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What Students Need to Be Successful in Online Classes

Suzanne Shaffer

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Last spring, the coronavirus pandemic forced colleges to transition abruptly to remote instruction. The experience was rough to say the least!

At its finest, online education uses digital technology to transform the learning experience; it’s so much more than a class on Zoom. As colleges and universities embrace and invest in this instructional model, we can expect big improvements in online higher education.

For Fall 2020, most schools plan a hybrid approach. Large lectures will likely be held online but smaller classes like labs and seminars may be held in person with physical distancing. Parents and students should be prepared to accept and adapt to this new normal.

Challenges with Online Learning

Online and hybrid courses require students to follow precise instructions, work independently and meet deadlines to the minute. Frustrations with technology can hinder success. Some obstacles your student may face this year:

  • Lack of IT knowledge: If students or instructors don’t understand the technology, it can interfere with the coherent delivery of course material and the student’s ability to learn.
  • Lack of discipline: If a student doesn’t commit to the self-discipline required for online learning, it’s easy to fall behind.
  • Competing priorities: Students living on campus while taking class online may find it tempting to use what should be “class time” for other activities.

Fully Online vs. Blended Learning

In a fully online course, all instruction and course activities take place online. Lectures are usually pre-recorded and assignments and reading material posted online for students to access whenever they want. Students and instructors communicate via email and online chats with minimal (if any) in-person contact.

In a blended (or hybrid) class, some instruction takes place in the campus classroom and some online. In-person class time may be shortened to an hour per week, with virtual instruction for the rest. Students may meet in person with instructors and classmates to study and work on group projects. Here are some blended models your student may encounter:

  • Rotation: Students alternate between physical and online classes.
  • Flipped classroom: Students listen to course lectures online at home. In-person class time is used for projects, group activities and questions about the lectures.
  • Flex: The majority of instruction takes place online, with face-to-face support as needed.

Getting It Right

Encourage your student to approach online and blended courses as they would any other course — it’s an opportunity to learn from a stellar professor, discover new academic interests, and connect with their classmates.

You can help your student create a strategy for success in their online classes — share these tips!

  1. Be equipped with the right technology. Online learning is optimized with the proper tools. Video conferencing requires a good microphone and headphones. A strong Wi-Fi or internet connection is crucial, along with an efficient desktop or laptop computer with up-to-date operating system.
  2. Create an organized, comfortable study space. With so much extra time spent alone at a desk, your student needs a place where they can settle in, focus and feel energized. Help them set up a workspace with all the materials needed to study and books and other printed resources easily available. Lighting is important, as is an ergonomic chair.
  3. Show up. This might seem obvious, but students actually need to sit down, attend the online class, and do the work. You’re spending money on this education, and online courses can deliver great value if your student treats them the way they would a traditional face-to-face class by putting in their best effort.
  4. Use good time management. The flexibility of online classes can be a bonus but also makes it essential that your student carefully manage their schedule. At the start of the term, they should look at each syllabus and record assignments and exams on a calendar. For each hour of class instruction, they should expect to spend 2–3 hours on outside work (e.g., if a class meets in person and/or online for 3 hours each week, they’ll spend at least 6 hours on reading, studying and assignment completion). Encourage your student not to wait until the last minute to complete work or seek help if they need it.
  5. Be accountable. Assignment details and deadlines will be posted online and that may be the only reminder. Your student is responsible for keeping track of assignments. If they’re finding it hard to stay on task, suggest they find a study buddy in their class.
  6. Eliminate distractions. It’s extra easy to be distracted when attending class online. In order to focus as they would in a physical classroom, your student should turn off their phone, silencing social media and email notifications.
  7. Actively participate in the online forums. This will be key to enjoying and getting a lot out of the class (and doing well in it!), so encourage your student to contribute to discussions, ask questions, comment on projects, and in general engage with the class community.
  8. Build relationships. Online courses may make your student feel isolated, but they’re built around the concept of collaboration with instructors and fellow students. Virtual study groups are helpful in making person-to-person connections.

Your student should approach online classes with an open mind. It may not be what they’re used to and there will be a learning curve as they adjust. Colleges are adjusting to this new learning environment, too. Patience and flexibility are the watchwords this fall!

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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