Going Back to College – Online

frishman-6776692Going Back to College – Online

by Kate Frishman

I am the proud owner of a newly minted Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree from Bowling Green State University, and it only took me twenty-six years to get it.

I first started at BGSU in 1985 as a very young freshman. A year later I left school to marry and move to England. At the time, I was a French/Russian major. Although I would have loved to return to college at many points in my life, it wasn’t until my early thirties that I finally went back, but not to BGSU. I attended our local community college, completing an Associate’s Degree in Nursing.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I wanted to pursue a writing career and wanted formal training. Four years later I was back at BGSU. It would have taken three and a half years to get my Bachelor of Arts in Writing, and I knew that would not fit my family situation. Instead, their BLS degree allowed me to incorporate the credits I already had and take classes in writing and editing. One calendar year later, I graduated.

The key to making college work both times was online classes. Online classes have a tarnished reputation, thanks to their shaky beginnings. Now, though, they are offered by major universities all over the country. I have taken a diverse group of classes online, including Statistics, Introduction to Art, Chemistry, Advanced Technical Writing, and even Ancient Greek. For nontraditional students, taking online classes can have many advantages. Since we frequently have full-time work and home responsibilities, taking classes that we can fit into our schedule makes more sense than trying to create a schedule around the classes. I was able to work full-time as a nurse, homeschool my five children, and carry a full class schedule thanks to the convenience of the online program.

Conversely, with online classes we can take more time to learn the material if necessary. If an instructor has posted a video lecture or a slideshow, we have the ability to view it as many times as needed to understand the material. Another advantage is that the online program at some universities is actually cheaper than the on- campus program. The distance learning BLS that I received allowed me to take one class per semester on campus. By staying within those guidelines, I saved several thousand dollars. Also, there are now online textbooks that are considerably cheaper than paper books. I saved seventy-five dollars on one text, and forty-eight dollars on another. Since we’re learning on the computer anyway, it makes sense to take advantage of the additional savings.

Although I am a huge proponent of online classes, you do need a particular set of strategies to succeed in them. Here are some tips to make your online experience a success.

Take a single online class the first time out. For most people, learning over the Internet is a new experience requiring different learning strategies. Since returning to school is challenging enough, don’t jump into a full online schedule without trying a single class first.

Make sure you have access to the right technology. You don’t have to have the latest and greatest, but you do need to check the system requirements for the online programs you will need to use. It’s especially important that you have a Web browser that matches the program’s specifications. When I started online classes, the browser I normally used did not display all of the content correctly. When I took my first online test, the answer buttons didn’t show up! Needless to say, I contacted the teacher and switched to the correct browser.

Also, the slower your computer system, the more time you should plan on spending on the class. Having a slow computer doesn’t necessarily have to stop you from taking an online class, though. Most local libraries have reasonably up-to-date equipment that is available to patrons. The university library and many other campus buildings also have computers for student use. If you are using a computer other than your own, make sure that you purchase a USB drive to back up your work. A small one works fine for transporting documents, since they tend to take up very little space. A USB, or “thumb”, drive generally can be purchased for thirty dollars or less. You can also check and see whether your online class program includes document storage.

-Attend an introduction to online classes seminar. Most universities offer a two to four hour seminar that teaches you the ins and outs of the program. It is worth it to clear your schedule for this event, because it will greatly decrease your learning curve.

Know the syllabus. In face-to-face classes, the instructor will usually remind you of assignment due dates. In online classes, most instructors will send out regular emails that include reminders. However, this is not always the case. Make sure you know not only the dates, but the times that assignments are due. I once missed an assignment because I tried to turn it in at 8:03 and the assignment portal locked at 8 pm.

Use the class forum. The class forum is a discussion group that is usually monitored by the instructor. In most classes, students enter an introduction letter, called a post, during the first week. Pay attention to these posts, since you may find study partners, people who are pursuing the same degree, or people who have the same life situation as you. This is also the place to ask questions, just as you would discuss the material in class and clear up anything confusing. In many classes there are also assignments through the forum, such as discussion questions to answer.

Don’t be afraid to use on-campus services. As a returning student, it is not uncommon to need help brushing up on math skills. Also, academic writing is not like any form of writing used in the real world. Make full use of the math and writing labs on campus, as well as the online and brick-and-mortar library. The university Web site should have information about hours of operation and whether you need an appointment.

If you’re having problems, address them immediately. Unlike an on-campus class, it is easy to get behind because there are no regularly scheduled meeting times, or to get stuck on a difficult assignment and not know who to contact. In both cases, email your instructor right away. They know the perils of online classes, and they know how to help you get back on track. They may even have office hours available to help you work through the problem face to face.

Like anything else, online classes aren’t perfect, but neither are on-campus classes. In my experience, though, I found that the instructors were just as good if not better, the material was just as easy to understand, and my grades were just as high with online classes as on-campus classes. I would never have been able to complete my degrees without them. Overall, online classes can be a wonderful way to get the education you deserve without giving up the life you’ve already built.

Kate Frishman is a freelance writer and editor residing in Bowling Green, Ohio. She maintains an online blog about editing, writing, and life.