When Weishung Liu, 27, started her online degree two years ago, she had no idea what to expect.
Would she have to log in to watch lectures in real time, she wondered? How would she access her readings? And what was up with discussion boards? What if she had nothing to say?
"It's a learning experience," says Liu, who is slated to graduate from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business with an MBA in June. "But everybody is trying to learn the systems just like you."
As Americans increasingly turn to online courses, many wonder just exactly what they're getting into. But there's good news for those who seem overwhelmed by digital learning: Experts say it's fairly easy to adapt to the virtual classroom.
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"The learning curve is very low," says Todd Hitchcock, senior vice president of online solutions for Pearson, an education services company. "For the most part, 95 percent of people logging on have been on the Web."
Although distance learning can vary from institution to institution, most online courses have similarities, experts say. Below are what experts consider the four basic components of a typical online course.
1. The learning management system: Shortly after students enroll in a course, they'll be asked to log in to a learning management system, or LMS. Hitchcock calls this "the infrastructure that enables the learning to happen."
The LMS is the platform where students can view their syllabus, learn how to contact their professor and access most course materials, including online readings, videos, audio files and other resources. This is also where students go to participate in discussion boards – written exchanges with fellow classmates. In some systems, students can also email and instant message their classmates and instructors.
Although some schools design their own learning management systems, most colleges use Blackboard, Moodle and Desire2Learn, says Peter Shea, an education professor at the University at Albany—SUNY. Most of these systems are similar and fairly intuitive, he says.
2. Course materials: Online learners can be exposed to course material in a range of different ways. Some instructors ask that students read e-books, while others suggest ordering textbooks. Other possible resources include podcasts, PowerPoint presentations, webcasts featuring lectures and instructional videos on sites such as TeacherTube.
Typically, students are free to listen, read or watch assignments on their own schedule.
"An instructor doesn't mandate a time," Pearson's Hitchcock says. "You have to have strong time management skills. If you don't, then you'll be in trouble."
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3. Assignments and group projects: Once students log in to the LMS, they should find a list of assignments and due dates. Most students will be required to submit papers as well as participate in and moderate discussion boards.
Kathleen Ives, an online professor and associate executive director and chief operating officer of Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting online learning, says students often make the mistake of underestimating the amount of time they will need to spend on the discussions. She gives her students a word count for their responses.
"You have to say something more than, 'I agree,'" she says. "A substantive post is something that is at least 100 words and furthers the discussion."
In addition to papers and discussion boards, students are often asked to create blogs or projects demonstrating their subject knowledge.
And just because online programs require little face-to-face interaction, that doesn't mean instructors don't require group projects. In those cases, students say they are apt to contact each other through Skype, conference calls or Google Hangouts.
Liu, the Indiana student, says she was surprised by how often she actually heard the voices of her classmates.
"We would email back and forth and then get on a call and I'd think, 'I didn't think you sounded like that,'" she says.