I recently had the opportunity to work with a small group of brand new online students as an academic assistant, answering questions and providing general guidance to one section of a large class. The whole experience confirmed for me the need for a basic level of technology skill and awareness right out of the gate for e-learners.
The class was offered using Blackboard, just one of many Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Course Management Systems (CMS) schools use to organize and deliver online courses. These systems make it possible to structure a course so that it can be consistently offered to large numbers of students, while also allowing smaller sub-groups of these learners to interact with each other, the course materials, and the instructor.
As you consider available educational options, there are ways you can begin to explore the LMS as an online learning environment and lay the groundwork for the skills and knowledge you’ll need in order to succeed once your classes begin.
Assembling the Tools Required
At the very least, you’ll need a computer, software to complete your assignments, and Internet access in order to participate in your courses. You can find all three of these tools in public locations, like your local library, but completing an entire course without home or office access can present a host of challenges related to scheduling and support, which make it difficult to meet your class deadlines.
But it’s a good rule of thumb to delay any purchases until you know exactly what will be required in your courses. Most schools provide a list of the specific technologies you’ll need in order to access their LMS and participate in course work. Take a closer look at examples of student technology requirements for hardware, software, Internet, and email from Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix.
Navigating a Course Site
An LMS provides a central hub through which you can access the courses you are enrolled in during any given academic term or semester. Each system is a little different, but most online courses will include the following basic components:
- Content presentation: Courses are typically made up of a series of modules, units, or lessons, which occur in a specific sequence. These may mirror the weeks of the course, for example, an 8-week course may have 8 modules. Each module includes a collection of materials, such as text-based instructions, video presentations, interactive exercises, reading lists, etc.
- Communication tools: From email and chat forums to real-time virtual meeting rooms, the LMS provides ways for classmates and instructors to connect, work together, and exchange information during a course.
- Assignment submission: Every course has its own assignments, but most involve either uploading a file (e.g., research paper) or completing a quiz/exam. The course syllabus and introductory units in each course usually provide additional instructions and expectations for each assignment.
- Discussion forums: A staple of online courses, discussion boards allow everyone to contribute and respond, at a time of their choosing, to an ongoing conversation. The instructor provides guidance and prompts for students to respond to within a specified time frame. You’ll need to log in and check these forums periodically each week to see what has been added and to help continue the discussion.
First hand experience with all of these components is the best way to learn how they work. Several schools offer prospective students the opportunity to try out their LMS online. Here are a few examples of some of the more widely used systems (just follow the log in instructions for each site and click through the options):
- Blackboard: Rappahanock Community College’s Sample Distance Learning Course demonstrates class announcements, grades, online quizzes, and discussion boards. You can take the sample quiz and post a reply in the discussion area.
- Moodle: Sweet Briar College’s Moodle Demonstration Course provides a look at how this system can be used to organize a class with features such as assignments, lessons, course calendar, and forums.
- Desire2Learn: Columbia College’s CCIS 101 Online Course Demonstration (Click on “free online Campus Course Demo”) includes a sample course checklist, discussions, dropbox for assignment submission, and more. Click on “content” in the main menu for a helpful 7-step tutorial for getting started.
Working with a Support Team
If you’ve never taken an online course before, it can seem like an overwhelming endeavor. But know that you’ll always be working with a support team within reach. A technical help desk is usually available via toll-free phone number, as well as options to connect via email, live chat, and mobile apps. Each school’s services will be different, so it’s important to understand the scope of assistance and confirm the hours of availability.
It’s a reality of online learning, and of using technology in general, that sometimes things don’t work like they are supposed to. The LMS may go down, or be taken off-line for regular maintenance and periodic upgrades. Find out how your prospective programs will support your technology needs and keep that information handy for future reference.
Embracing the Experience
Having a positive approach and outlook will go along way in making your first online experience a manageable one. Know that it takes time and practice to become familiar with an LMS and where to find everything you need in your online courses. As one participant so elegantly stated in a recent Inside Online Learning chat, in your first course “you are not just learning the subjects in the class, but also how to be an online student.”
The course I assisted with was an introductory course designed to help students master basic technology skills before moving into their academic courses. If you are thinking about online learning, I hope you’ll have the opportunity to take a course like this, and early in your program. The questions that students brought to me were important and likely reflect the concerns and frustrations of many new online learners.
Find out which LMS you’ll be using in your courses and look for opportunities to practice using the various tools. Taking proactive steps to prepare for the online learning experience will help you as you move forward in your future program.
Image credit: opensourceway, Flickr, CC:BY-SA