Going Back to School? Here are the Online Learning Landmines

by Barry Waldman

If it’s been a while since you last attended class and now you’re planning a new learning journey – whether formal graduate school, certification or continuing education – there is a new world awaiting you.

Much of the nation’s graduate and professional education system has moved to virtual learning. Unless you and the instructor are both prepared for this new paradigm, the learning could be virtual in the old sense of the word.

That is, not quite.

Planning and Discipline

The main differences between a classroom setting and the online classroom, say those who have experienced it, involve the planning and discipline required to make it work. Many people find it difficult to remain fully engaged online, particularly when surrounded by things they might otherwise prefer to do.

“You have to control your external surroundings,” says Ian McCann, an Orlando, FL resident who just completed his MBA from home, entirely online at Binghamton University. McCann says that included shooing his parents out of the room when he was studying or taking a test.

It also means setting aside a quiet place without distractions, says Holly Fisher, founder of Fisher Creative, a marketing firm in Charleston and Asheville, NC. Fisher has both attended and hosted virtual webinars and workshops. 

“Consciously shut down everything else, turn off notifications and close your email inbox. That will help you stay focused on content,” she said.

Video On, Mic On, Total Engagement

In my own experience as an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, I know how important it is for students to consider the virtual experience their sole commitment during class hours, whether synchronous or asynchronous. Students thrived when they attended class in a room where they were the only occupant, human or otherwise; with their video and microphones on; phones off or in another room; solely focused on the lessons at hand. They were more engaged, learned better and remembered more than those who showed up physically but not fully cognitively.

Be Aware of Yourself and Your Surroundings

Being fully present physically is still important. The internet is chock full of horror stories about people not realizing they weren’t muted during profanity-laced phone arguments, scathing critiques of the class in session, or noises from bodily functions. 

Even at a lower level, says Holly Fisher, it’s important to be camera ready and pay attention to the background. “You don’t need a suit and tie or full makeup, but look presentable,” she said.

Help the Instructor Understand What’s Not Working

Students should also consider sharing in classroom management with their instructors. “Faculty are stressed out, afraid about Covid, awkward with technology and constantly messing up,” notes Dr. Diane Zelman, a psychology professor at Alliant International University in the San Francisco Bay area. As a result, she says, students are doing their instructors a favor by speaking out about what isn’t working.

For example, she says, she lectured for several weeks not realizing that her face was not on the screen while she shared PowerPoint presentations. A student pointed it out and offered to help her change the settings. 

Breaks, Breakouts and Games

Instructors also need to know that students can’t attend for more than an hour or so online. They need frequent breaks for daylong or half-day presentations, breakout sessions for students to collaborate or discuss lessons, and gamification of lessons to make them fun and memorable. That isn’t necessarily different from in-class instruction; it’s just more imperative online. Students should recognize their responsibility to communicate this to instructors still mired in old paradigms.

Prepare for Fewer Resources

The virtual world is not the physical world you experienced in high school or college. Schools and presenters are overwhelmed with the transition and can’t offer the same kind of support you might be expecting, says Ian McCann. He discovered that the hard way when he needed tutoring help in one class. He observed the same for library and mental health support.

There are many online tools students can employ outside class to share information with each other, like Google docs and Slack. The collaboration and team building that result provide ballast to every student’s experience and don’t require technological know-how on the part of the instructor.

But Don’t Forget…!

Finally, a bit of more prosaic advice comes from Elaine Hartstein, proprietor of Hartstein Guitars in New York. “Wear pants just in case you have to stand up.”