Monthly Archives: July 2016

Some Time Management Tips for Online Students

Online courses give students the flexibility to take their class anytime, anywhere. The trick, students say, is staying on top of them.

Doing so requires discipline, commitment, and organization—traits any successful student should possess, no matter what path they’re taking to complete their degree.

“Being a good student, whether you’re online or in person, are pretty much similar things,” says Tamara Popovich, associate director of student services for ASU Online, the distance learning arm of Arizona State University.

But unlike their peers in the classroom, who have regular face time with instructors, online students receive no in-person reminder of when papers are due or tests are scheduled.

“The big myth is it’s easier to go online, because you can do it at your own pace,” Popovich says. “You do have more flexibility, but it’s not any easier … It’s harder, because you’re on your own; you’re left to your own devices.”

A need for flexibility is one factor fueling the growth in online education—online enrollment hit an all-time high in 2010 with more than 6.1 million students—but a lack of direct oversight can make it easy for them to fall behind.

Throw in everyday distractions typical for an online student—full-time jobs, kids, family activities—and the work can easily pile up. These time management tips from online learning veterans can help you stay ahead of the game:

1. Make a plan: Online students need structure, and a study calendar is a great way to create it, says Christina Robinson Grochett, University of Phoenix’s territory vice president for the Gulf Coast.

Check your syllabus before your course kicks off, and commit to due dates on your calendar. Then, designate study times for each class, and stick to them.

“I set aside a specific block of time every day, usually after the kids’ bedtime, to work on my classes,” says Natalie Fangman, mother of three and an online nursing student at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta. “I treat that time just like I would if I were in the actual classroom.”

Sticking to her plan helped her juggle work, family, and multiple online courses without falling behind, Fangman says.

2. Check in daily: One draw of online classes is that students only need Internet access to connect to their courses.

If you have an iPhone or Android device, leverage it to stay organized, Robinson Grochett recommends.

“With all of the mobile devices we have, somebody can go to a baseball game and still be checking in,” she says. “Not necessarily doing full-blown homework—just checking in and staying current.”

Turning school into a daily activity makes it less overwhelming, and it prevents students from getting caught off guard by syllabus changes, says ASU Online’s Popovich.

“Getting into a rhythm helped keep me on schedule and, most importantly, fight my urge to procrastinate,” says Alex Bonine, who took online classes while earning his bachelor’s in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

3. Look ahead: Knowing what is due in six weeks, not just the next day, can help students maximize their time, Robinson Grochett says.

“Many times people don’t read ahead to see what’s next, so what they end up doing is replicating work that they’ve already done,” she says.

And once you know when an assignment is due, don’t wait until the day before to start working on it.

“If you have class, and you know it’s due Tuesday night, well, don’t make Monday night your night that you’re going to finish your homework,” Robinson Grochett says. “Sunday is a great day to say, ‘I’m gonna go ahead and knock it out.'”

4. Speak up: If you struggle or fall behind, don’t stay silent.

“Students are always hesitant to ask for help,” says Popovich, with ASU Online. “They start to drown and they take drastic measures, or they don’t take measures at all. Either way, they end up making a mistake.”

Instructors may offer wiggle room with deadlines or extra credit if a situation warrants it, and most online programs have teams of counselors and advisers to help you along the way—but students need to be proactive, Popovich says.

Even if the course seems like a total loss, Popovich says there is someone who can help.

“We don’t want them to fail miserably. There’s always a middle ground,” she says. “Let’s rescue what we can, and then move forward from here.”

How to Tell the Good From the Bad

Advances in technology over the past decade have propelled colleges and universities into the realm of online education, creating a crowded market for students considering an online degree.

But not all programs are a safe bet.

Online colleges have been criticized for putting profits over students; some have even been the subject of lawsuits claiming misrepresentation or fraud. To avoid scams, students need to be savvy consumers and do their research before signing up for an online degree program, experts say.

These indicators that can help students tell a good online program from a bad one.

Accreditation: Like a stamp of approval, accreditation tells students that a school or degree program meets certain academic standards. It also tells employers that graduates of the program are likely to be prepared for the workforce.

“If you really want a credential for a job, the most secure bet is to go to a regionally accredited institution,” says Janet Moore, chief knowledge officer at the Sloan Consortium, a research organization specializing in online education.

While most colleges list their accreditation on their websites, students should do their legwork to ensure the school’s credentials are legitimate. Some institutions tout phony credentials from accrediting bodies that either don’t exist or aren’t reputable, warns Anne Johnson, director of the advocacy group Campus Progress.

The Accrediting Council for Distance Education, for example, claims to be an “internationally recognized, independent and private education accrediting body,” but is not recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education.

The College Navigator tool on the Department of Education’s website allows students to verify the accreditation of any school on their radar, as well as check the vitals of that institution: graduation rates, retention rates, and default rates on student loans.

Curriculum and credits: Before enrolling in an online degree program, students should verify whether the credits they earn can transfer to another college if they switch programs.

If those credits can’t be transferred, students should ask themselves, “Why?” It may be because other colleges don’t consider the courses in that program up to their academic standards.

Students should also ask about credit for prior courses, Moore says. “If you dropped out of college in 1990 in your junior year … are you going to lose those credits? Or can you pick up where you left off?” she adds.

Another area students should research is the curriculum for the online degree program they are considering, Moore says. Courses for an online degree in computer information technology, for instance, should teach students practical skills needed in that field, such as operating systems and in-demand coding languages.

Support services: Earning a degree online doesn’t eliminate the need for academic assistance. In fact, in most cases, it increases the need for those services, experts say.

“What is the support level going to be? Who is going to help you day one, week one, when you need help?” says Chris Caywood, president of online services at DeVry Inc., which operates several for-profit institutions, including DeVry University and the Chamberlain College of Nursing.

Students want to ensure their online degree program will help them enter into, or advance in, their chosen career field.

“I’d ask a lot of hard questions about what the career services piece looks like,” Caywood says. “Are we supporting you not only in educational achievement, but when you want to get that next job?”

By asking those hard questions, online students can also get a feel for how responsive a school is to their needs. If information about support services is not readily available on a school’s website, or if students have a hard time getting answers when they call, the program may be trying to hide something, says Johnson from Campus Progress.

“If you’re having a hard time … getting information about what it would be like as a student at that school, that’s going to tell you a lot about what your experience would be,” Johnson says. “If you can’t get a hold of anyone about to ask about their academic counseling or career placement services, I’d say that’s a big red flag.”

Another red flag: pushy financial aid counselors.

Students should make sure they fully understand their financial aid package before signing for any loans, and be wary if schools pressure them to take out loans for their online degree program—particularly private loans, Johnson adds.

“Access to financial aid counseling is very important, and students should be very leery if they don’t have the information they need, or feel like their questions aren’t being answered,” she says.

Statistics: Numbers such as graduation rates or student loan default rates can tell students a lot about a school, says Moore, with the Sloan Consortium.

A low completion rate could indicate the program doesn’t have strong academic support for students, and a high student loan default rate may be a signal of poor financial aid advising.

Low employment rates for graduates might raise a red flag about a school’s career services department, or lack of one, and might also hint at a larger problem: diploma mills. These institutions churn out graduates with degrees that carry little weight with employers because of low-quality curricula or lack of legitimate accreditation.

Retention, success, and default rates will separate the good schools from the bad, Moore says. “The difficulty is getting people to buckle down and do that research ahead of time.”

Tips to Succeed in an Online Course

“In other online programs, I could maybe check in once or twice a week and still get a decent grade,” says Finley, who took seven online courses previously while earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree. “For this, I actually had to set up dedicated times for when I had to log in just to check that there weren’t things posted overnight. I had to change my whole thought process of how to attack these courses.”

Finley says that students should not have a carefree attitude when taking an online course, because some may prove to be more difficult than traditional classes. “In my opinion, I think online courses are actually a little harder,” he adds. For students who are considering online courses over in-class instruction, here are five tips for success.

1. Confirm technical requirements: Online classes can benefit students with busy schedules, but only if they can access the materials.

“You’re going to need to understand what the technical requirements are,” advises Andrew Wolf, coordinator of online learning at the University of Rochester School of Nursing. “Make sure before the course starts that your computer will work with [all the online tools], and that you know how to navigate them so that you don’t have to spend time during the course trying to figure out the technology.”

2. Connect with instructors early: After taking online courses in the past, Finley says he assumed his previous experiences would dictate future successes at Wake Forest.

“I know initially for me, I didn’t contact my instructor because I felt like [the course] was going to be really easy for me,” he acknowledges. But after multiple writing assignments were returned to him to revise, he says that he quickly changed his approach to the course and reached out for help.

“Once I started coordinating with [my instructor], I realized I needed to change my writing style,” Finley says. “You have to really stay in contact; it’s extremely important.”

While instructors are available to help throughout the courses, Finley advises students to also find answers to class questions independently, if possible. “Help is available but it’s not going to be available at the snap of a finger,” he says. “You can’t just think you’re going to be able to reach right out with a problem. You have to be willing to go out and find things on your own.”

3. Create a schedule: Quality online instructors will create courses that are easy to navigate and have clear expectations, notes Wolf. “Really good professors will help you put the framework in place,” he says. “If you don’t have that type of framework in place, you’ll have to do it yourself.”

When Finley began his online course, he says he needed to dedicate two-to-three hour time blocks to log in and complete assignments. “I had to change around my entire schedule to complement my course,” he adds. “I’m using Microsoft Outlook more than ever to set up when projects are due and to stay on track with the assignments. You have to dedicate time to this.”

4. Stay organized: Students enrolled in traditional courses usually have a consistent schedule to follow each week, with in-class instruction followed by out-of-class assignments. For online courses, students may have to find their own ways to stay on top of their work, notes Karen Stevens, chief undergraduate adviser of the University of Massachusetts—Amherst’s University Without Walls program.

“Students really, really need to be organized from the beginning to be successful in an online course,” Stevens wrote in an E-mail. “All assignment due dates should be in their calendar, online or paper folders should be created for each week, [and] the work area should be not only quiet but clean—keeping all coursework materials together.”

5. Have a consistent workspace: One thing online and in-class courses have in common is that students still need a place to study or complete assignments, whether that’s at a coffee shop, the school library, or at home. Wherever students choose to study and complete assignments, they should make it a consistent location that’s free of outside interferences, notes Rochester’s Wolf.

“I’ve actually had students who have told me that they’ve been in the middle of an exam and their 2-year-old starts crying,” he says. “You need a place to study that’s quiet for a time that’s set aside where you can focus on your work without distractions.”