7 More Tips for Distance Learning

For more advice on what to ask when considering an online education, read on.

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Last week, we offered 7 tips for that ever-expanding newcomer on the college scene: distance learning. This week, we offer 7 more:

1. Mine the syllabus. More than even at a traditional university, the course syllabus is the controlling document of the course. Not only might it tell you the course goals, the readings or projects, and the assignments, it also might lay out, day by day, what you're supposed to do. (One distance-learning professor we know gives out a two-page syllabus in his community college course but a 10-page syllabus at the same distance learning class.) Be sure to go over each point of your syllabus, and if something is not absolutely clear to you, e-mail the professor to ask. You can't do it right if you aren't clear what to do.

[Search U.S. News's Online Education directory.]

2. Inquire who the professor is. Given that many distance learning colleges (and even online programs at community colleges and 4-year colleges) do not have permanent faculties (or do not use the permanent teachers for the online program), it's especially important to check out the credentials of the person teaching the course. Look for the instructor bio on the course Web page. Check out his or her degrees (the higher the better), teaching experience (how many years, at what level), and whether he or she is trained in the field you're going to take. And, if the info isn't there, send an e-mail (polite, of course) asking a few questions about the instructor's background. A good instructor should not take offense and should have nothing to hide.

[Read 6 Questions to Ask When Choosing an Online Professor.]

3. Learn the timetable. It probably hasn't occurred to you, but some online courses (especially those offered by community colleges) run on the traditional 15-week schedule: Here you can only start when the semester starts, and the work follows the same pace as the standard in-person classes. But other (especially at for-profit colleges) offer five-week courses: Here the work is more concentrated (you'll have to read practically every day), but you're often allowed to start when you want. And still other colleges allow you to take as long as you want to complete the course: The advantage here is you are completely free to set your own schedule, which is also the disadvantage, if you're not disciplined.

4. Assess your level of comfort. In many distance learning courses, especially those tilted away from lectures and papers in the direction of discussion and projects, you'll find that group activities are an essential—and graded—part of the course. You might be asked to share information about yourself, for example, introducing yourself, providing a photo or bio, and interacting in real time with other people taking the course. If this is an environment you don't feel comfortable in, you might do better in the traditional, more anonymous kind of course offered at the regular university.

5. Keep up with the pace. The biggest pitfall with online courses is falling behind. It's the easiest thing in the world to put off that reading, or plan to write the paper the next weekend, when there's no prof, or fellow students there in person to motivate you. And if you're used to cramming from high school, from college courses you've already taken, or from the way you do your work at your job, well, the distance learning structure (or lack thereof) will magnify your problems significantly. Rule of thumb: at online college, to put off is to never do.

4-Star Tip. Watch or listen to the lecture as soon as it is put up. That way, you'll have plenty of time for the associated homework and to do the reading for the next lecture.

6. Back up your stuff. Since all your homework, papers, tests and projects are going to be submitted electronically, you wouldn't want to lose your work just because your computer—or that of your professor—crashed.

Extra Pointer. We especially recommend external backups, either on an external hard drive or on an online service. Among external drives, we like the portable Seagate Free Agent and Western Digital Passport models (about $100, depending on the storage size and whether it's on a back-to-school sale). Among backup services, we like Mozy and Carbonite (about $5 a month depending on the plan you select). You can also just e-mail a copy of your work to yourself.

7. Take advantage of the virtual face-to-face interactions. Even though there's less immediacy when your online professor isn't breathing on you as he or she lectures, there are many opportunities for personal interaction with the teacher. Be sure you attend all discussion sections, groups chats, and question-and-answer sessions. And when you need help—for instance, in preparing your discussion postings—ask. Indeed, if the distance learning class is smaller than the 300-person version at the traditional college, you might get more face time with the professor than you would have gotten via the traditional route. Electronic doesn't have to be impersonal.

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