Online Education: How to Make It Work for You

Dr. Stephenie Slahor

Management of your time is critical to your success if you decide to obtain your higher education through an online distance learning program.

Way back when, there were “correspondence courses” in which a course curriculum was set by a university and a faculty member directed a student, by mail, in study, readings, assignments, and exams. The idea worked well for people who lived far from a university, but who wanted to study a particular course. It also worked for students who wanted to complete their degree requirements, but needed a course which was not going to be offered in a timely way.

That system worked, but technology has now advanced to the point that the mail is not generally thought of as the most expedient way to communicate quickly with someone.  The Internet, E-mail, conference calls and messaging, two-way videoconferencing, Skype, Interactive TV and smartphone apps are a few of the developments which have enhanced communications.

While most of these developments were designed to benefit commerce and communications, education was not far behind. Colleges and universities soon found that educational goals could be reached by far more people regardless of their distance from a campus. Early distance learning used televised broadcasts to reach satellite campus classrooms. A lecturer could broadcast the day’s lesson and assignments, and students would complete course requirements. That start led to what we now call online education which includes not only courses, but complete programs which can be accomplished without having a student ever set foot on a college or satellite campus.

The Early Days

As rosy as that sounds, online education went through some serious growing pains because many looked skeptically as questions arose about the requirements and quality of teaching of those courses. Online education suffered a poor image for some time, especially with employers or with universities considering the application of a master’s or doctoral-level student who had completed some undergraduate or upper division degree work online. Terms like “fly by night” or “instant degree” made online education look shady to some.

At that point, colleges and universities realized they had to improve the status of online programs by examining closely the quality of instruction and the consistency of curricula as compared to on-campus education. That realization and the steps taken to collaborate and coordinate online and campus programs could then assure students, employers and academia that online programs could be equal to the study, participation and discipline of the on-campus programs. When public universities and private colleges with high reputations demonstrated this, online learning became more respectable because it had to adhere to strict standards to succeed.

Of course, not all curricula lend themselves to online formats, but most do. Still, it must be considered whether the “community” of students can easily communicate student-to-teacher and student-to-student, and whether the technology is enough to access the course content and to complete assignments, discussions and other class activities.

Online programs meant training faculty members in the ways to implement effective learning. And students needed an orientation session before beginning a course to be sure that not only their technology, but also their personalities fit with the online format. The planning of any course or an activity within a course is the responsibility of the college’s individual department and its faculty members, but there must also be supervision by the college to assure that its online learning is equivalent to and consistent with the on-campus version of the course.

Basic Necessities

Technology now permits smooth communications systems for online study. A typical system has a learning management mode of operation; student identity verification; student portals; course content and schedule; textbook(s); access for computer/laptop/smartphone/ tablet devices; integration of supplemental library resources; course methods (including lecture, readings, graded discussions, writing assignments, projects, quizzes, and examinations); and a means for faculty to track whether the student is participating, doing assignments, checking into reference and resource materials, and following the requirements of the course.

Colleges were eager to add online programs and there are now a wide variety of degree and course options available to students whose time constraints, work or distance from a campus prohibit attending on a campus.

With that variety comes the need for you to consider which particular online programs are best suited for your career or personal goals. You may find that a college has a suitable bachelor’s degree program, but, if you are anticipating continuing to a master’s, certificate or other graduate program, see if the college offers both undergraduate and graduate level courses. You may want the benefit of continuity with the professors, department and program, should you be pondering a graduate degree. Undergraduate courses build a framework or foundation for learning, but the graduate level courses give educational opportunities for advanced study, upper echelon jobs and further growth in a particular specialization. So, read the college catalogs and examine the curricula before you apply for admission. E-mail links and online chats are usually provided on most universities’ Web sites so, if a question is not answered by your own research, contact the school for an answer.

Although colleges still have a traditional on-campus setting as the norm for much of higher education, online programs and coursework are gaining enrollment at both public and private universities. But, remember that online study requires your knowledge of computer and Internet skills. If they are weak, learn the terminology of those skills and hone your abilities in how to type; how to manage files (name, save, copy, paste, spell-check, save in a different format, backup, delete, etc.); how to use software (Word®, PowerPoint®, etc.); how to E-mail and chat (discussion boards, messengers, etc.); and how to research via search engines and library databases. If you’re rusty in any of these, check with your local public library, community center, or friends who can help.

For the best progress through a course or program, you should have a high speed Internet connection and a recent model of computer or laptop and software. You may be able to do a system check through the university to be certain that your computer and technical requirements are capable. Your school may also have technical support, perhaps even 24/7. Determine whether your smartphone may be able to communicate with the instructor and students, and to participate in coursework or discussions, receive alerts and check class materials.

Beyond the technical side, be sure your personal reading and writing skills are strong. Most of what you will learn in an online format will be written and text-based communications. Brush up your reading and writing skills, if necessary.

What to Expect?

The online course(s) you are taking will only be attainable if you have self-discipline. Although it is difficult to generalize, most three credit hour online courses will need about ten to twelve hours or more per week of study. Your learning will not have “someone watching over your shoulder” to see that you complete something. Online learning is up to you and you alone. It is definitely not “self-study” in style. The work is just like on-campus study with the interaction and assignments. The instructor will provide you with the course requirements, activities and examinations, but motivation is entirely up to you. You must have the motivation to stay with the weekly regimen of expected student performance. That means establishing a regular, strict schedule of study in a physical setting conducive to study – uninterrupted, without distractions and without procrastination. You cannot succeed in online study if you put things off until the last minute or misuse your time. Because online courses usually provide updates during the week for text readings, resource books, assignments and their subfolders, writing, and discussion, make it a habit to log in every day to be sure that you are keeping up with changes, additions and modifications.

You are the one who must follow through with every assignment, discussion, messaging interaction with the instructor and/or students, and other activities which are the full substance of the course. Often, the coursework has assignments which must be completed within the week and cannot wait for the weekend. Stay current with the course schedule.

Set a system of organizing your course timelines and college policies and procedures so that you can reference them quickly when needed.

Learning styles differ from person to person, but don’t be surprised if you find that your personal motivation is high at the start of a course, but wanes near the midpoint of the course. Remain disciplined and determined to work through that plateau because your instructor or fellow students won’t maintain your motivation for you. Online education means it’s up to you as self-directed, and not instructor-directed. Also, you may find that the course seems to move quickly and that is another reason to avoid trying to do all the work at the same time.

Instructors will grade you on your progress, not only on assignments, but also on your participation in discussion boards, responding to topics or questions, and interacting with other students and the instructor. Note: Your instructor and the college will have plagiarism detection software which makes sure that what you write is your own intellectual analysis and evaluation, not something which was “cut and pasted” into a written assignment.

Stephenie Slahor, PhD, JD, is a writer in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at