Published on 2013/08/14

Back to School: Success Tips for Non-Traditional Students (Part 2)

Back to School: Success Tips for Non-Traditional Students (Part 2)
While online classes are more convenient for many, there are a number of different challenges adult students must be aware of prior to enrolling.

This is the conclusion of Karen Watts’ two-part series on success strategies for non-traditional students who are returning to higher education or enrolling for the first time. In the first article, she shared tips for students who were entering face-to-face programs. In this piece, Watts looks at some strategies for students enrolling in online programs.

The ever-increasing use of online platforms for teaching college courses has been both a blessing and a curse. Online classes offer a degree of flexibility and access to material never before available to students. However, misconceptions about how online courses actually work and the still persistent (but often ignored) digital divide can prove troublesome for students and instructors alike. In the past, I’ve discussed some of the challenges instructors face as they move material online. Students may also struggle as they adjust to the “new normal” of adult education that includes online components.

The first, and sometimes most serious, mistake students make is assuming online classes will be easier than traditional face-to-face courses. Students need to be aware online classes and corresponding assignments still have due dates and deadlines. Online students need excellent time management skills and a great degree of internal motivation. Solid reading comprehension and writing skills are a must for most subjects taught online. The marketing message about “doing your homework in your pajamas” can lead unaware students to pack their schedule with far too many classes, leaving no time to study, complete assignments or maintain school/life balance.

Those students already comfortable with technology in some parts of their lives must realize the social experience of electronic communication is not always duplicated in the world of education. There is a difference between consuming content (watching videos, reading blogs and news sites) and using technology to do research or create content. Similarly, there’s a difference between posting social media updates or using email or texts to contact friends and family and communicating with a college instructor. Most instructors are teaching multiple courses with dozens, if not hundreds, of students, so it is not realistic for students to expect instant responses to emails or discussion questions.

Computer ownership is widespread but not universal, and not all students come to online learning with the same skill set or access to technology. Computer skills review, or even computer-related placement testing, should accompany registration for a student’s first online course. Most schools provide self-directed training modules for online platforms and students need to have basic word processing and file manipulation skills before beginning a course. Instructors, students and campus leaders must also realize online learning may not be the best choice for all students. Students who lack basic computer skills, or feel they need face-to-face interaction, should perhaps avoid online courses — especially early on in their college career.

Special tips for online students:

  • Honestly assess your computer and time management skills as well as learning style before registering for an online class
  • Do a technology check before the class starts to make sure you have the hardware and software you need to access the course and create documents
  • Create a technology emergency plan identifying how you will access the class if your home computer or Internet connection crashes
  • Develop a routine where you organize your files for classes in one drive and regularly back them up in a second drive

This was the conclusion of Karen Watts’ two-part series. To see the first article, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Jennifer McMenemy 2013/08/14 at 7:03 am

I have issues with the way online education is marketed. Everywhere I go, I see ads about how easy it is to “study in your bed” or “read your textbooks on the morning commute,” which suggest online courses are more lax than their in-class counterparts. The truth is, online courses require as much undivided attention as traditional courses. When students enroll with the misconception that online courses are easier, they put in less effort initially, and often find themselves struggling to catch up later on in the course when reality sets in.

Karen Southall Watts 2013/08/14 at 1:30 pm

Hi Jennifer, thanks for being the first to comment. I agree that in an effort to fill classes many schools have plastered a very harmful marketing message all over the media. It’s quite odd since we know, or we hope, no college would ever use the lure of “easy” work to fill f-2-f courses. And…if students showed up in a live class and voiced the mistaken attitudes some online students have their instructors would immediately call them out on this. I feel the issue is in reality rather complex and has at its root our cultural attitude toward hard work and education in general.

    Daniele Thomas 2013/08/14 at 2:34 pm

    I feel this is an unfair approach to take, though. Singling out a student for being unprepared for the rigors of a class–after their institution gave them a false sense of what to expect–is not their fault.

    I think online courses should have a short intro session that gives them a sense of the important skills they will need to succeed in online courses and debunks some of the myths before day 1.

    Actually, just sending students this article would do the trick!!

Karen Southall Watts 2013/08/14 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for your comment Daniele. These issues (and the ones in the part one article) are why I started creating resources for students to dispel some of the widespread misconceptions about what it means to go back to school as a non-trad student. I’m trying to get the word out there in any channel I can about what’s required for success in college–online or f2f. Some of these things could be helped with better internal communication on campuses so that instructors, advisers and those who do marketing and PR put out a consistent message about what to expect from higher ed.

Bill Davis 2013/08/15 at 9:27 am

I agree with Watts that it’s important to do an honest assessment of your computer skills prior to entering any higher education program, but especially if you’re considering online courses. Watts correctly points out that there’s a difference between knowing how to consume media and technology and knowing how to use it to complete research/assignments. Many online students go in unprepared and, as a result, become discouraged and drop out of the course (or, in some cases, their program).

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