I remember my first online class: Research Methods in Education. I stared at the computer screen like a deer in the headlights trying to figure out what I should be looking for, how to use this online tool, and wondering how I was going to keep myself motivated with so much freedom and little structure. While online learning sounded like a great idea because it was flexible and I could work at my own pace, or so I thought, I quickly realized that it was far more than sitting on my couch in my pajamas and choosing when I would prioritize my online classes over social media and all the other things in my life. As institutions like mine, Western, move to an online learning approach for the remainder of the semester, educators are having a lot of conversations about how we can best support students in successfully completing the term, particularly those who may not have been enrolled in an online course previously. These conversations have made me think a lot about my own experience having to navigate the online learning curve myself, and some of the things I wish I had of known as I eased into it.
While it is important to acknowledge that every student's experience is unique, including mine, if there is one thing I learned from my own experience with online learning – as a student, TA, researcher, student affairs and quality assurance professional – it is that we don’t often talk enough about how the online approach can drastically change how you learn, organize your notes, and prioritize your time. It can also change how you interact with peers and social connection, and ultimately succeed in a course. With that in mind, I wanted to draw upon my various perspectives and personal experiences with online learning to share a few things I would encourage students consider as they become an online student for the next several weeks. Truthfully, I wish someone could have shared these insights with me at the beginning as well, as it likely would have changed how I approached my own online learning journey.
Become familiar right away with the learning platform. My first challenge as an online learner was that I had never had to use an online learning tool before, and wow, was it ever different than showing up for a lecture or tutorial. If you aren’t already using OWL or another learning management tool, the earlier you can open and look around the tool, the easier it will for you to find things when you need them. Review the syllabi, modules and resources that are provided. Start to learn how to navigate the site and make notes if you need to so that for the next few weeks you can use it as efficiently as possible.
Review the learning outcomes, assignments and requirements for the remainder of the term. I quickly learned that online courses are often structured very differently than in-class courses because of the nature in which the content can be taught. It is very possible as institutions move to an online approach that your original course syllabi, outcomes or assignments may be modified. It is important right away to become familiar with any changes so you know exactly how to focus your time and attention. This is particularly true for online tests, projects, or culminating assignments that may be replacing a formal exam. If you have questions, reach out to your professor, TA or peers for support right away.
Levering your strengths is important. We all have unique talents that help us be successful, and using them as an online learner can really help you find what works best for you. In my case, I do best with a checklist, because I get satisfaction from crossing something off it, so making a daily to-do list to help me stay focused and on-track for deadlines worked well. However, if you are not someone who generally finds checking things off a list productive, that is probably not a great way to try to manage your time as an online learner. Maybe instead of a checklist, you prefer structure so you block your existing in-class schedule into your calendar to maintain dedicated times to focus on your courses. The same goes for studying – if you study best with music or the TV on, go ahead and use those mediums to be productive; however, if you know you are more engaged with limited distractions, do your best to seclude yourself in a quiet place for a designated amount of time and then reward yourself with an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Build a study plan to manage your time. I learned the hard way that losing the regular structure of classes can make it easy to procrastinate or put course work on the backburner, especially when you can binge your favourite show on Netflix. A study plan is critical to the success of a lot of online learners, and might be helpful for your own success as well. Here are a few things to consider:
Assignments and tests will come quickly over the next few weeks, especially while you are settling into the online learning format. Don’t wait until the assignment is due to start looking at it and working on it. Additionally, the new online format may need you to engage in online discussions with peers, which may require you post frequently to share what you are learning. Be proactive in completing work and discussions so that you can effectively manage your time and eliminate stress, particularly as you get to the end of the term.
Find an organizational system that works for you.
As I mentioned, maybe using a to-do list or a calendar system isn’t aligned with your strengths, but the sooner you can identify what the best way to organize your time is, the more successful you will be. Perhaps it’s using the ‘notes’ feature in your phone, having an accountability buddy in your course that you can text or email to keep each other on track, or colour coding sticky notes on your wall to stay focused and organized.
Set time limits and take breaks.
When you take online learning really seriously, it can become easy to find yourself immersed in reading articles, watching videos, completing assignments and studying for online tests. I quickly learned that it is important to set boundaries for yourself to help develop self-discipline. There reaches a point where the work becomes unproductive, so set some time limits to ensure that you stand up, stretch, take a few moments to practice mindfulness, do something for you, and come back at a time when you know you can more effectively focus on the task at hand. It could even be as simple as switching up courses to change the topic.
Practicing self-discipline, setting boundaries and planning ahead can be difficult, particularly when you’re new to online learning, so take care of yourself and practice an abundance of grace. After you’ve finished a reading, module, assignment or reached your allotted time limit, reward yourself with a healthy snack, FaceTime with a loved one or friend, or play a game of NBA 20. An important piece of this process is recognizing that it is new and takes some adjusting to, so find something that rewards the time and effort you’re putting in. I know for me personally, it was as simple as snuggling up with my cat on the couch and watching an episode or two of my favourite show while enjoying a bag of microwave popcorn. For my friend in the program with me, it was exercising or shooting hoops.
Ask for help when you need it. When I was an online TA, I realized that students don’t always reach out as naturally as in a face-to-face class. There is something about being physically disconnected that can make it feel like it is difficult to find support. Be proactive and reach out to your professors, TAs, peers and resources when you need them. It is a difficult time for everyone, especially as we quickly adapt to online learning, so know that you are not alone and there are plenty of people and resources out there to help you. Many institutions have put together websites with remote resources for students, including Western Student Experience, which has launched a website intentionally designed to help online learners and offers tools to help you be successful. Visit https://studentexperience.uwo.ca/remote/ for more information and supports.
Think of online learning as a job. Think about finishing your courses as your job for the next few weeks. If you can start to think about your study as your work – consciously showing up, absorbing content and knowledge, scheduling “meetings” (ie. assignments, tasks, etc.), and setting appropriate boundaries – you can begin to develop a growth mindset that helps you get through it. I always tried to remind myself that if I could set daily goals, demonstrate my ability to work independently, and stay motivated, I could make it to the end. If that doesn’t help, remember that these are great skills you are developing and resume examples you can share with future employers who one day ask you, ‘Tell us about a time that you successfully managed change?’ or ‘Tell us about a time when you demonstrated effective time management?’.
Stay connected with others. I remember feeling oddly isolated when I started online learning because I was used to seeing my classmates and really enjoyed group learning conversations in tutorials and labs. You might be experiencing some of those feelings too and that is absolutely okay. Connectedness is another adjustment that we have to make as we move to online learning environments, but don’t forget that there are plenty of ways to stay connected with peers and friends – social media, online discussions, texting, FaceTime, calling, email, the list goes on. Reward yourself with connection when you can, and check-in with your classmates and friends. Chances are they are going through their own unique transition too and experiences like these can bring community together, even if it is digitally. Consider using your technological tools to create e-study groups, say a quick ‘hello’ at the end of every day, share insights that you’ve learned from the online content, or just be there to support and listen as you all navigate this new experience together.
Find what keeps you motivated. Whether you are in your first year or your fourth year; your undergraduate degree or your graduate degree like I was, find something that helps you stay motivated throughout the next few weeks. Perhaps it is motivating yourself with rewards, pinning up or sharing inspirational quotes, listening to podcasts that excite you, participating in workouts at home, practicing yoga, or changing out of your pajamas into class-appropriate clothes to feel more productive. Whatever that motivation is for you, try to stay positive and find things that push you to make it through. The light is at the end of the tunnel – only a few weeks left. You can do this!
The next few weeks might be a learning curve, and that’s okay. Part of my choice to share my own experience and the resources that Western has put together is because it is important to acknowledge that students are not alone in this journey, and I wish someone would have shared that with me. This change might be new and exciting for some; it might be frustrating and saddening for others. Just like many of you will have your own unique reactions to finishing out the term online, many students will also face their own successes and challenges in becoming an online learner. Remember that this transition is a process, and you can help yourself be the best online learner you can be by identifying your strengths and which strategies will maximize your success, asking for help when you need it, and utilizing the resources that are available. It took me almost 3 years to learn these things, and I’m still learning, but knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to online learning would have helped me be a lot more prepared at the beginning. Hopefully, this can help prepare you for success too; after all, you are a bright post-secondary student, and you’ve got this.
-Sara Wills, Senior Consultant