My Biggest Surprises While Taking Online Classes

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When I decided to get my MS degree a few years ago, I knew my hectic work schedule wouldn't allow me to take traditional classes. New to online learning at the time, I completed my degree in 2015 without ever stepping into a classroom. Read on for my biggest surprises while taking online classes.

I got to know my classmates

Honestly, when I started graduate school I didn't really think about whether I would know my classmates. It wasn't part of the decision-making process. I wanted to get my degree, end of story. It was surprising that in my second term I was excited to find that some people I knew were in my same class. It was comforting, as though I had seen them across the room.

This might not be the case in larger programs, but in my online master's program, I would say that usually I knew at least 50% of the people in my class, and often more than that. We got to know each other through our discussion boards and group work, which was also more frequent than I had expected when I started classes.

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Some of us are still in touch on LinkedIn, as we knew each other's job interests, and it created an unexpected network of like-minded individuals working towards a similar goal. Not surprisingly, getting to know peers and instructors can help students succeed in online classes. That was definitely the case for me, as we encouraged each other often, especially towards the end of the program.

Professors were easy to contact (unless they weren't)

Of all the courses I took in my program, there was only one professor who didn't respond to my emails. The others were exceptional, responding quickly and helpfully. Though almost all of my professors were adjuncts (I will note here that the one who didn't respond was the only one who was full-time, tenured faculty), they all had a policy regarding how quickly they would respond to our emails, and also had times for calls. My professor for my final project required a certain number of phone conversations, and was very involved in our projects.

I found this situation to be very similar to a face-to-face class. Whether online or not, we all have some professors who put in more effort than others. Much like getting to know my classmates, I was delighted to get to know my faculty, as many of them taught more than one of my classes. And that final project professor I mentioned earlier? I sent him a personal email after my class ended regarding a new job in a city where he lived, and he responded with warm regards and some contacts for me. I didn't expect the warm, caring faculty that I encountered, but I couldn't have succeeded without them.

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I was less likely to procrastinate

I think that not having a physical time to be at a class can go one of two ways - you're either going to procrastinate more or less than in a face-to-face class. More, because there is no 'next class' lecture to get to. Or, as in my case, less, because it feels like classes are constant. Instead of a 90 minute lecture and discussion with a clear start and end point, we would read the assignment and respond to each other's posts throughout the week. Therefore I checked in on my classes almost daily in order to stay in the conversation.

Part of this, of course, could just be that I was older and more experienced than when I last took college classes. It's impossible to separate the two. But for me, having more life obligations combined with online classes gave me additional drive to stay on top of assignments and not wait to finish things at the last minute.

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There were fewer technical issues than expected

My online program used Blackboard, and I found it very easy to use. Again, I hadn't really considered that I wouldn't learn the system - I would learn it because I had to. However, it was a delightful bonus that it was a fairly easy system to use and any time there were issues, of which there were few, IT was quick to respond to my requests.

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I was still running on empty after each term

Online or not, graduate school is challenging. I was enrolled every term for two years, and scheduled my wedding during a two-week break so I wouldn't have to take any time off of the program. I was motivated to finish, yes. But part of it was that I feared if I took time off, I wouldn't return.

My graduate program was on the quarter system and the terms and subsequent breaks were not long. Towards the end of the program I was very burnt out, and I doubt I was alone. However, that was probably not unique to the fact that I was in an online program. In fact, whether online students are less likely to complete their degree is under debate. I probably would have been just as tired had I been in a face-to-face program, but I had hoped that the flexibility of online education might help me avoid the familiar exhaustion at the end of the program. Luckily, the classmates and professors I mentioned earlier helped me stay motivated through the last quarter term.

By Michelle Garrigan-Durant
December 2016
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