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Tips for Avoiding Major Challenges When Learning in Online Classrooms

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Online learning offers several important benefits, but the challenges it presents should not be underestimated. Prepare yourself for the online classroom with these tips.

Online Learning: A Choice with Some Challenges

Over the last ten years or so, enrollment in online courses has undergone a dramatic increase. Most students are attracted to online learning because of scheduling flexibility and reduced overall costs, especially in comparison to brick-and-mortar colleges.

But for all of their benefits, online courses come with some potential downsides. The most common student issues are struggles with online classroom technology, poor time management, lack of engagement, and a sense of isolation from peers and teachers. We'll look at these concerns one by one and discuss positive ways to deal with them.

Meeting the Challenges of Online Learning

Orient Yourself

Every online classroom uses web-based technologies to present lessons, host discussions, administer tests, and receive student assignments. But not every university uses the same set of tools for its online courses.

As a student in an online learning environment, you must understand how your virtual classroom works. So, take time to familiarize yourself with the new interfaces you'll be using.

Many online schools offer an orientation course designed to teach new students how to:

  • Download course materials
  • Control video playback
  • Contribute in online discussion forums
  • Submit assignments online
  • Take tests online

Manage Your Flexible Schedule

The same flexibility that allows you to squeeze a course into your busy schedule also makes responsible time management crucial. As an online learner with no arbitrary class schedule, you must determine for yourself how long it will take you to complete each lesson—and how to fit those classroom hours into your schedule every week.

If time management does not come easily to you, do not give up hope. From wall calendars to scheduling apps, there are many tools that can help you succeed. The key is to find the methods that are most comfortable and effective for you.

Time management tools

Time management is not only about making lists and marking the calendar, but also about knowing yourself—so identify and eliminate potential distractions before you begin your lessons. If you're tempted to watch a movie or text a friend while you study, but realize that you would get little work done, stay away from the television and put your smartphone out of reach.

The College Board offers this list of tips for more productive study time. The suggestions include using idle moments to study and studying at the time of day when you feel most alert.

Stay Engaged

Video presentations comprise a large percentage of online lessons. This multimedia format stimulates both your eyes and ears—but don't forget to use your hands! Whether you prefer a digital tablet or spiral-bound notebook, keep your learning active by taking notes.

If you're watching a video, pause as often as needed to take complete notes. If you're reading a lesson, think actively about what you're reading. Paraphrase the lesson in your notes to stay engaged and reinforce your understanding.

Taking notes

Some learners favor highlighting texts. Since you're not reading a hard copy of the material, you won't be able to highlight the way you might with a handout or textbook.

If highlighting helps you learn, you could:

  • Print out a hard copy of the lesson and highlight the old-fashioned way.
  • Copy and paste the lesson into a word processing program and highlight electronically.

Connect with Your Classmates

Relationships with your classmates can enhance your learning experience. Take time to meet your fellow students in online discussion groups. Consider posting a brief bio of yourself, if you feel comfortable doing so.

If assigned a group project or research partner, you'll work better together if you take the time to get to know each other. You may even find a few ''kindred spirits'' in an online classroom and develop some camaraderie. If your interaction with your classmates is mostly in writing, be conscious of your tone and phrasing to avoid misunderstandings—just as you would in any written communication.

Connecting with classmates

And don't be shy about asking questions in discussion groups. A lively classroom environment—whether online or in person—depends on everyone's participation.

Try Before You Buy

Online learning allows you to forego certain expenses, such as commuting costs or boarding fees. Even so, earning a degree online means a considerable investment of time and money. Fortunately, there's a way to get your feet wet before you jump into the deep end of the online learning pool.

Look for a free, non-credit online course in a topic that interests you. Most of these free offerings are presented as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Although they tend to have more students than a paid course, most MOOCs use the same types of technology as for-credit online courses. They often follow a course timeline with a specific start and end date. They also require you to meet deadlines when turning in assignments. Completing a free online course in the MOOC format can teach you to manage your time, stay engaged, and connect with other students in an online classroom.

Advantages vs. Challenges

The many advantages of online learning outweigh the challenges you might face as a student. Using these tips, you can prepare yourself for those challenges and meet them with aplomb.

By Michelle Baumgartner
November 2017
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