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The Internet has revolutionized many things, and the classroom is no exception. Professors are using the Web to enhance their traditional courses, and many schools offer classes and full degree programs conducted solely online. Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, an annual study, found that over 30 percent of students are taking at least one online class.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they have taken an online class. Students say there are many advantages, such as scheduling flexibility and that no travel is necessary.

Alyssa S., a third-year student at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, says, “I did class work whenever I wanted, and I didn’t have to show up for a specific class time.” She thinks this helped her, as she was able to work full-time and still take classes.

Make the Most of Virtual Classrooms

Online learning offers many advantages to students, but most have limited experience with this type of environment. If you’re using online components in a traditional class or taking a full course over the Web, keep these tips for success in mind:

Get to Know the Technology
Start by making sure you understand the structure of the online components. For example:

  • Do you need to blog?
  • Will you watch videos?
  • How do you upload or download different file types?

If there are any unfamiliar requirements, work with your instructor or other students to understand everything before you start the class. In addition, make sure you have a plan B if any of the technology isn’t  working when you need it.

Ashley W., a junior at the University of Maryland in College Park, recommends storing class files on your computer in case Internet access is limited when you need materials.

Get to Know Your Classmates and Professor
It can be challenging to feel connected to online classmates, but it’s still important. There may be times when you need help in a class or to work on collaborative projects.

Send email messages to your professor frequently, and ask him or her to clarify things you don’t understand or provide feedback on your assignments. Your instructor may offer “virtual office hours” when you can call or email for an immediate response. If possible, look into scheduling an in-person meeting, too.

To connect with your classmates, ask questions about assignments or respond to their message board posts. Invite those who live near you to form a study group.

Communicate Carefully
When corresponding via email or posting in discussion groups, it’s important to remember basic etiquette. John Sherrill, a graduate assistant at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, teaches writing classes that include online components. He says traditional classroom etiquette applies to online spaces as well.

Sherrill’s students use Web-based forums to discuss ideas. He says, “[They] create a space [for] building a sense of community.” Sherrill’s students are required to respond to readings with a blog-style post and also use the forums to bring in additional information and comment on other students’ posts.

A guide to online classroom etiquette

You are responsible for everything you say and do in the virtual world, so use these tips in online classrooms and forums:

  • Keep your statements and questions formal and appropriate. Don’t use slang or curse words, and be careful with sensitive topics like religion and sexuality.
  • Respect different opinions and ask questions if you’re confused by something a classmate says.
  • Check your assumptions at the virtual “door.”
  • If you disagree with what someone has said, comment on the content and back up your opinion with facts. Never make a personal attack.
  • Just as in a brick-and-mortar classroom, don’t share personal information that a classmate talks about in the context of the course.
  • Check your messages and posts for grammatical and spelling mistakes. Avoid typing in ALL CAPS, as this is perceived as yelling.
  • Be courteous when asking for—or offering—feedback. Give your classmates and instructor ample time to respond.

Budget Your Time
Online learning environments offer flexibility in terms of when you review material. Kate B., a sophomore at Winona State University in Minnesota, says, “I had an online class last semester, and we had 15 quizzes due by the end. You could be finished in a month or use the whole semester. [So that I didn’t] leave it all for the end, I set designated times to work on the readings and quizzes.”

Review your syllabus, plan ahead, and make a schedule for yourself. For example, set every Tuesday from 2 to 4 p.m. as “class time” on your calendar to stay on top of the course load.

Some online courses run very much like a traditional class. Sherry H. is a junior at Ashford University online, so all of her schoolwork takes place in virtual classrooms. She explains, “My classes are five weeks long and each week I have two discussion board posts due, a quiz, and a paper due. Points are deducted from [my grade] for each day an assignment is late.”

Maximize Your Motivation
Beth Lunde, assistant vice president for student affairs at Michigan Technological University, explains that virtual classrooms give students scheduling flexibility and a chance to delve deeper into their subjects of interest. But it can be difficult to stick to a schedule. Alyssa says, “There’s a lot more self-teaching involved.”

For some, aiming for a certain grade or graduation date keeps them on track. It can also help to schedule collaborative study times with your classmates so that it’s harder to skip out because someone is depending on you. Also create a list of checkpoints for the course and reward yourself when they are completed.

As online classes become more prevalent, researchers are exploring their effectiveness. The U.S. Department of Education looked at 1,000 studies of online programs and found that virtual learning may enhance academic achievement. Vicki B., a sophomore at The Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Texas, agrees. She says, “I’ve taken a lot of classes online due to [my] work schedule, and I find I can learn just as much.“

Take Action!

  • Understand the technology necessary for your course before you start.
  • Set aside specific times for your online classwork. Schedule yourself as if you’re attending a traditional class.
  • Develop relationships with your virtual classmates and instructors.
  • Be conscientious of online classroom etiquette.
  • Stay motivated by working collaboratively with classmates and setting specific goals for yourself.

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