For many of us, online learning – and teaching – is brand new, but for others it’s business as usual. Between them Dr. Leslie Dawson, Annetta Latham and Dr. Tara Winsor have more than three decades of experience teaching online, so we asked the three profs to share their best advice for making the most of an online learning experience.
1. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s okay.
Dr. Tara Winsor, an associate professor in the Hearing Aid Practitioner program who spends about 95 per cent of her teaching time online, says students often struggle a bit the first time they take an online course. “There are differences in the way students need to set themselves up to learn, and that can feel frustrating and uncomfortable at first,” she says. “But trust me – it all does come together and you will find the processes and pathways that work best for you.”
She adds that it’s important to remember that you’re not in this alone. “With everything that’s happening right now in the world, your profs are stressed out and distracted too – but we want to support you and we want you to succeed.”
2. Communicate with your profs – they really do want to hear from you
Annetta Latham says that her online students don’t reach out to her nearly as often as she would like. If you don’t understand something, have a question or just really enjoyed listening to a podcast or watching a video you were assigned, you should reach out.
“Even if it’s just an email to say, ‘Hey, I read this module, I’ve been thinking about it and I’m finding it really interesting,’” says the assistant professor in the Arts and Cultural Management program. “Communicating and engaging helps with the feelings of isolation that can come with learning online.”
Tara agrees, adding that if you’re feeling confused or need clarification, you need to say something.
“I don’t have a classroom of faces looking back at me, so I can’t see if there are confused looks,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s an issue unless you tell me. And I don’t know if you don’t understand something unless you reach out.”
3. Posting to a discussion board for the first time can be scary
“I’ve had more than one student ask if they could send their post to me first before they actually post it online,” says Dr. Leslie Dawson, who has been teaching anthropology courses online for more than a decade. It can be intimidating for some students to put their thoughts out there for everyone to see, but there are ways to make it easier.
If you are worried about your post, Tara and Annetta both suggest stepping away from Blackboard. Do a first draft in a Google Doc or Microsoft Word document (you can take advantage of spell check and editing tools that way too) or even as a note in your phone, then step away from it for a bit – overnight, if you can. When you’re ready, go back, reread it, fix it up and copy and paste it into your actual post. The same goes for completing an assignment online, or even writing an online exam.
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4. Your profs aren’t the only people you can learn from
Remember that posting to a discussion board or working on an online group project isn’t just about talking – it’s also about listening.
“There’s a lot of deep learning that happens when students really engage in online discussions,” says Leslie. “I see students really learning from each other and getting excited about the topics they’re exploring and the discussions they’re having.”
5. Set aside a space to study – even if it isn’t an actual space
“Create a learning bubble,” says Annetta. She knows that isn’t always easy when you’re sharing space with your roommates or your family, but even if you can’t set aside a private space to study, there are ways to make shared space more conducive to learning.
Try shifting your schedule – if your household is active around 8 a.m., then Annetta suggests trying to start your day before that so you can take advantage of quiet time. If it’s just not possible to get time to yourself, try quietly playing ambient music in the background (Annetta likes this four-hour YouTube video.) “If you do that every time you study, the grey noise can help cue your brain that it’s time to focus,” she says.
6. Resist the urge to procrastinate
Allocate time in your week for your online class, just like you would if you were going to an in-person class.
“With an online course, it’s even more tempting to leave everything to the last minute,” says Annetta. “It’s one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen students make. Instead of rushing around at the last minute, be strategic, allocate time, get into a rhythm and do the work.”
7. It might not feel like it now, but this unplanned online learning experience just might have a silver lining
“Having online experiences like the ones we’re all sharing right now, figuring out how to best communicate and connect with other people and finding new ways to work through challenges not only helps you as a learner, but it will probably also serve you well in your future career.”
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