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4 Best Practices for Online Learning, from an Online Student

Posted on May 6, 2020
hands over a laptop

This week’s blog post is written by Sarah Camp, while she is an MS in Communications student, she took my NPM 520 Writing for Nonprofits course last term and she served as a graduate assistant for Goodwin’s communications manager. I asked Sarah if she would share her thoughts on online learning. Here are her insights:



Anne Converse Willkomm

Assistant Clinical Professor

Department Head of Graduate Studies

Goodwin College of Professional Studies

Drexel University

In our digital age, doing things online is the norm, from banking, to shopping, even education. Whether it’s K-12 or higher ed, online learning has become more common. Many schools have complete degree programs online or offer hybrid options where some, but not all, classes are online. By completing the program online, you have the option to do it on your own time—balancing work, family life and academics.

Personally, I do not know how I would have been able to complete my bachelor’s degree if it were not for the ability to take nearly half of my classes online. Now, I am earning my master’s in communication completely online at Drexel University. Being an online student comes with its own unique challenges—alongside the many benefits. As I’ve learned, nothing worth doing, like earning your degree, should be easy; but it is manageable and convenient.

Dispelling the misconceptions of online learning

There are several different moving parts in online education, which can seem overwhelming. One of the most common misconceptions about online education is that you are teaching the material to yourself, and online classes are much easier than face-to-face classes. Now that is not to say online classes are any more or less challenging than face-to-face classes, material-wise, they are the same, just taught in a different way.

Some online classes are taught through synchronous delivery. This means students are all online at the same time with the professor, while other classes are delivered asynchronously, meaning students can log on and complete their work at any time during the day. In the latter, the lectures are generally pre-recorded and students have the entire week to listen to the lecture and complete the associated assignment(s). Being a good online learner in my experience is all about being open to the process.

Benefits of Online Learning

Time Management

As I had mentioned before, I am no stranger to online learning. I retain much more information doing it on my own time. Busy during the day? Since most of my classes are asynchronous, I can log on any time, nights, weekends, whenever. Like many students who opt for online learning, I have a busy schedule that make face-to-face classes nearly impossible. In my experiences, my professors post their lectures, which includes an audio recording with the slides, a video of them teaching the content, or PDF files of the lecture. Being able to view or read a lecture on my own time has been beneficial to me, giving me, and students like me, more time to work, do my assignments, or simply take time for myself. It also provides me with the opportunity to go back multiple times to ensure I grasp the content.

Depth of class discussion

Communication can also become easier in an online classroom—especially for those who might not raise their hand right away because they need time to formulate a response. I majored in journalism for my undergraduate degree, and many of my classes were focused on open discussions. However, it is difficult to have an engaging discussion about current news when only a few of us were awake enough for talking during a 9:30 a.m. class. What I have noticed about myself, at least, is how much more engaged I am online.

In any online course, no matter what your degree is, will have weekly discussion questions. These are used to keep students engaged by talking about assigned readings, topic ideas for upcoming assignments, or even current events in relation to your field. In my experience, having the time to respond in the discussion board helps me to come up with a well thought out and engaging post that will spark conversation. It also gives me the opportunity to find a related article that supports my points and include the link in my post. Discussion questions are, in my opinion, the best and easiest way to stay engaged in the class and with your classmates and professor.

With that being said, I also find myself more comfortable communicating with my professors and peers. E-mail is quick, easy and very accessible. In fact, one of the online education platforms, Canvas, even has a mobile app. In the case I may be sick, tied up with something at work, or have a personal issue, I find it easier to quickly contact my professor to make any arrangements for an extension, for example. With Drexel’s online programs, many of the students enrolled are working adults, which makes professors a lot more accommodating and understanding when life gets in the way.

If you are thinking about taking an online class, here are some tips I have learned along the way.

Tips for Online Learning

1. Read the Syllabus

Many students are used to that first day of classes when your professor goes over the entire semester or quarter, letting you know when all the important dates are. This does not always happen with online learning because course materials are usually shared a week or two in advance of the first day. So, this is the time you listen to what every professor has ever said to any class they’ve ever had and read the syllabus.

2. Be Organized

I like to comb through the outline for the term and take note of every single due date. Since I began the graduate program, I’ve been determined to keep my planner well organized for my classes. I’ll write down every single due date on the calendar and then at the start of every week, I’ll write out what’s due, and when I can set aside the time to do my assignments. I’m a big list person, which is why I like the weekly planners so much. Every single day of the week I have ‘to do’ lists, and I won’t feel relaxed for the day until everything is crossed off. Knowing what needs to be done and when beforehand lessens my stress levels—which ultimately makes me feel like I have everything under control and can focus on my coursework.

3. Start off Small

The easiest way to stay on top of your course load is to also make sure it’s doable. Many online programs are part time and require you to take at least one class each semester or quarter. Every quarter I’ve been in my program, I’ve taken two classes at a time. This works best for me, I feel as though I can get my degree done quickly, without spreading myself too thin. In the beginning, I planned to take three classes at a time, and I’m very glad I didn’t. While that would allow me to complete my program quicker, I also don’t think I could manage it. Two is the sweet spot.

4. Pace Yourself

The most important thing to remember is not overworking yourself. Earning your degree is supposed to be rewarding and fulfilling—overworking yourself to fast-track through a program may not be worth it in the long run.

I simply cannot recommend online learning enough. Especially in an uncertain time, with everything being done remotely, having a grasp on online learning is beneficial for students who are used to the face-to-face aspect of higher ed. Of course, there will be challenges, but that’s what education is all about. I can envision the future of online learning only getting better as time passes and becoming much more common across the board.

-- Sarah Camp

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