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The Library

Online Classes: The Basics

(Continued from 1)

In many online classes, the instructor will divide the students into smaller groups, in some cases to complete a group project and in others to simply discuss issues with each other. Working with a group online can be intimidating at first, but it is certainly possible. Just remember to keep the lines of communication open, do your part in group activities, and check the Website and/or your e-mail frequently enough to be a resource to your group members. There is nothing more frustrating than being held back by a group member who just won't respond. At the same time, working together to create a final product can be highly rewarding.

Outside of small groups, the discussion forums and chat rooms are the most vital part of building community in an online class. There can be problems with the asynchronous nature of the discussion forums, but in many cases, students can develop a lively and thought-provoking discussion as the class progresses. The most important thing is to not be afraid of responding to others? ideas. Don't just post your required piece and leave - read what everyone else has to say and comment, comment, comment.

While earning my degree, I worked with students from Norway, Switzerland, and Brazil. If you're the student in the US, it can be great to come in contact with such diverse classmates that you wouldn't necessarily find in a traditional class. If you're the potential student in Hong Kong or even just hours away from your school of choice, your location doesn't have to get in the way of earning the degree you want. Scheduling group chats around different time zones can be difficult, but otherwise, online learning knows no geographical boundaries.

A great advantage of online classes is flexibility. You have a certain amount of work to do each week, but you can schedule it at your convenience. You don't have to worry about blocking off three hours to attend class every Thursday evening. The disadvantage to this is that since you don't have a set time for the class, it might get pushed aside with all of the other commitments begging for your time. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind" can lead to danger in an online course. If you are going to take an online class, you must be disciplined enough to make yourself work when there is no teacher standing directly over your shoulder, and you must be able to dedicate the time necessary to visit the class Website regularly and be a steady contributor to the class.

The Instructor
The final piece of an online class that we've only mentioned briefly is the instructor. Each one will have his or her own way of running the class, just like in classroom instruction, so make sure that you understand each particular instructor's expectations and deadlines. You'll hear from your teacher at the beginning and end of each week/module/unit with assignments and summaries, but you'll just as often see them posting right alongside you in the discussion forums. It's a great opportunity to draw from their wisdom and experience. If you want more direct feedback from the instructor, you'll need to initiate the contact through e-mail - a bit more impersonal than office hours, but available around the clock.

The Bottom Line
Online learning is what you make of it, and just like with any class, what you take away from the experience will be directly proportional to what you put into it. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that an online class is different from a face-to-face class and different from other forms of distance learning. There are advantages and disadvantages, and you have to weigh them against your situation and your personality to decide if online learning is for you.

Lorie Witkop completed an online MA in Education from Michigan State University in 2003. While certified to teach high school English and Spanish, she is currently debating her next career move.

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