As someone who's been teaching online for the past four years, I often get asked if online learning is as effective as resident or in-person courses. The answer is almost always yes, depending on the program. The next question people ask me is: How does it work? I teach an online course with a synchronous element—meaning, I meet students in a weekly virtual class to review the coursework. It looks kind of like the Brady Bunch intro, with smiling faces in squares, minus the loving looks from side to side, and up and down the screen. (If you're too young to understand the Brady Bunch reference, you can catch it on Hulu.)
Before teaching online, I taught undergraduate courses on campus for several years and spent one year as a high school teacher. I fell into online teaching, first as I was going out of town for a year and saw teaching the online version of my course was a way to keep working.
Then, after I moved permanently, I stumbled upon an opportunity to teach a course for an online MBA program. While this course makes up the bulk of my online education experience, I've also developed an online course and—on the flip side—experienced an online class as a student when I was in grad school.
Most students taking graduate courses have the drive; they want to be there. However, I've found that some people—both undergrad and grad level—think that just because a course is online means that it's easier, and they don't need to engage as much. It's not easier, especially if it's a good program. Even if the program isn't exceptionally well-designed, it can be a lot of work. You need to be motivated because you'll need to do a bulk of the work on your own.
Thanks to my experience in online learning, I've been able to identify what makes an effective program and what makes a successful student experience, particularly if you need to show up virtually every week. Here's what to look for in a program with some tips for what to do—and not do—once you begin your online classes.
When I participated in an online course as a grad student, I checked in and retrieved the material, turned it in, waited for a grade, then completed the next assignment, over and over again. I felt like I was floating in some virtual world all by myself. To top it off, the instructor would often take a week to respond to my emailed questions. I felt like I might as well have been taking a course by horse and buggy—not that there's anything wrong with that. But, if you're someone who learns better by connecting with others, working together and sharing experiences and opinions, then a program with a synchronous element might be best for you.
Most people who take courses online have a job or a family, or both. They feel drawn to online coursework because they can do the work on their own time. For some, fitting in a live session is just not possible—perhaps an unpredictable work schedule, for example, won't allow it. Or maybe the time zone you're in doesn't work with the class times. (I'm always impressed with how some of my international students have joined classes when it's 2 or 3 a.m. their time.)
If you can go this route, a live session will let you engage with other students and the instructor, typically once a week. You can do the same things that you would do in a classroom: work in small groups, conduct peer reviews for class assignments, and discuss homework material.
Be aware that some programs that lack the synchronous element have some instructors who offer online office hours. This is not the same as a live session, but it's useful if you need help.
It's one thing to attend a live session, but if the class size is very big, it may lose its effectiveness. It may be challenging to get your instructor's attention, for example, and it'll be harder to get to know your classmates. I teach a group of 10 students in my program. Programs will differ, though; ask about the program you're interested in. Some programs may even allow you to sit in on a class and observe before you commit to enrolling. It can't hurt to ask.
Many of the more prominent, established programs offer 24/7 tech support. This means that if you get bumped out of class because of spotty Wi-Fi or some other reason, tech support can help you back in. Or, for example, if you can't figure out the instructions for how to create the recording that's part of your assignment, tech support can help here, too. (Your instructor will likely not be available for you at odd hours.) Smaller, fledgling programs might not have such extensive support. There's nothing wrong with that; I taught a class in such a program. But if you consider yourself tech-challenged, then the support might be something important to you.
Just like in a brick-and-mortar classroom, an instructor notices if you don't do the work. Going over the week's homework one evening, I couldn't help but admire the raw honesty of one student who unapologetically said, "I didn't do it," when it was his turn to speak. At the same time, I made a mental note of it. It doesn't make you look good.
Just like you can see everyone else's video set up, they can see yours, so take a peek at yourself on screen. I remember one student who used to place his face right up to the computer screen; as a result, the rest of us saw a close up mainly of his eyes and nose. This setup was a little distracting. Sit back and straight, so that your head and shoulders are on the screen.
Your face and shoulders can convey a lot. If you're slumped over, lying in bed with a glass of wine, or lounging on a couch, you're saying, "I don't want to be here." I'm not saying you need to smile throughout a 90-minute session, but if you look angry, for example, it's noticeable. Most of my students are delightful and charming—and fun. But I get the occasional student who looks grumpy. Maybe it's their resting face, or perhaps they are annoyed because of a grade or even having to take the course (mine is required). This type of behavior is distracting to everyone, though, and it won't help your success in the class. If something's bothering you, make an office hour appointment with the instructor to clear the air and move forward so that everyone's happier.
Participation goes beyond just being prepared. If the instructor is looking for insight from the class, try to offer some. I'm not uncomfortable with long pauses, so I typically wait until I have volunteers during a discussion. Being one can only help with your success in the course. True, knowing when it's ok to talk or not talk in an online environment can be tricky. But when you participate, you're more engaged, which can help your overall experience.
The same goes for courses that lack the synchronous element. Often these courses rely on tools such as forums for people to post ideas; if you ignore them or post the bare minimum, the instructor will notice. If you're paying for the course—why not get the most of it?
Many live classes feature chat boxes, where you can share a response if you're reticent to speak up, offer an aside, or ask a question during a discussion. This feature is a fun way to engage with each other. But I've seen students use the chatbox to vent frustration about the work or type whatever random thought comes into their head, which can get awkward. Keep it appropriate and relevant.
You wouldn't leave your campus class for 20 minutes and stroll back in whenever you feel like it. I've had some students message me during a course and tell me they needed to attend to a screaming baby or answer the door but would be right back. Instructors typically understand this. But we notice if your camera is off for an extended time—it's as if you've left class, and that's rude and disruptive.
One time I had a student arrive late, appearing to be in a car. She turned it off as she was (presumably) driving and turned it back on when she came home. She then walked through the house, stopping in the kitchen to gather dinner before she finally sat still in one place for the class. All this was distracting and did not make a good impression.
Make sure you've got everything you need before class starts, whether it's dinner or a beverage. Arrive on time and plan to stay, just like you would on campus.
Let's say you've gotten organized and have your dinner all set before class. The sound quality is excellent on some online platforms; be sure to turn off your audio, so we don't hear you chewing. One time a student forgot to turn his sound off when he stepped away to go to the bathroom. He felt mortified when he discovered this.
I've heard of an administrator who tells poorly performing students that graduate school is like a full-contact sport. His point was that either you're in or you're out. Don't treat it like an aside.
Check your email during the week. If you don't, you may be missing out on essential reminders from the instructor. I've encountered students who forgot to submit an assignment and then missed out on the opportunity to still receive credit for it because they didn't see the email reminder from me.
On the same token, communicate with the instructor. If you're going to be late, give a heads up. If life gets in the way, and you need more time for an assignment, contact the instructor. Don't just turn it in late. Online programs are typically geared for working professionals; instructors tend to be sympathetic, but only if you communicate.
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Melissa Kaye teaches business communication in an online MBA program. She's taught writing and public speaking on the undergraduate level as well. Before that, she was a writer and editor—first in journalism, then in public relations.