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Take a Front Row Seat in Your Online Class


Think back to the last time you were in a classroom … where did you sit?

I received advice to sit in the front row during the first semester of my freshman year. It was a big auditorium with a hundred or so students, and the class was Biology 101. Dr. Wyatt pointed to the front rows, which were empty, and declared them the “A rows.” Followed by the “B rows,” etc. ending with bad news for the majority of us sitting in the back. The message was clear, and I was brave enough to move forward for the rest of the semester.

For me, the larger conversation is about managing distraction. Online learning can put you in the virtual front row, pulling you out of the shadows of anonymity and into the arena of participation that is so important to doing well in a course.

Decreasing the Distractions

From your virtual seat you won’t have to look over or through your classmates’ shuffling around, eating, chatting, typing, or even napping to get to the content and interact directly with your instructors. But you’ll have to make some choices once you get there, just as I did in Biology 101:

  • Watch, listen, and read. Recorded online lectures and other video and slide presentations have received some negative attention, but when done well they provide helpful information and insight, as well as offer some flexibility. They allow you to in essence say to the instructor, “Wait, can you go back?” You can rewind and replay as many times as you need to do so.
  • Schedule time to participate. Block your calendar, log in to your course at the times you’ve planned, and be an active participant. Discussion forums are just one way to be involved. You can join the conversation at a time that is convenient for you and speak up, share your perspective, and reply to your classmates. No need to raise your hand and wait to be called.
  • No surfing allowed. When you are working in your course site, using the library database to conduct research, and communicating with classmates, you’re just a click away from a billion other websites that can divert your attention. Just as laptops in face-to-face classes are often used for updating social networks, checking email, etc., resist the temptation to multitask.
  • Don’t skip the synchronous sessions. These live events involve everyone being online at the same time. Sometimes optional, and often inconveniently timed, it may seem okay to not show up. But there’s more to these sessions than the points assigned. They offer the opportunity to get to know your instructor and classmates a little better and to engage in real-time conversations, which add to the work you’re doing in other parts of the course. These sessions are also easy to join and help you make a good impression on your instructors who see you there, in the virtual front row.

Bridging the Distance

The “front row” analogy has taken off recently as a way to describe the capabilities of new tools available for online education.

The 2U company, a partner with the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) new online MBA program, provides a video component that allows members of the class to see each other on screen, as if they are all sitting on the front row. On Forbes.com author and instructor Steve Cohen described the experience as “more intimate than 90% of the seminars [he has] taught in or taken.” This course has other advantages going for it, including small class size and professionally produced recorded presentations, but the interaction allowed by this new system is getting rave reviews. Find out what the students are saying at the UNC MBA blog featuring Student Voices.

The annual Horizon Report, published by the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, tracks the trends and presents a short list of “emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe.” The 2012 Horizon Report for higher education [PDF] names mobile apps and tablet computing as two “technologies to watch… in the near term.”

You may already be using mobile devices, such as smartphones and iPads, in other areas of your life to extend your reach and range of communication with work and family. Educational apps are making it more possible than ever for you to access course work from any location you choose – taking your seat in class with you as you commute and travel for work. Check your school’s website for more information about app downloads – the University of Phoenix, Vanderbilt University, and Ohio State University offer examples of what may be available, ranging from course materials and library access to social media and current events.

Must Be Present to … Learn

As new tools emerge on the scene, educators and learners are finding more effective ways to connect. Dr. Wyatt’s advice was well taken as I managed a B in the course, and it carries over to the online learning environment as we work to stay focused and manage distractions.

Try it for yourself, online and in person, as you attend meetings, conference presentations, webinars, and other events at which it’s important to stay focused. What are your tips for avoiding distraction?

Image credit: stock.xchng

August 22nd, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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