The Boston Phoenix- Bytes of knowledge

The Boston Phoenix- Bytes of knowledge

Getting the most from an online education

By Clea Simon

Once upon a time, we thought it was novel to be able to buy books in our bathrobes. Then we were downloading music and tweeting in our scanties. Is it any wonder that online learning is on the rise? With colleges and universities from UMass to UCLA offering online programs, and thousands of other Web-based options for credit, degrees, or simple personal enrichment, the wired student need never get dressed at all.

How can you make the most of the online learning experience? The key, say the experts, is to do your prep work and learn how Web courses differ from — and how they're exactly the same as — their in-person counterparts.

Shop carefully

To begin with, even before the semester kicks off, do your homework. Online programs have proliferated like, well, computer bugs. Some offer credits or degrees, others focus on personal enrichment, while still others will probably send you a diploma in exchange for your cash. It's easy to get a feeling for what's out there with a quick Web search — you can google, can't you? Start by looking for programs that interest you (creative writing or animal mindreading) and try cross-referencing with reputable forums. Here in Massachusetts, 15 community colleges and nine state colleges have joined up as Massachusetts Colleges Online consortium, and the group's Web site offers links and contacts for members. But of course one advantage of being online is that you can travel anywhere. Take a course based in California — or Asia. Just check it out first.

"Make sure you're enrolling in the right institution," says Jennifer Brady, UMassOnline's director of marketing and customer relations. This may sound obvious, but as with any extension or adult-learning program, you may discover that the regular faculty is not involved and that the substitutes aren't who you'd want. "Find out in advance if the faculty member teaching the course is of the same high quality you'd expect to find on campus at any reputable school," says Brady.

Just as you would for a real-time course, you should also ask up front how much of a time commitment will be required.

"Web classes are not 'gut courses,' " says Charles Shairs, senior special project coordinator for Bunker Hill Community College. Dr. Matthew Olson, director of Middlesex Interactive, the online learning branch of Middlesex Community College, concurs. "Just because this course is online doesn't mean it will take less time than a face-to-face course would," he says. "It may take more! Find out from your instructor how many hours per week you are expected to put into the course."

In fact, with some courses, you may be required to actually leave the house. "Just because this is an online course doesn't mean all of your work will be online," says Olson. "Many online courses require you to go out into the world and do things. For example, an environmental science course may ask you to make observations in a local woodland, or a humanities course may require you to go to a museum." Before signing up, Shairs suggests asking the following questions: "Are on-site exams required? Where and how are assignments submitted? What textbook do I need? Can I meet with the instructor in person if I need to?"

And sweat the details

Then there are the practical concerns. If you are working toward a degree, make sure that either your online program offers the one you want or that credits will be transferable, stresses Brady. Also, if you're hoping to be reimbursed by an employer, make sure that the online program is one your company recognizes and that you fully understand the procedure for getting your money back. Many of these courses are as expensive as in-person college courses, and signing up for the wrong one could cost you hundreds.

Once you've enrolled, make a schedule and stick to it. Because of the remote nature of online teaching, it can be all too easy to push class duties aside. That's a common mistake, warn the experts. As New York–based online teacher and novelist Rochelle Jewel Shapiro says: "To get the most out of an online class, you have to slot out a regular time on your calendar for doing your coursework. Otherwise, you may get overwhelmed and end up dropping out."

Brady goes a step further and suggests alerting friends and family that you are taking a course — and taking it seriously. "Before you start the online course, hold a meeting: tell everyone that when you're in your study place, you're to be left alone short of an emergency," she says. "Tell them you need them to support you by allowing you this uninterrupted time."

Mastering an online class means conquering any lingering techno fears. "If you've never taken on online classes, you need to learn the online software," says novelist Christopher Meeks, who currently teaches for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. "You will be able to log onto this software before the first class date. Do so to familiarize yourself with how the software works. There will be easy-to-follow lessons. It's all rather simple, and you'll be an expert quickly." Meeks, who has taught at a variety of colleges, is also an online student. Although he had published several collections of short stories, his first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, was developed through an online writing class.

Even after you've mastered the software, things can go haywire in the wired world. "Know your tech-support person!" insists Caroline Leavitt, an award-winning teacher for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. "Things do go wrong on online courses and the tech support is your lifeline and best friend."

The human elements

People, as well as programs, can cause problems online. In fact, it pays to be aware that when working remotely some kind of compensation has to be made for the missing element of human interaction. "Students should create a 'presence' in the course early on" through introductory e-mails or discussion posts, advises Shairs, and keep in touch throughout the course. "If you're behind," he says, "let the instructor know you have not fallen off the Earth and are still exerting some effort to get the work done."

If you do need help, make sure you ask for it. "Online teachers can't see by your face or body language that you are confused or bored or even irritated, so make sure if you are having a problem that you e-mail the teacher and let him or her know," says Leavitt, whose ninth novel, Breathe, comes out in 2010. "If we teachers don't know, we cannot fix or address the problem."

The strange nature of online communication can cut both ways, as Meeks points out. For all their easy access, chat rooms are not the same as casual classroom conversation: "Resist the temptation to hammer off a response and press 'submit,' " he warns. "In a normal classroom, your thoughts and responses are given on the fly, and your words are not kept as a record. In an online class, what you write is kept online for your classmates for the entire quarter or semester. Thus, something you write on the first week can be returned to the 10th week."

For every drawback, however, online learning has a benefit. For starters, there's that amazing around-the-world connection. "The technology supporting online courses is based on the idea that people should collaborate as part of their learning," says Olson. That means lots of discussions and group projects, which can lighten difficult course loads. Plus, as Leavitt points out, online classes "can be even more intimate than a regular class, because online people seem more willing to open up."

And, of course, with online classes there is always that wonderful option of posting whenever and wherever, for as long as your class lasts. "The best part of an online class is you can log on every day, if you like, and see what others are posting. [The teachers] don't care if you're in pajamas or log in at 3 am. It doesn't matter if you're traveling and log on at the airport between planes," says Meeks. "If you're obsessive, as I can be, this kind of class is perfect."

Date: 4/29/09