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Introduction to Online Learning: Are You Ready to Be an Online Learner?

"Change is the end result of all true learning."

— Leo Buscaglia

"Change is the end result of all true learning." — Leo Buscaglia

You've seen all those great commercials about attending school from home in your pajamas, or maybe you've heard from someone you know that taking university classes online is a wonderful solution for working parents who want to get a degree. It could be that you just want the freedom that seems to go with online learning. But how do you know if you're ready to be an online learner? These ten tips may help you figure out what is right for you.

Tip #1: Consider What Type of Learner You Are and What Your Preferences Are

Some of us like to have hands-on involvement when we are learning; others prefer listening to someone explain how to do something. These two different approaches are called "learning styles," and it is helpful to determine what type of learner you may be. Most studies have shown that the major consideration with learning styles is whether you are more of a dependent or independent learner. If you feel you need or want the physical presence of your instructor, you are most likely a dependent learner who would do better in the face-to-face (F2F) traditional classroom environment. On the other hand, if you don't feel you need the physical presence of the instructor or classmates, and you enjoy reading, researching, and studying on your own, online learning may be good for you. To be sure, take a few of the online tests to see if you have the aptitude for online learning.

Tip #2: Have the right personality for online learning

Are you an outgoing, social person who enjoys being around people, or are you more introverted, preferring instead to work alone? Although the online learning environment can certainly provide opportunities for students to socialize within the course itself by holding online discussions or externally with blogs and Facebook study groups, you should think about whether or not you are content with social media or if you need human interaction.

Another aspect of personality to consider is your level of self-motivation. Do you typically set and pursue goals on your own, or do you need frequent encouragement from others? Are you able to follow through on projects by yourself, or do you need someone to set and remind you of deadlines?

Tip #3: Consider your communication skills

Think about how you typically communicate and which type of communication is your preference. For example, would you prefer to hear an instructor explain course information and ask a question in person, or would you prefer to read the information on your own and to ask your instructor questions by email? Do you have experience with the various forms of virtual communication: email, telephone conferences, and video chat? If not, would you be comfortable communicating in these ways?

Consider how well you are able to read and interpret the written word. Much of the content in an online course is typically written, leaving students to understand directions for assignments, textbook chapters, and other course materials on their own.

Tip #4: Make sure you have the basic technical availability and fluency needed

In order to succeed in online learning, you must have regular access to the Internet for large, regular amounts of time. Your service needs to be something more than basic dial-up or the limited library access. It's also recommended that you have at least one backup plan in place. If your home Internet access goes out, for example, how could you access your course? Could you go to the house of a friend or a family member to use their service and/or computer?

Also, consider carefully the types of tasks you will need to perform. Most colleges and universities posts lists of technology and skills needed to succeed in online classes. For an example, see Antonelli College's quick inventory to rate your computer fluency for online learning. Your own institution of choice will most likely have a similar list.

Tip #5: Ask questions. Lots of questions!

The decision to pursue online learning should not be taken lightly. Climbing the educational and career ladder offers potential benefits for you and your family. The decision about the delivery method, whether you attend on a ground campus in traditional F2F courses or online, has the potential to influence your success. Therefore, ask a lot of questions of potential programs and institutions before you enroll. Be sure to visit the school's website and if possible, the ground campus of any institutions and programs you may be interested in pursuing.

Tip #6: Understand both the similarities and the differences between F2F and online learning.

Keep in mind that with online learning, some aspects of post-secondary education will not change. Applying for admission and financial aid may be identical in both environments; courses will still require regular attendance and the time commitment to learn materials and to create assignments.

However, there will also be some differences that should be carefully considered. For example, F2F courses are set within a specific time and place and learning activities are somewhat limited by this. On the other hand, online courses are not limited by time and place. For instance, a F2F classroom discussion will have to take place during a class meeting that is typically one-three hours whereas an online class discussion may be open and available for a week or even for the entire semester. Likewise, communication in a F2F class will be mostly vocal, and students will be unable to review some of it (e.g. a lecture). However, in an online course, communication will be mostly written, and students will have the ability to review all of that content. Finally, online learners must be more independent and self-motivated as they will not have the regular class meetings with their instructor and classmates to keep them moving forward. (See Visual 1 for some additional differences.)

In summation, it would be fair to say that in a traditional F2F classroom, the instructor guides and coaches moment by moment, while in an online environment, the student becomes the master of his or her own progress and success to a larger degree.


  • Mostly synchronous meetings bound and limited by specific times and days in a physical classroom
  • Instructor, classmates, tutors, and other supporting personnel available in person
  • There is no personal anonymity or avoidance of personal or group dynamics
  • Discussions and other classroom activities will involve more oral communication that can not be reviewed or continued beyond the class time allotted
  • Learners can be a more dependent, externally motivated
  • The workload is paced more in a linear, step-by-step manner and the participants proceed through this together
  • Participants are largely unaware of what others are doing in some activities like group work
  • Offers more experience with F2F socialization


  • Admissions, registration, and financial aid will have similar processes
  • The academic policies, standards, objectives, and outcomes will be the same
  • The resources available for assistance will be the same (e.g., tutoring and ADA)
  • The workload (assignments, etc.) will be the same
  • Good study skills, organization, and engagement are needed


  • Mostly asynchronous meetings not bound or limited by specific times/days or a physical classroom
  • Instructor, classmates, tutors, and other supporting personnel may only be available virtually
  • Participants are largely anonymous, known mostly through their written postings
  • Discussions and other classroom activities will involve more written communication that can be reviewed and unlimited
  • Learners must be more independent, self-motivated
  • The workload is typically more self-paced and with options for adaptive learning
  • Participants often have the ability to review and engage beyond their own group
  • Offers more experience at virtual socialization

Tip #7: Take online learning for a "test drive."

Did you know you can often take programs for a "test drive"? Kaplan University, for instance, offers its Kaplan Commitment program, where students can attend their courses for up to five weeks or one half of a term. If at any point the students feel that the online environment is not for them, they may withdraw. Likewise, if the students are not passing their courses with at least a 65% at the end of the fifth week, they are withdrawn automatically. Either way, students receive exit advising to help them decide on a plan of action if they still wish to further their education elsewhere. The only money students pay for this program is the initial application fee; there is no tuition or other cost involved unless the student decides Kaplan University and online learning are the right choice. If Kaplan Commitment students choose to continue, only then do they pay any tuition. Check with the school if you are interested in to see if they offer something similar.

Tip #8: Follow the advice of successful online students

A study by Alan R. Roper for Educause shares tips from successful online students that reflect both the tips given above and the research about online learning. What did these students suggest?

  • Develop a time-management strategy. Of the students surveyed, 78.9% set a specific time for coursework and 31.6% recommended devoting time daily to the course; these strategies also helped to prevent procrastination and falling behind. "Another student stated that an upfront planning process was critical to succeeding in the online course because studying was integrated with many other responsibilities." This means students should take their syllabus and course calendar the very first day of class and integrate it with the other responsibilities they may have, especially in relation to work and family.
  • Make the most of online discussions. Most online courses have online discussions centered on course topics. Students will typically post an initial response to a prompt and then be required to reply to a certain number of other students' posts. The students in this study found it helpful to be engaged in these discussions by replying to other students with more in-depth responses than just saying, "Good post."
  • Use it or lose it. Most students found it helpful to apply what they learned to the online discussions, class activities, their work life, or personal experiences. This helped them to retain the information and to see the value in learning it. [This also tends to help students stay motivated, too!]
  • Make questions useful to your learning. One of the advantages to an online class this group of students realized is that there is no time limit for discussions as there would be in a face-to-face course. Therefore, they found it valuable to ask more questions, probing deeper and deeper into topics and their applications.
  • Stay motivated. Some of these students set their sights on good grades while others focused on graduation with their family and friends proudly in attendance.
  • Communicate the instruction techniques that work. Share with your instructor(s) and classmates the teaching strategies that are most helpful. Help to keep your instructor and classmates engaged by asking questions in discussions.
  • Make connections with fellow students. Do all that you can to build an online "learning community" by reaching out to classmates and the instructor for individual and shared success. Many students develop meaningful connections with their online classmates that can translate into career networking opportunities later." In other words, your classmates are a wonderful resource as you move up the educational/career ladder!

As with any major decision, you want to take it seriously and do your research. It may be helpful to see if the institutions you are interested in offer an assessment that will help you reflect on your readiness for online learning or use the ones available at some other universities. Penn State and San Diego Community College both offer these. You will be glad you reflected on your readiness for online learning and that you obtained the helpful advice of an online assessment. Otherwise, you might waste your time, energy, or money if the program is not a good fit for you.

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