The Online Learning Option

The Online Learning Option

by Laura Janis Thompson

Every day, students who dream of going to college are subjected to a barrage of television advertising that attempts to convince them that online education is surely the best way to pursue a degree. My favorite commercial is a veritable Broadway show featuring pajama-clad actors dancing, singing and cavorting across the screen; a rousing display cleverly designed to persuade the most reluctant student to enroll. As the veteran of many online classes, I must confess, it is a pretty awesome way to go to school and can be particularly appealing to students who juggle multiple commitments such as work and family. However, before you leap or put on your “jammies”, or even belt out a show tune, there is much to consider.

Advertising aside, everyone seems to have an opinion these days regarding the online format of education. To many of us, both education professionals and students alike, it sometimes seems like a war between those who are “for” and those who are “against”. Some opposing points of view are completely valid while others are unfounded and wildly off-base. Often, the negative opinions are expressed by those who tend to be suspicious of anything that might be strange or unfamiliar. Considering that many of them might never have attended a class in a virtual environment and don’t spend a whole lot of time on the Internet, skepticism is understandable. Extreme naysayers even feel that the only worthwhile way to learn must include four walls, a desk, and a living, breathing professor!

I’ve read about and discussed the validity of online education to death and frankly, I think it’s like anything else; there are good and bad online classes and there are good and bad online instructors. There are also good and bad brick and mortar classes, and good and bad brick and mortar teachers, as well. While all of this should be important to you as a prospective student, I am sure that what you really want to know is whether you will succeed in an online class. After all, the “halls” of the virtual college campus` are littered with casualties who ventured unprepared into the dark and mysterious world of online classes. What is the guarantee you won’t be one of them? Will online learning suit your own personal life style and learning style? What is your learning style? For that matter, for those of you who are unfamiliar, what is a learning style?

What’s a Learning Style?

Experts agree that auditory learners are drawn to listening and speaking methods of learning, and thrive in that environment. Visual learners prefer reading, and usually are skilled at writing, while kinesthetic learners enjoy being hands on and interactive. Although some online schools tend to gloss over this very important research, and attempt to lure students to enroll with promises of podcasted lectures and real time Webcasting, for the most part, if you are a non-visual learner there may be some adjustments to make on your part for this very visual structure of learning. Having a firm grasp of one’s own particular learning style could be the make it, or break it factor in this type of academic setting. Does this mean that you will not be successful in the virtual classroom? Absolutely not! It does mean, however, that forewarned should be forearmed. Having a solid grasp of your strengths and weaknesses as a learner could be a huge advantage, and have a tremendous impact on your ability to thrive in any type of learning environment. There is a wealth of information and resources available online for students to determine their learning style. Having this information will provide essential study ammunition!

Research Your Options

According to Vickie Griswold, president of Learning “Fun”damentals, Inc., an education consulting and tutoring service based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, the potential online student should take great care to thoroughly research the type of online platform they are considering. Not all online formats are created equal, and to a kinesthetic or auditory learner the method of content delivery could have a tremendous impact on his or her ability to assimilate the course material.

– Blended learning is a combination of online and classroom based material. The student is usually required to attend a campus-based class once a week or even once a month, and to submit assignments and interact online.

– An asynchronous style of learning allows the student to work independently online, not be required to be in the “classroom” at any given time, and to work at their own pace although assignment deadlines still apply.

– The synchronous online classroom dictates that the class meets at specific times throughout the week to participate in lectures either through Webcasting or Web conferencing. This is often the next best thing, for some students, to actually being in the classroom because attendees feel they are part of the group.

While researching options may appear difficult, it’s not quite as overwhelming as it seems. Many online schools will allow you to take a “tour” of the online class, and some even offer the opportunity to audit or take a trial class.

After you’ve enrolled in your first online class, Vickie offers these tips:

– Use your organizational skills. For example, creating a schedule that may be posted near your desk (or on the family refrigerator) can be very helpful in keeping you on track.

-Making flash cards with key words on them can help you to study, as well as utilizing other study aids.

-Depending on whether you prefer to study alone or with a group, forming a Skype or Oovoo study group with classmates can be beneficial.

Last (but not) Least

Do you have the time to devote to an online class? There is a common misconception that virtual classes are “easy” when in reality, an online class can require a minimum of fifteen hours of study time per week, per class. Try to be realistic about job and home demands. Can you manage to stay focused as a stay-at-home student and not be distracted by the kids, the dog, or the fact that everyone is waiting for dinner? Can you sit at a computer for extended periods of time? Speaking of the computer, how proficient are your computer skills? If you are unable to answer “yes” to these questions, the safer bet might actually be to attend a brick and mortar environment two nights a week rather than struggling to fit everything in at home.

Here’s a word about computer literacy. Whatever you may know or not know about e-learning, if you are not reasonably computer literate, don’t, as many others have, make the painful mistake of thinking that taking an online class will improve your computer skills. The pace of the coursework is often accelerated and the workload quite heavy. Adding such a burden would be tantamount to poking your eyes out with your pencil; no need for this type of torture! Take a computer class, and then proceed with your online class registration.

Vicki stated that learning style structures are not an exact science. Most students cannot simply be pigeonholed as having one style of learning or another, but instead often utilize a blend of two different frameworks. The good news is that the kinesthetic or auditory learner will probably not lean so far in one direction that they are unable to be successful in the visual world.

However, online learning is not for everyone. Vicki selected a combined distance and campus based program when she returned to school for her master’s in education. She maintains that some course material may seamlessly adapt to the online format while for other academic material, there may be no substitute for the face-to-face experience. She recounts her own statistics class as an example.

“It was about 9:30 at night.” Griswold recalled. “All the students were exhausted. A statistics problem was written out across three white boards. Our professor told us that as soon as we arrived at the solution, we could all go home.” Vicki remembered that as she stared at her notes, bleary eyed, the answer suddenly came to her. Exhilarated, she screamed, “I got it!” Even though it was an uncharacteristic outburst (and she was embarrassed), she would not have traded that rush of pleasure and excitement for a similar “light bulb” moment while home alone in front of her laptop. Definitely something to keep in mind!

A student’s learning style is integral to success. Students need to understand their strengths and weaknesses as a learner, and how they learn most effectively. For example, many students find they are primarily a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic (tactile) learner:

  1. Visual learners learn from things they can see (i.e., print materials such as text, illustrations, and graphics).
  2. Auditory learners learn from things they can hear (i.e., listening to a lecture, a speech or other sounds) .
  3. Kinesthetic learners learn best from touching or working with objects (i.e., performing a task or learning by doing.)

You may find that you are comfortable with more than one learning style, though you will probably be stronger in one area than another. There are many resources online to help you learn your learning style and use it to maximize your academic success (i.e., EducationPlanner provides a brief quiz and study tips.)

Laura Janis Thompson has six years of experience in education as a college admissions representative and a writing tutor. She holds a master’s degree in management and is a lifelong student.