I am working on a project (outside my institution, targeting adult learners), and was asked to provide tips for effective online learning. I expected to find good, concise, accessible ones out there already. There are (well, I only looked at this, this, and this), but I felt they were missing something, so here are mine. For adults learning online, whether it’s for credit or for free, be(com)ing a self-directed learner is key (here’s a quick overview of heutagogy which centers around self-directed learning). Additionally:
- Help. Most people will remind you to seek help when you need it. I agree. But you should also offer help when you can, and if able, ask for help in community spaces such as discussion forums or Facebook groups for the course. The advantage of that is that sometimes a member of the community can help you before the instructor or assistant does. It also helps others facing the same problem to know they are not alone and to see the solution or troubleshoot
- Time management. Most sites will remind you of the importance of time management while learning online, and it’s true. It requires a lot of self-discipline to make the time for online (particularly asynchronous) learning, but what they don’t tell you is what to do when you truly cannot make the time, e.g. because your child is in hospital or you have a crisis at work. The important thing here is to maintain a line of communication with your instructor (and colleagues) where relevant to let them know you will be away for some time, and to ask for deadline extensions or help catching up later. Just as you would in a face-to-face course. The difference is that people face-to-face can see when you don’t show up, it’s more subtle online. I call this “social absence” – i.e. ensuring your social circle are aware of when you cannot be online so they can calibrate their expectations instead of wonder if you are there but silent or completely gone for good.
- Setting up Workspace. Some sites talk about setting up an appropriate workspace for your online learning. This is all well and good for folks who have a big enough home to do so, or even have time at home to work on their learning in an ideal workspace. As a working mom, my best learning space is using my phone or iPad on my commute to work, or whatever quiet space I can get at home once my little one is asleep (or miraculously playing quietly for a half hour). This could be the living room or the kitchen. So my advice would be to be flexible with yourself and carve out time for it in whatever spaces are convenient at the time. If you need to do synchronous sessions while you have family distractions going on, just tell your collaborators what to expect. For asynchronous work, those of us who love reading will find time to read whenever we get a chance. A good online course will compel you to work on it whenever you get the chance, and hopefully you’ve chosen one that compels you. And while access to Internet is important for a good working space for online, it’s helpful to figure out if some elements of the course can be viewed offline (e.g. PDF downloadable readings)
- Connect with peers/instructors. This is one all the sites mention. Important, in my view, is to not only connect with them in formal course spaces, but to find a small number of people you are willing to communicate with privately and informally (this could still be within course spaces, or you may choose to go elsewhere like email or social media – it’s up to you). Having informal relationships with fellow online learners is what got me through my master’s degree and every MOOC I ever participated in. It’s also what helped me finish my PhD.
- Check in often. One of the keys to avoiding information overload in a mostly-text-based asynchronous environment is to check the site often. But this doesn’t need to be exactly a situation of checking 3 times a day or a week. It can be a matter of figuring out how to set up notifications so that you are alerted when someone has responded to you or posted something new (social media are much better at this than LMS). Filtering is also key – learning that you do NOT have to keep track of every single thing if your course has more than 15 or so people in it
- Embrace Serendipity. The best learning I have experienced online was when I wasn’t expecting it. Looking out for these opportunities can make a great difference for adult learners.