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Preparing for Online College

There is a distorted perception among the general population that online learning is somehow less challenging than traditional classroom instruction; that students in online classes can “go at their own pace” and simply take open-book tests to demonstrate their knowledge. If students wish to be successful in online education, they need to educate themselves about what to expect.

Some students may not understand how online learning works. Students need to know the software that will be required for their program (and how to use it), the expectations surrounding classroom participation, the average amount of time required for completing homework/reading assignments, and the level of writing ability necessary for the program. Online students also need to be self-disciplined in order to balance school, work, and life responsibilities.

The flexibility that online courses provide will make going to school possible and perhaps a bit more convenient, but it will not be easy. Here is a short list of the skills online students may need to learn or refine to maximize their success:

  1. Self-management Skills
  2. Writing skills
  3. Research Skills
  4. Information Literacy
  5. Technological Fluency
  6. Self-advocacy
  7. Working in Teams

Self-management is the ability to effectively realize one’s goals and respond to challenges. Students must be capable of managing their time wisely, anticipating and adapting to problems, and appraising the effectiveness of their efforts. The ability to follow instructions will also be vital to one’s success because understanding class requirements, assignment deadlines, and academic policies is an expectation of all students. Saying “I didn’t know” will not be an excuse.

Writing skills are crucial in an online learning environment. Not only must students be proficient in academic writing, but also in writing discussion posts. Students should understand that communicating in the classroom, though online, is not the same as communicating through Facebook or email. Students must write in a professional manner (no text language).

Research skills are essential. Students cannot rely on Google and Wikipedia to conduct scholarly research. Learning how to use Boolean search terms, quotation marks, and other search techniques will be important when navigating online libraries.

Information literacy refers to one’s ability to find, evaluate, and communicate relevant and valid information. With the internet, information is available to us 24 hours a day. Students must learn how to sift through it all to make use of it.

Technological fluency is more than just knowing how to use the computer. Students must be comfortable with using technology to create (e.g. papers, presentations), collaborate, and communicate.

Self-advocacy is the ability to speak up for oneself and to ask for help. In an online classroom, you will need to be specific about the help you need to avoid back and forth emails that simply waste time. Students also need to be persistent if they do not receive timely responses.

Some institutions require students to work in teams. Working in a virtual team environment is a skill that takes time to develop. Students need to establish ground rules, back-up plans, and reasonable deadlines in order to stay on track with team projects. Students may also be required to take on different roles, such as team leader, editor, etc. Therefore, students should understand how to leverage their strengths while working on weaknesses so that the team functions optimally.

Pursuing a college education is a significant and potentially life-changing event. Prepare yourself for the journey and your experience will be that much more rewarding!


Steven Starks is an online academic advisor for University of Phoenix. He has experience in distance advising, online learning, and academic research and writing. He is the creator of DistanceAdvising.com, a resource for academic advisors serving the online student population.

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