If you're a nontraditional student or have major obligations outside of school, online courses can be incredibly convenient. But if you aren't meeting your professor face-to-face, how are you supposed to ask for help?
Is Anybody Out There?
Online courses are becoming increasingly popular. According to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, over 5.7 million students participate in some form of distance learning at the postsecondary level alone as of 2014. Being able to take a class on your own from anywhere is a great way to further your education, but if the material starts to give you trouble, you might end up feeling stranded. So what's the best way to get help when you've never seen your instructor's face?
Preparing for Contact
First off, let's establish one thing: If you have questions or need help, reaching out to your instructor is always an option. You're taking an online course to learn and the process of learning involves absorbing concepts you've never seen before. It's only natural to have questions and it helps to have as much information as possible before you contact your instructor directly.
Start With the Syllabus
There's a reason that the syllabus is the first thing you receive in any course. It generally contains a summary of course expectations, exams, important assignments, and other resources. As the master guide to your course, it should be your first stop when looking for answers and will most likely contain your instructor's contact info, plus any details on how and when they wish to be contacted. You might find what you're looking for; if not, you'll have a better idea of where to go from here.
Do Your Research
Before contacting the instructor directly, get prepared. Go through any course materials, textbooks, lecture slides, videos, or notes you might have that are related to the concept you're struggling with. This will help make your questions more specific and potentially even answer them. Don't forget to check the course discussion forums if your course has these. You might find that someone else had the same question and it's already been answered.
Contacting Your Instructor
If you've gotten to this point and still haven't found the answer to your question, it's time to reach out to your instructor.
Play By Their Rules
When contacting your professor, stick to any guidelines they outlined in the syllabus. If they want you to post your questions in a class discussion before emailing them, head over to the discussion board first. If they have separate email accounts for different issues, make sure your message goes to the appropriate address.
Some professors also give you their direct phone number. This is great, but don't abuse it! If they specify certain times they're available for phone calls, make sure you place your call within those times. It's a pretty safe bet that your instructor won't appreciate a call for help in the middle of your 1 a.m. cram session.
Be Clear and Specific
Your initial contact with your instructor should be where you bring all your preparation to bear. Try not to beat around the bush. Outline your problem as specifically as you can and ask direct questions. It doesn't hurt to also mention the places you've already looked for help.
Utilize Office Hours (If Possible)
Professors who teach online courses may also teach in-person classes. If your online course is taught through a brick-and-mortar college or university, there's a chance your professor has a physical office located on campus. Some online instructors host virtual office hours, when they are online and available for immediate feedback. In either case, if you learn better by working through problems with a real, live person, it might be a good idea to request an office-hours appointment to get the help you need.
Don't Wait Too Long
There's nothing worse than having a pressing question the night before a major exam. Try not to leave your questions (or study sessions!) for the last minute, especially if you're contacting your instructor via email. Not everyone has a smartphone, so there's no guarantee that they'll see your message right away, and it might take a day or two to get back to you.
Every online course instructor is different, but they usually do everything they can to make themselves accessible to their students. It's just a matter of finding the best way to reach them. If you have trouble getting in touch with your instructor, don't be afraid to reach out to your peers, who may also be able to shed some light on whatever issue you're having.