Earning your graduate degree online has many benefits, including greater flexibility and an often lower price tag than traditional, in-person programs. But how do you know if an online degree program is right for you? And how can you stay on track to succeed in an online program? Here’s a look at what to expect from an online graduate program and online learning strategies you can use to make the most of your experience.
Deciding If Online Learning is Right for You
The first step, before enrolling in an online degree program, is to decide if the format will be right for you. According to Northeastern University assistant teaching professor Monica Borgida, online degree programs are a good fit for graduate students who are:
- Driven. Many students mistakenly assume that online courses will be easier, but online degree programs require a great deal of motivation and determination. Students essentially set their own schedule and need to be focused to complete their assignments and complete the course.
- Perseverant. Students need the fortitude to overcome any technical hiccups, seek help as needed, and keep to a manageable study schedule.
- Strong communicators. Online learning often involves communicating with your professor and peers through online chats, blogs, and more.
- Open-minded. Succeeding online involves adapting to new experiences, from learning a new online platform to engaging with students from around the world who may have very different experiences or perspectives from you.
Online learning is great for self-directed students, but it’s not right for everyone, Borgida says.
“Many students like being able to participate in a tight community that online degree programs offer, as well as the added convenience of earning their graduate degree online. You do need to be motivated and self-disciplined to stay on track with this type of program. You also need to be open to new applications and interacting with instructors and peers. If you’re the type of student who has difficulty not feeling engaged if you’re not in a classroom, online learning may not be the best choice, or you may want to consider an online program where there’s a high degree of instructor direction.”
Which Online Learning Program is Right for You?
There are different types of online degree programs, which can include both traditional and challenge-based courses.
Traditional Online Courses vs. Challenge-based Courses
Many traditional online courses are instructor-led, augmented with online assignments. Challenge-based courses are more student-directed. This is a newer learning methodology that involves the instructor posing real-world challenges that require students to work individually or in teams to develop solutions, guided and informed by a problem-solving framework.
Instead of being handed a textbook chapter and an assignment, you’re given an array of relevant material to use to search out a solution to a part of a larger, real-world problem. You can direct the way you’ll approach the learning resources, find others on your own, and use them to address the challenge. This learning method can drive collaboration to help you gain a deeper knowledge of a topic and glean the skills necessary to identify and solve challenges on your own in the real world.
“Unlike a traditional course where you might answer questions at the end of a chapter or take a multiple choice quiz, this approach prepares you to find answers to questions you might get from your manager at work,” explains Linda Hodgson, associate teaching professor at Northeastern University.
Typically, having some working experience, whether it’s in a professional setting or as a volunteer, can help you take advantage of the autonomy offered by a challenge-based course.
“Many students appreciate having the creative freedom offered by challenge-based learning,” says Borgida. “They feel more empowered. It gives them more control of the process, which can help them mature in their work environment.”
Choosing an Online Graduate Program
Do your due diligence before selecting a program. Borgida suggests taking the following steps:
- Become familiar with the technology used for the online course. Utilize any online tutorials to help you quickly acclimate to the new platform, and find out if the vendor offers 24-hour technical support in case you encounter any issues.
- Find out the maximum class size, which is usually listed on the university’s website or found through the admissions office. “There’s no ideal number for class size, but from my experience, I’ve found having a class size of 10-15 students is ideal,” says Borgida. “This way students and instructors can connect and collaborate in a tightly knit group.”
- Explore the online resources available to you by visiting the institution’s website. For example, how easy is it to connect with instructors and advisors? Try to reach out and connect with them to gain more information.
- Talk with other students who’ve completed the program to ask about their experience. They can share the pros and cons of the program, give you a sense of how accessible the instructors are, and share advice on succeeding in the course environment.
11 Tips for Success in an Online Degree Program
Once you’ve enrolled, follow these tips for online learning success to make the most out of your experience.
1) Set aside a specific amount of time each day to complete your work.
Depending on the program, a graduate course may take 15-20 hours per week between reading, discussions, and assignments. Blocking off this time on your calendar can help you stay on track. Students who log in consistently tend to have higher completion rates and satisfaction with online courses.
2) Plan your time carefully.
Review assignments at the beginning of each week, ask questions early to give your instructor time to respond, and give yourself enough time to react before the work is due. “Don’t expect to do a week’s worth of work in one sitting,” says Hodgson. “Break up your week’s work over several days to give you time to ponder and to develop new ideas.”
3) Allow yourself extra time for the first two to three weeks of class.
“It’s important to meet deadlines in the beginning,” says Borgida. “Otherwise, it can be tough to catch up. Staying engaged from the beginning when [the class is] forming groups and explaining different roles and assignments is a winning move.”
4) Focus on getting acclimated.
Give yourself time to become accustomed to the online environment up front so that you’re then free to focus on the course content. “To stay focused, you need to learn to interpret the process of learning in a systematic way,” said Borgida. “Gain an understanding of the methodology of each course and focus on the learning outcomes and activities planned for each unit.”
5) Communicate with your instructor.
Your professors are there to answer questions and provide insight. They will usually provide guidance in the syllabus on how best to communicate with them, whether by one-on-one meetings, email, or both. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them and be honest if you encounter a roadblock or have trouble understanding course material.
6) Actively participate in your online learning community and classroom discussions.
Participate in the course’s online forum to help you better understand course materials and engage with fellow classmates. This might involve commenting on a classmate’s paper on a discussion board or posting a question about a project you’re working on.
7) Find a buddy.
Help hold yourself accountable by finding a partner. Setting up virtual or in-person study groups with one or more students in your program can help you stay on track.
8) Turn off your phone.
We all get easily distracted by texts and social media. Free yourself from these interruptions (during class or while completing assignments), by switching off your phone or using a distraction-blocking app.
9) Avoid multitasking.
Although the idea of multitasking is appealing, studies show that complex tasks—particularly those involving thoughtful analysis—are best done one at a time. Researchers at Stanford University found when we’re bombarded with multiple online streams of data, we have a more difficult time recalling information and switching from one task to another.
10) Take detailed notes.
Taking good notes and applying knowledge from content soon after reading can help you retain the information more readily. By taking detailed notes, you can also refer back to them as exams approach.
11) Choose a quiet place to do your classwork.
Whether it’s a home office, a library, or another calm environment, you’ll need a place where you can work free of distractions. This can also help friends or family members recognize when you’re engaged in classroom activities.
Many students are drawn to online learning due to the convenience factor, but earning your degree online offers much more than that. Online learning also gives students a way to hone their time management, project management, and communication skills, which will serve them well in most any profession. Students who actively engage throughout the program also report building strong professional and personal connections during this time. If you’re a self-starter who’s committed to furthering your education, you may want to explore whether an online degree program is right for you.