Though more than six million students are now taking at least one course online, some people still find the idea of online learning intimidating. Adults going back to school can have a number of reservations about what online education entails. So for those who harbor concerns, we spoke with two online instructors and one online non-traditional student about some common fears, and why they shouldn’t stop you from taking advantage of the many benefits online courses offer.
Technology Aptitude: According to Karen Isaacs, Ph.D. and online instructor with the Connecticut State Community College system, one of the most common fears for first-time online students is having the ability to maneuver through a course with the necessary computer technology. “Most colleges and universities that offer online courses have help readily available,” said Isaacs. This familiarizes students with terminology that will be used throughout the course, and demonstrates the various options they have in regard to posting submissions. For example, Colorado State University provides an orientation course for its online learning platform, as well as on-demand video help and other useful guides.
Even individual instructors take proactive measures to ensure their students understand the technology. Sandra Young, Ph.D., who teaches at Sacred Heart University, insists that her students phone her before taking her online courses. “I know that some students are afraid of all the high-tech bells and whistles that appear in many online courses, and I want my students to know that they can interact directly with their professor,” she said.
Differences in Course Structure: It’s a common concern that an online format won’t provide enough structure to keep students engaged. This is far from the truth. Online courses are structured much like in-person courses, with solid participation requirements and deadlines. In fact, many online courses may have a more rigorous format than standard classroom lectures. “I like to make sure that my online students communicate with each other on a discussion board at least twice a week. Making them read what other students have posted and having them respond to other posts keeps them engaged and prepared,” said Isaacs.
Isaacs stressed that it is still important for online students to be highly motivated and disciplined. Non-traditional students, in her opinion, exhibit these qualities the most. “While students who are working full time and have family responsibilities are leery about furthering their education online, these are often the best students,” she said. Along similar lines, Young said that non-traditional students usually have an edge because they have a wealth of life experiences, which “contribute to online discourse and success.”
Time Constraints: Dominique Cumberland takes online courses at a private university. She is a mother of a three-year-old, works part time, English is not her first language and she is trying to complete her bachelor’s degree. “I was afraid that I was not going to have enough time for this,” she said, adding that she thinks non-traditional students worry about not having the time to take an online course more than anything else. With a little organization, however, she has been able to manage her time well. “I got my calendar out and I blocked the time periods for when I had to read the textbook and when I had to read the information the professor provided online,” she said, “I learned to organize my day and I stuck to it.” She added that online courses can actually be time savers in a lot of ways. She appreciates not having to take time to drive to school and look for a parking space, and she also values the fact that she can adjust her study schedule according to her daily activities.
Distance from Instructors: Cumberland was also afraid that she was going to have to be her “own teacher,” as she wouldn’t have a professor right there to explain things. “I was afraid that I would get lost if I didn’t understand something,” she said. However, once she realized that online instructors were frequently accessible and just as willing to help and answer questions as classroom instructors, and that she could get support from her peers in online discussion groups, her fears quickly subsided. “Online courses are perfect for people like me. As a matter of fact, my husband works all day, but seeing how successful I have been, he too is now taking online courses,” she said.