5 Questions to Ask About Online Courses

by Lisa Mulka

It’s 3 a.m. and the television in the living room emits a quiet glow. The luminosity is all you need to locate your laptop on the coffee table, log in and get to work. This may not sound like a scene out of the typical college classroom, but for many returning college students an online course creates an opportunity to learn anywhere, anytime. High aboard a redeye flight, lounging lakeside on a summer’s day or capturing a few quiet moments while a toddler naps, online learning is most appealing because of the flexibility and convenience in meeting any students’ lifestyle.  While the lure of learning at 3 a.m. may appeal to the masses, not all online courses are treated equal. In fact, many online learning philosophies differ quite significantly from college to college. Some colleges promote the same level of interaction as you may find in a typical face-to-face section, while others follow pre-formulated course outlines that are often static. In order to make sure you get the most from an online course, ask your college these five questions before determining if the course is the right fit for you.

1. What kind of technology is required?

distance learning course may require more materials than a traditional classroom because most work is typically conducted off-campus. Online classes will require you to have regular access to a computer with a high-speed Internet connection and some classes may even use internet-based communication tools such as Skype, Instant Messenger, or a Google account. If you plan on using your college’s facilities to access a computer and Internet, know the hours of operation and be sure it corresponds to your schedule. Most students prefer to take an online course because it does not require campus attendance, but keep in mind that often means you will need consistent access to technology at home.

2. Who is the instructor and how involved is he/she in classroom interactions?

If you have the right equipment and a desire to take an online course, be sure to inquire who your instructor is before committing to the class. While it is always valuable to know who will be teaching a class, it becomes especially important in the online arena. Ask how available your instructor will be throughout the semester. Can you contact he/she through email and receive a quick response?  Will office hours be available? Can the instructor meet with you online to discuss questions or do you have to make a trip to main campus? What all of these questions amount to is the need to know ahead of time how available your instructor will be to you throughout the class. In a face-to-face course you are able to communicate with an instructor before or after a class session and some of that accessibility inevitably gets lost when moving a class online. Make sure you find an instructor who is fully supportive to students and available for those quickly-need-answering questions.

3. How is the class structured?

The instructor is highly important to the learning process of an online class, but so too is the overall structure of a course. There are online classes that follow specifically developed outlines with very little room for alterations by the instructor and there are other courses that are entirely instructor-developed. Ask upfront, either in the department the course is offered through or your instructor, how the class will be organized week-to-week. Will it be static readings, text-based lectures, discussion boards or some other structure? The most highly engaging and effective online learning courses often use a combination of readings, discussions and interactive lectures. Rather than reading a lecture in text, many online courses will use videos, wikis, blogs, podcasts or other visually appealing presentation tools to engage online learners.  Check to see if your class will use some of these emerging technologies for an appealing and dynamic online course.

4. Can I see a sample syllabus? When inquiring about a course’s structure, also inquire to see a sample syllabus. Reviewing a syllabus before enrolling in a class will show you exactly what is expected from you during each part of the course. A syllabus will outline the assignments, the required readings and any large-scale projects. Many syllabi also explain the amount of time needed to complete online assignments. You may be surprised to know that students spend more time completing assignments in an online course compared to a face-to-face class because learning online typically requires more information to be read. Course directions, weekly outlines, assignment criteria and discussions online are more text-based in comparison to a traditional classroom, thus consuming more time in assignment preparation.

5. How often will I work with my peers?

Lastly, once you know the amount and types of assignments, determine what level of interaction will take place between you and the other students in the class. Some courses may require group work through a collaborative project or routine discussions with peers. Understanding how you work best as a student (i.e. do you like to talk things out or do you prefer to work alone?) will assist you in determining if the online course environment is appropriate for your learning style. Interactive online courses can often be very engaging and fun while eliminating some of the pressure that correlates to a face-to-face discussion. You have time to think, analyze and craft your response in a discussion online and many students find this aspect very valuable. However, interacting with peers online can become troublesome if a group project is required and you must coordinate meeting times (either online or face-to-face) with other group members. While group projects don’t always lead to frustration among students in online courses, knowing what the level of interaction is ahead of time and how it fits into your schedule will help you decide if taking an online course is appropriate for you.

There are many elements to consider when getting your education online. Think about who you are as a student and what helps you learn best. Knowing your preferences for communication and assignments, in addition to the technology available to you at home, will all play a role in how successful you will be in an online course. Asking questions before enrolling in a class is the best way to determine if distance education will work for you.

Lisa Mulka is the owner of Juniper Shore Publications, a custom freelance writing and editing firm based in Michigan. Lisa holds a Master of Arts in Written Communication and a Master of Arts in Educational Technology. In addition to freelancing full-time, Lisa is also a college English instructor.