Advice on how to make online courses work for you

Be sure that they fit your learning style, treat them just like you would in-person courses and find a buddy to stay motivated
Elissa Gurman

In the past several years, online learning has become a significant part of the university and college experience; 29 per cent of all Canadian university students registered for online courses, according to a 2016 survey by EduConsillium, a consulting firm. But are all online courses created equally? How can you be sure that digital learning is right for you? If you choose to take an online course, what can you do to ensure that you earn the best possible grade? We interviewed current students, graduates and professors to get their best advice about online courses.

Know thyself

Online courses come with some significant benefits and drawbacks, depending on your life and how you learn. The most obvious perk? You can work from anywhere, on your own schedule. If you’ve got a demanding job or family commitments, this is a huge benefit. But, just because you can study the course materials anytime, that doesn’t mean there aren’t deadlines. “I think a point that many people lose sight of is how easy it can be to fall behind because you have some freedom around when you do certain assignments and readings,” says graduate student Amanda Bindman. Before choosing to study online, consider whether you’re a self-motivated learner and if the material seems interesting enough to keep you going. Look for courses with a mandatory discussion component, multiple small assignments or group projects to keep you engaged.

Work it into your schedule

The tip that comes up most often is simple: build online courses into your weekly schedule just like you would in-person courses. Professor Alex Davidson of Wayne State University teaches the same course in person and online. He noted that his online students usually end up with lower grades: “I post lecture videos for the online course and I can track how many views they get. They never reach the full class size, indicating that there are quite a few students who don’t bother to watch them.” It is so easy to let an online course slide, but your grades will suffer as a result. Be sure to schedule set times to watch your lectures, read materials and contribute to online discussion boards.

Make human connections

The biggest complaint about online courses is that they lack human interaction. A social connection is often a big part of learning. There are things you can do to alleviate that. Jessica Pink, an undergrad at the University of Guelph, suggests taking online courses with a friend, so you can study together and motivate each other to stay on track. You can also reach out to students on the class discussion board to organize a study group, or schedule in-person meetings with your professor or TA to discuss course concepts.

Treat it like any other course

At the end of the day, an online course is just as much work—sometimes more!—than a traditional in-person class. The only difference is the added convenience of being online. But be careful not to forget that online courses are still part of your formal education. Emma Vossen, a postdoctoral fellow at York University, has taught several online courses and she’s noted a disturbing trend: her online students tend to be less respectful than her in-person ones, as they sometimes treat the class discussion board like a “subreddit,” or an Internet discussion board. We all know the Internet can be an ugly place and we should strive to be respectful online, but that goes especially for online classrooms. When it comes to work ethic, demeanour and commitment, remember to treat an online course as you would any other.