General Education

Do Online Classes Have Set Times? Yes, No, and Sometimes

Do Online Classes Have Set Times? Yes, No, and Sometimes
With the threat of the coronavirus continuing into the fall and next year, temporary doesn't appear to be so temporary after all. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly July 13, 2020

Whether you're new to online learning or adapting due to the pandemic, here's what next semester's online classes will require of you in terms of time—and time-management skills.

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Online education has grown significantly over the last decade, thanks mainly to its ability to teach vital skills and deliver qualifications in a flexible learning environment. From the get-go, its convenience has attracted students looking to maintain full- or part-time work as they advance their education. It's also ideal for parents looking to balance learning with childcare and other life commitments.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, online learning has become even more central to where and how students learn. When the pandemic forced the country into lockdown last spring, elementary and secondary schools, as well as university and college campuses, transitioned to remote instruction. Most people assumed the shift was only temporary. With the threat of the coronavirus continuing into the fall and next year, temporary doesn't appear to be so temporary after all. And the longer online learning remains the primary channel for education, the more it becomes "the new normal."

While some schools have opted to reopen their campuses in the fall with social distancing regulations in place, many others have planned either to focus exclusively on distance education or to provide a mix of online and on-campus learning. If your school is part of the latter group, here's what next semester's online classes will require of you in terms of time—and time-management skills.

How online classes work

You will access your online class via a web browser. Courses typically reside in a learning management system such as Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle. You'll receive login credentials to access each course in which you are enrolled. Each course will be divided into discrete web pages, each corresponding to an assignment in the curriculum.

Online courses can deliver a wide variety of content, including:

  • Streaming video
  • Slide shows
  • Interactive apps
  • Text pages
  • Downloadable pdfs
  • Quizzes
  • Assignments

How you interact with the course materials, your instructor, and your classmates depends on whether the material is delivered synchronously or asynchronously.

Synchronous classes

You'll likely come across the words "synchronous" and "asynchronous" as you begin planning for online learning. Both refer to how course content is delivered. Only synchronous classes operate within set time frames. Synchronous courses require students and instructors to meet in an online platform at a specific hour.

One of the most significant advantages of synchronous classes is that they facilitate the sort of meaningful interactions typical of a face-to-face learning environment. Thanks to real-time interaction through video conferencing software like Google Meet and Zoom, students receive immediate feedback to their questions and comments and stay active in the learning process.

The interaction and collaboration that's typical of synchronous learning help students and instructors maintain connections and feel part of a group—which may be more critical now than ever. Often, this sense of community stems from formal course-related interaction—like group teleconferencing and collaborative brainstorming—as well as more informal social interaction through online discussions, live chats, and self-scheduled study sessions.

Many instructors use online learning as an opportunity to implement "flipped classroom" strategies. Rather than lecturing during live sessions, teachers deliver lecture material in text format or via pre-recorded lecture videos. Live class sessions are then devoted to conversation, question-and-answer session, and problem-set review. Many students report that classes in this format are actually more interactive than their live classroom counterparts.

Asynchronous classes

Unlike synchronous online classes, asynchronous courses don't require students to log in to learning platforms at a set time. Instead, students can access reading materials, pre-recorded lectures, tests, and coursework at any time, 24/7. Are you a night owl? Early bird? Last-minute crammer? Doesn't matter. Asynchronous content is available whenever you want it, wherever you can access an internet connection.

You're not entirely on your own. Instructors of asynchronous courses are usually available during specified office hours. Even so, students tend to participate more independently, completing self-guided lesson modules and streaming video content in isolation.

Asynchronous courses offer maximum flexibility by allowing students to design their own learning schedules. Because of this, asynchronous online classes are especially convenient for students who need to balance their education with jobs, family care, and other outside responsibilities.

As much as interaction and collaboration may enhance the learning experience, some students may feel uncomfortable participating in real-time online discussions. They may wish to confirm concepts before sharing with a larger group. Or, they may have difficulty speaking up over other, more dominant students. For these students especially, asynchronous learning can help by eliminating social anxiety or fear of failure, providing opportunities to reflect and collect their thoughts before responding.

Strategies for online learning success

While plenty of online courses require fully asynchronous or synchronous learning, many blend both. They combine real-time lectures]and self-paced reading assignments or a mix of scheduled live chat sessions and group projects that allow students to contribute in a self-paced manner.

No matter the format, one of the universal challenges faced by online students is balancing their education with everything outside of it. Because of this, having strategies for managing their time, staying organized, and minimizing distractions are essential. We recommend these.

1. Create a schedule—and stick to it

Ink in your scheduled synchronous classes and create windows during which you will review asynchronous content. Also schedule time for studying and completing assignments. Don't forget to set aside time for work and family commitments as well as any other events and personal activities in their week. Planning time to play, relax, or do whatever also acts as a great reward for sticking to a schedule—and may even help students enjoy their free time more.

2. Block out on-screen distractions

Avoiding distractions is essential to student success. It can be easy to lose focus on school-related tasks with one-click access to mail, trending news, addictive games, and viral videos at hand. Instead of forcing students to rely on willpower alone, download one of the many website blocker tools that can help you overcome the temptation of whatever sites tend to hamper your productivity. Since mobile apps are often the sneakiest of all distractions, turning off their push notifications is always a good idea, too.

3. Create a study space

Studying in front of the TV, at the kitchen table, or in a local coffee shop may seem harmless enough, but these spaces can be jolting—and can often have adverse effects. In contrast, a quiet corner can help students enter "study-mode" more quickly, which is especially valuable before tests or when they're crunched for time. Ideally, students should look to designate spaces in their homes and arrange them so that they're organized, functional—and a place they'll want to be.

4. Leverage community

Compared to students in traditional in-person classes, online students sometimes get the sense that they're learning entirely independently. To avoid the feeling, students should build relationships with their online network as early on in a course as possible by introducing themselves to their instructors and peers. Many built-in tools, like discussion boards and video conferencing, are useful for collaborating and sharing information. With an instructor's approval, these outlets may also be used for non-academic student group chats. Social media is also a great way to build deeper relationships, whether students introduce themselves to peers via Instagram or forming study groups on Facebook.

5. Don't be afraid to ask for help

There's something to be said for finding answers to course-related questions on your own. It can, however, also become a huge time suck. Don't hesitate to seek assistance. Fortunately, online courses provide a wide scope of options for asking instructors and peers for assistance. Email, for one, is ideal for questions or requests that do not need an urgent answer. Video conferencing may be best for students who need an immediate answer to a question, or if their concern is best-explained face-to-face. Rules and introductory material, like course FAQs, are also helpful when dealing with inquiries related to the course basics, and can prevent students from asking questions that have already been answered.

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