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How to Overcome the Common Challenges of Online Learning

If you aren't familiar with online learning, but are considering all of your education options, it's important to factor in the benefits and challenges as you make decisions about what will help you reach your learning and career goals. Last year I answered the following question on Quora: What are the most challenging aspects of online learning? This post expands on my response with a few added elements.

As reported by the Babson Research Group and the College Board's annual survey, more than 6.1 million learners were enrolled in an online course during the fall 2010 academic semester. The Noel-Levitz 2012 study of online learner preferences found that these students are often "seeking online options as a flexible way to meet their program requirements while balancing work and home commitments." As the number of online students and programs steadily increases,a focus on challenges, along with solutions, continues to be relevant.

Here are some of the most common obstacles you may encounter, along with a few suggestions to help you overcome each one:

  • Feeling isolated: The convenience of logging in to a class on your on, in your own time, can be accompanied by the perception that you are, well, all by yourself. Know that you're not alone! In your first online course you'll find that many students have the same doubts, challenges, and questions you are struggling with. Taking initiative is key to overcoming this challenge by reaching out not only to your instructor and classmates, but also to the many professional services available to support your work (i.e., advisors, counselors, librarians, writing centers, help desks). Tip: Participate in all class events and assignments, from discussion forums to real-time presentations. Ask questions and voice concerns during "virtual office hours" to connect with your instructor. Join the community!
  • Using new technology: Online courses often require even tech-savvy students to learn how to use new types of hardware and software to communicate and connect within their classes. Troubleshooting skills develop with time and practice, but it all can be very frustrating at first. Tip: Embrace the fact that technology is dynamic – you'll always be learning something new as systems get updated and new tools are adopted. Technology is also prone to problems and doesn't always work as it is supposed to. Gather the contact info for your school's tech help resources (as well as a few skilled friends) for quick access when you need it.
  • Managing time effectively: Many online learners are adding school to their already busy lives. Time management skills are critical to getting everything done. Making "anytime, anyplace" learning work for you means finding a place for it in your existing schedule. Tip: Online courses can be quite structured. Check each class syllabus for details about due dates and add these to your calendar, also blocking time to get the work completed in advance. Make the commitment to fulfilling your course requirements.
  • Taking on the student role: Online learning is a popular option for adult students who are working and raising families, but interested in pursuing academic goals after a long absence from school. Working with other students and instructors is different than working with office colleagues and supervisors. Tip: Look to your instructor to set the tone for the course and consider yourself part of a learning team that includes not only your teacher and classmates, but also the support services mentioned above.
  • Beating stereotypes: Although this is happily becoming less of a challenge, you may still face questions from friends, family members, and even employers about learning in an online environment. Do these classes prepare you for future work? Are you getting a high quality experience? A new infographic presented by Edudemic addresses some of these stereotypes as myths about online learners. Tip: Be prepared to describe how you chose your online program based not only on flexibility and convenience factors, but also on criteria such as accreditation and faculty qualifications. Be ready to list specific ways in which your courses are playing a positive role in your overall professional development.

As I noted in my original Quora response, each new generation of online courses further mediates these challenges from design, technology, and learner perspectives, making it easier to communicate, collaborate, and build learning communities online.

If online courses are a part of your plan in the year ahead, now is the time to conduct your own investigation, ask a lot of questions, and compare all of the options available to you.

What are your concerns about taking online courses? Share your questions with us here.

Image credit: Robert S. Donovan, Flickr, CC:BY