Figuring out how online education all works takes time and practice. There is a lot to consider, from the technologies involved, to what it will all cost. But you can set the stage for a successful learning experience by doing a little research and preparation before you begin. Take a look at these common mistakes and determine how they might inform your decisions as an online student:
- Not taking the time to comparison shop. These days, there are a lot of online programs out there and chances are you'll find options in your major area of study offered by a range of traditional and online institutions. Create your own list of priorities – such as accreditation, costs, support services, career preparation, and faculty qualifications – and use it to compare the pros and cons of several programs before you apply.
- Assuming courses will transfer: Many online students have completed college-level courses in the past and want to transfer those credits to online programs, while others plan to take courses online and transfer them to another school in the future. Either way, it's up to the receiving school to decide what will and won't count toward a degree, and it's typically a case-by-case evaluation. Talk to admissions officers to discuss your plans and find out more about their existing transfer policies so you don't end up wasting any of your college credits.
- Thinking online learning will be easier than face to face: The nature of online learning and its "any time, any place" convenience places the responsibility for staying on track with the student. Initiative is required at every stage of the process to complete readings and submit assignments in a timely manner. Many students find online classes to be the equivalent to (or often more work than) traditional classes in terms of difficulty.
- Expecting courses to be self-paced: While some online learning experiences are completely self-paced – allowing each learner to start and finish the requirements on his or her own – most academic courses have firm beginning and end dates, as well as specific deadlines. Students are able to complete the activities and assignments according to their schedules, but within specific time frames (e.g., weekly due dates). Online students may also work with their classmates on small group projects and other collaborative assignments, meaning that additional scheduling is required.
- Not asking questions: Online schools and programs offer a wide range of support services designed to help students succeed in their courses and reach graduation. However, it is up to the student to reach out and let others know that they have questions and concerns, and are facing unexpected challenges. Your instructors will be able to answer questions you have about your courses and also connect you with school resources, such as advisors, counselors, librarians, and more. In addition, taking advantage of these services can also help you overcome any feelings of isolation you might experience, especially in your first online classes.
- Underestimating the costs: Tuition and fees are just the beginning when estimating college costs. Net price calculators can help with this process, but you also need to factor in textbooks and any hardware or software required to participate in your online courses, as well as charges related to Internet access. You should also closely evaluate any financial aid or loan details to see how these costs continue in the form of repayments after you graduate.
- Being underprepared for the work: Online courses rely heavily on reading and writing skills, as students interact with online materials, submit written assignments (i.e., papers, projects), and participate in threaded discussion forums. There are also challenges that may be new to those without a lot of computer experience. Students who are returning to school after a break or who may be new to computer technology may benefit from reviewing the basics with open online courses and completing school-sponsored new student orientations before their first classes begin.
If you are thinking about online education, it can be a great way to move your professional and personal learning goals forward. But you need to make sure your expectations are realistic and find a program that is a good match for you and your learning needs. Take the time to conduct some research up front and continue to ask questions even after you enroll.