The experience of learning online is not without its challenges. Learners who are new to the online environment or to a new online program usually face a learning curve with the content, the technology, and the culture. An adjustment period is typical, but you can do a lot to prepare – know what to expect, avoid what you can avoid, and prepare to react. Take a look at this list of problems often faced by online learners and consider the steps you can take to avoid each one.
- Not selecting the 'right' program: This mistake is usually due to not enough pre-enrollment research, resulting in disappointment later on. Choosing an online program can be a daunting task, but there are specific factors to consider, including affordability, accreditation, marketability, academic preparation, support services, and program requirements. What can you do if you find yourself in a program that will not help you meet your goals? Talk with your academic advisor about transfer options, and explore programs that might be a better fit – asking more questions before you make a move.
- Underestimating the costs: Even with financial assistance, higher education can be expensive to complete. In addition to tuition, there are fees and requirements for textbooks, hardware, software, and Internet access. There may be other costs associated with your online learning efforts, such as child care. Take some time to calculate expected expenses and understand total costs you will be responsible for paying.
- Not asking questions: In an online environment it is unlikely anyone will know you have a question unless you ask it. Take the initiative! Search available websites for posted information and answers to frequently asked questions and initiate questions about anything you need, but can't find. Reach out to your instructor if you have questions about your progress, clarification of assignment requirements, and overall course expectations. Reach out to support services (i.e. librarians, tech support, advisors, and counselors) with any questions or concerns you may have when the need arises. Don't wait for the information or direction you need to be provided.
- Not checking in: Once you are enrolled in an online course, it's up to you to schedule the time to go to the course site and to complete the work required for the course. Time management skills are critical and include the ability to prioritize and organize your efforts. Procrastination can be very tempting, particularly in a class that is primarily asynchronous (with no real-time communication or meetings), and quickly lead to being behind in your course. Plan to check in online everyday to monitor discussion boards and look for new announcements and course updates posted by your instructor.
- Not having a plan: A plan is a place to start. It usually undergoes modification at some point before you reach your goal. Why are you in an online program? Don't lose sight of the education and career goals that led you to enroll in the first place. Keeping these goals in mind will help you maintain your focus, and keep you motivated through those long hours of study.
- Doing the minimum: Every course will have requirements (items that must be completed) and additional activities (designed to enhance your learning and prepare you to work on your assignments). It's easy to ignore these activities – additional reading, web resources, and practice exercises – but by doing so, you are leaving something behind. Explore all of the materials provided and fully engage in the learning process to gain maximum benefit.
- Being confused about copyright: The online environment makes locating resources, references, and information for your courses so easy. This availability unfortunately also makes it easy to use these things inappropriately in your course assignments. The issues surrounding copyright, intellectual property, and plagiarism can be very confusing, and students can often plagiarize without intending to do so. Review your school's plagiarism policy carefully and work through any orientation or tutorials provided to help you avoid plagiarism. Ask your instructor and librarian for additional information and direction if you need it.
- Thinking you are alone: You can feel somewhat isolated and even disconnected in an online course. It's easy to forget that there are others there with you! Your classmates, advisors, librarians, and instructors are all within reach and can point you in the direction of additional resources. Your school provides services for the sole purpose of supporting you throughout your program. Don't forget your larger support community as well – your friends and family, mentors and co-workers.
- Not recognizing your accomplishments: Take some pride in the small steps you make and the achievements you complete along the way. That tough paper you wrote, the difficult group project that earned a good grade, managing a last minute requirement at work while preparing for a big exam – these are all examples of accomplishments in online learning! What are examples from your own experience? How are you applying the concepts and skills you've learned?
- Not enjoying the adventure. The pursuit of higher education is a journey. While there is an end goal, it's the process of reaching that goal that provides the most learning value. Embrace the adventure of online learning – try new technologies and techniques, be open to new opportunities and working with new people – you never know where it all might lead you.
A common element in all of the above is action! Action on your part as a student is required to make the most of the online learning experience and to avoid common mistakes. Education itself is not a passive endeavor. You need to be present and involved in the process for it to make a difference and help you reach your goals.
Becoming a successful online student takes practice! As with any new project or effort, you will face challenges, and some of them will be unexpected. Know that you will make mistakes and be ready to learn from them when you do. Have you experienced mistakes as an online learner? Share your lessons learned and advice for others and help us to expand this list.