, or even one of two-hundred-and-fifty words, then hit the wrong button and have the project disappear into digital outer space. Inserting symbols and hyperlinking are vital skills to master as well. Completed projects must be saved and stored or sent on their way to professor’s in-boxes.
Virtual meetings, collaborative projects and online forums all require understanding how to locate the right sites and enter passwords. In order to complete an online program or even a single course, students must have a fundamental knowledge of how to operate in the “cyber world.” If students don’t have this knowledge, it is important to take a prerequisite computer skills course.
It’s discouraging to locate an assigned video and begin to watch it, only to have that annoying buffering circle begin to spin in the center of the screen. Aside from a computer, a reliable and fast Internet connection is the most important beginning point for an online course or program. If the signals are weak or the bandwidth too narrow to connect, there is no way to succeed in online learning. While it may be more expensive to begin with, having a high quality service that comes with 24/7 tech service is invaluable.
About half of online students say they use their mobile devices to study or complete assignments. More schools are making online programs accessible to mobile phones and tablets. One concern with this is is being able to connect at all times. If you use your phone to access your program, it is a good idea to locate any publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks such as through libraries or restaurants that you could use if your network was down.
One of the biggest obstacles to online study may be the school or the program itself. Many schools have instituted an online component, but it is an adjunct to traditional courses. Schools that are dedicated to helping students succeed in online study have faculties that are knowledgeable in the aspects of online vs traditional learning. That includes recognizing how the students are accessing materials. For instance, many schools put assignments, resources and lectures online in file types that are not accessible from some mobile devices. Files intended to be downloaded are too large for many mobile devices as well. Although this seems to fall more into the realm of technical issues, the fact is that schools serious about offering quality online programs will tailor the materials to be accessed by mobile and desktop devices. They also have counselors and technical support staff available at all times. Their learning platforms are “user friendly” and reliable. They have responsive teaching staff and safe and simple access to forums and student portals. That means the way to get over this hurdle is to take a close look at the school’s online programs.
Online universities have arisen to meet the increasing demand for online courses and programs. To compete, traditional universities have implemented digital components. All of this is to attract the student who wants to earn a degree in a flexible and affordable way. Online programs have many advantages, but there are pitfalls as well. People who are not self-disciplined will have to work harder to succeed at these courses. While online programs may cost less, students still need to factor in the cost of good computers, fast and reliable Internet service and perhaps even a course in basic computing. Additionally, all online programs are not equal. Students still need to research the programs and the schools that offer them.