Online Learning: The Basics

While searching for graduate degree programs in order to keep my teaching certification current, I weighed attending my first-choice school against remaining free to relocate. The answer to my divided interests came from an Online MA in Education. I was a little nervous about doing something so different and new, but I was also excited by the possibilities and decided to try it out. Now, having completed my degree, you might have a hard time getting me to go back to a traditional classroom!

There are many different styles of online classes, but there are few things that are constant among all classes. Learning more about the basics of online learning can help you decide if they’re right for you, and once you enroll, let you get the most out of the experience.

Getting Started

Before you even register for an online class, there should be a website that lists any technical requirements. Especially take note of any required software. For instance, one professor required us to download a particular application so that we could listen to recorded comments. Several other classes asked us to post assignments to the web, so web-authoring software was helpful. Knowing about these technical requirements ahead of time will prevent any unnecessary stumbling blocks as you begin your new learning adventure. Don’t miss out because your outdated browser can’t support features on the class website or e-mails are going to a school account you haven’t activated yet.

The Class Website

All online classes will have a class website that serves as the class meeting place. Some schools use commercial products like Blackboard (, while others create their own interface ( The instructor will post readings and assignments here, you’ll have class discussions, and you might even upload your homework to this site. Once it’s time for the class to begin, the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with your “classroom.” Check out the site’s features and make sure that you can perform required tasks like posting to a discussion board or opening up the chat room. Consider the time you spend just exploring the class website an investment in your future success with the class.

Assignments and Deadlines

Of course, in addition to getting used to all the technical features of your class website, you should also read the syllabus and assignments to get a sense of upcoming work and deadlines. Notice whether class readings will be provided for you online or if you will need to purchase any textbooks. Readings and assignments are usually organized by week, just like in a face-to-face class. Depending on the class, there may also be deadlines within each week. For example, you may be asked to read several articles and post a response by Tuesday, post a reply in the discussion forum by Wednesday and then write a summary of your thoughts by Friday. While staying organized and being aware of deadlines is important for any class you take, it’s even more vital to an online class because you won’t have any in-person reminders.

Online Community

Many class websites have a place for you to upload a picture and personal profile. Some classes will turn introductions into the first assignment. Take full advantage of any official tools like this, and if your class doesn’t provide a getting-to-know-you assignment take the initiative to say hello through e-mail or a post on the class discussion boards. It takes a little more effort to get to know your classmates when you can’t just turn to the person sitting next to you and say hi, but it’s definitely worth it in terms of the connections you’ll make.

In many online classes, the instructor will divide the students into smaller groups, in some cases to complete a group project and in others to simply discuss issues with each other. Working with a group online can be intimidating at first, but it is certainly possible. Just remember to keep the lines of communication open, do your part in group activities, and check the website and/or your e-mail frequently enough to be a resource to your group members. There is nothing more frustrating than being held back by a group member who just won’t respond. At the same time, working together to create a final product can be highly rewarding.

Outside of small groups, the discussion forums and chat rooms are the most vital part of building community in an online class. There can be problems with the asynchronous nature of the discussion forums, but in many cases, students can develop a lively and thought-provoking discussion as the class progresses. The most important thing is to not be afraid of responding to others’ ideas. Don’t just post your required piece and leave – read what everyone else has to say and comment, comment, comment.

While earning my degree, I worked with students from Norway, Switzerland, and Brazil. If you’re the student in the US, it can be great to come in contact with such diverse classmates that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a traditional class. If you’re the potential student in Hong Kong or even just hours away from your school of choice, your location doesn’t have to get in the way of earning the degree you want. Scheduling group chats around different time zones can be difficult, but otherwise, online learning knows no geographical boundaries.


A great advantage of online classes is flexibility. You have a certain amount of work to do each week, but you can schedule it at your convenience. You don’t have to worry about blocking off three hours to attend class every Thursday evening. The disadvantage to this is that since you don’t have a set time for the class, it might get pushed aside with all of the other commitments begging for your time. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” can lead to danger in an online course. If you are going to take an online class, you must be disciplined enough to make yourself work when there is no teacher standing directly over your shoulder, and you must be able to dedicate the time necessary to visit the class website regularly and be a steady contributor to the class.

The Instructor

The final piece of an online class that we’ve only mentioned briefly is the instructor. Each one will have his or her own way of running the class, just like in classroom instruction, so make sure that you understand each particular instructor’s expectations and deadlines. You’ll hear from your teacher at the beginning and end of each week/module/unit with assignments and summaries, but you’ll just as often see them posting right alongside you in the discussion forums. It’s a great opportunity to draw from their wisdom and experience. If you want more direct feedback from the instructor, you’ll need to initiate the contact through e-mail – a bit more impersonal than office hours, but available around the clock.

The Bottom Line

Online learning is what you make of it, and just like with any class, what you take away from the experience will be directly proportional to what you put into it. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that an online class is different from a face-to-face class and different from other forms of distance learning. There are advantages and disadvantages, and you have to weigh them against your situation and your personality to decide if online learning is for you.

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