Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm New to E-Learning - What Do I Do?

Even though you've completed your online course orientation, and you've read all the material your school has given you on online courses, you may still have a few questions about the way things work. You're open-minded and willing to give the online courses a change because they are convenient, affordable, and just what you need. But, you're nervous. What are you supposed to do? How will you do it? Will you figure out the way it works before it's too late in the semester?

You're not alone. Everyone who has taken a course has the same questions. Although each program and school is different, here are a few tips and pointers that will help you get started, keep on track, and feel good about your course, your program, your fellow students, your instructor, and most of all -- your educational plans and your future.

Here is a list of activities and pointers for being successful with your online course.

Log In Early: Find out what your username and password will be, and where to find the portal or access point to your course. After you log in for the first time, be sure to review the entire course at least two or three times. Click on all the links, go to all the pages. Then, do it again. You'll be happy you did. You'll feel more comfortable and confident.

Acquire Texts Before the Course Begins: Have you ever waited until the last minute to buy your books, just to find out that the bookstore is sold out? Granted, textbooks are expensive, and everyone would like to delay the purchase. At the same time, though, it's best to get the books early to assure yourself that you'll have them for the first day of class. Ideally, when log into your course, you'll have your books at your side and will be able to review the readings and the required work.

Know the Mechanics of the Course: How Does It Work? Chances are, your course will be hosted on one of the most popular course management systems, or learning management systems. You may be using Blackboard, Angel, or Desire to Learn. Or, you may be using Moodle, which is the open-source learning management system preferred by many schools who wish to host their own solution and not pay the fees required of some learning management system providers. Alternatively, you may use a proprietary product. In any case, be sure to go through the orientation. One of the things you'll need to do early in the game is to download the proper plug-ins so that the elements in your learning management system actually work. Otherwise, you'll be very frustrated.

Introduce Yourself Early: It is a great idea to introduce yourself as early as you can in the discussion board area. Also, if your course allows you to create a homepage or to post photos of your pets, your interests, and landscapes from your vacation, please be sure to do so. You'll be amazed at how friendly the space becomes - how close and bonded you start to feel with your fellow students.

Check In Often: Some people think that checking in once every few days is sufficient. Not a good idea! You may miss an important announcement, and, more importantly, you may start to feel isolated. If you check in often, and read the discussion posts and announcements, you'll feel a part of the group.

Required Work: Familiarize Yourself Early. As you go through the course, be sure to print out your required work. Create a little timetable for yourself and map out your own travel, work, family, and other time-eating obligations. Budget time for work, study, and posting.

Find Out Professor Expectations: What does your professor expect? Are deadlines rigid? Will the dropbox shut off at 11:59 pm on the day things are due? Find out early, and work in a pro-active manner. Adjust yourself to the requirements of the course.

Due Dates: Use Them for Planning and Goal-Setting. Once you've mapped out your requirements, matched them with schedules, you can set out timelines, milestones, and "to do" lists. This will help you set goals. You'll be amazed at how comfortable you feel with things once you've started to hit those milestones, one after another. You'll feel confident. You'll start feeling what educational psychologists call a strong sense of "self-efficacy." Great job!

Keep Up With Readings: Nothing is worse than falling behind. One of the easiest ways to get yourself in a trap is to fall behind in the readings, and then try to do the work without actually reading the assignments. Not only will you have nothing relevant to say in the discussion board threads that have to do with the reading, you'll be bored when you read others. So, keep up and keep involved.

Practice "Active Reading": A great way to motivate yourself to do the readings is to perfect your own style of "active reading." What is active reading? It's a way that you read and think so that you're creating categories in your mind, and you're relating the reading to your own experiences, prior readings, and the beliefs you have developed. As you read, think of what you'll have to write for your course. Don't be afraid to start jotting down notes or outlines for papers or short essay questions.

Pay Attention to Announcements: It's easy to overlook them. However, the professor has posted them for a reason. Be sure to read them and to follow any links or suggested readings.

Inform Your Instructor Ahead of Time If Problems Foreseen: Will you be deployed? Will you need to travel for work? Do you have a vacation planned? Let your professor know ahead of time. Then, if you can, try to work ahead.

Turn In Work Ahead of Time: Rather than begging for extensions, take the pro-active route and turn in work ahead of time. If you do turn in work, let your professor know. Don't expect instant turnaround, though. The professor may need to grade your work with the others at the actual due date. Be patient and flexible.

Develop Back-Up Plan For Turning In Work: What do you do if your internet is down? What if you have firewalls in the place where you're working from temporarily, and you can't access your learning management system? Find a way to turn in your work -- even if it is via email -- so that you can make your deadlines. Work with the professor to find out the best approach.

Post Early and Often in the Discussion Board: The more you post, the more comfortable you'll feel with your fellow students. You'll learn a lot from each other -- and, be sure to be willing to respond to questions and demonstrate a helpful, supportive, upbeat attitude. You'll be amazed at how you'll feel. You'll start to develop a good, solid sense of affiliation and belonging.

Fellow Students and Peer Review: Very Valuable. One of the most engaging and interesting aspects of online courses is the fact that you'll really have a chance to see the work of others and to review / respond / and learn from each other. Share ideas, but be sure to keep a thick skin. Sometimes people think they're being humorous when they're not.

Know Where To Turn If You Need Help: Mentors, Study Buddies, Tutors. Check out your college's resources. Make sure you're aware of all the support that is available if you find yourself in need of help.

Assessments and Quizzes: Any Practice Exams or Example Papers? If you can find a place to do practice tests or quizzes, it may be a great way to feel comfortable with the course content. You may be able to practice for your exams and quizzes. Often, the textbook is the provider of the practice materials.

Log In and Use Your Virtual Library and Online Resources. Your college or university has invested money, time, and human resources in developing virtual libraries and resource bases. Be sure to check them out and visit the sites often. They will help you as you work on essays and research papers.

Use a Building Block Approach for Writing Papers. Waiting until the night before is not a good idea. Don't procrastinate! Start mapping out your strategy for writing a paper (essay, term paper, research project) and develop a building block approach that works for you.


If you follow all these suggestions, you'll find your experience with online courses will be much more positive than you might have imagined. As you encounter friends and family who may be nervous about taking online courses, feel free to share your "lessons learned" and success strategies. Work together, win together!

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