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Upasana Gupta -

Top Challenges in Online Learning

Online Students Identify Ways to Improve Study Experience

More and more, adult learners are finding the convenience and flexibility of online learning a match for their career goals and busy lifestyles. Online degree programs, courses, and virtual universities targeting distance learners have proliferated in the past decade. Although students can easily take-up an online course or degree program that's both convenient and accessible, they may face significant challenges in adapting to this mode of study.

(Suggested read: 2014 Best Online Bachelor's and Master's Degree Programs)

"Online education is very different from face-to-face, and is often hard for certain learners," says Angie Wetmore, an online student enrolled in a masterís program at Walden University. "For me, I get tired of reading online and it is causing some problems with my vision. I also like holding books in my hand and we donít use many hardcopy textbooks in my program."

Taking classes online is actually more challenging than taking traditional classes. It may seem easier without a commute, but with that benefit comes the need to plan out when and where online learning is going to take place.

From my experience, a key difference between in-person and online learning is the independence and flexibility to participate in the online class at a time convenient to the student. This however, presents a potential problem, as procrastination could cause a student to fall behind in the online course.

(Look for Online Schools offering business, MBA, associate, bachelor and master degree programs and courses)

Implement a Fixed Study Schedule:

"Initially, being new to online education was very confusing. However, now that I have a set schedule and have been through the first semester, I find it quite satisfying because of the flexibility it offers," says an adult learner enrolled in an online leadership graduate program at Barclay College. (The Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) Regulations prevented the college from releasing specific names of their students.)

Online learners need to discipline themselves in maintaining their schedule and not allow any distractions to disrupt their plan. An upfront planning process is critical to succeeding in the online course because studying is integrated with many other responsibilities like chores, errands, family and work.

 "Serious online education means giving up not only personal time, but also letting go of other places of involvement," says another adult online learner enrolled in a graduate degree program at Barclay College.

Engage in Interaction with Faculty and Classmates:

I also recommend potential students to look into the teaching methodologies at online schools and see how learning is facilitated through discussions and level of interaction required in classes.  Because in distance learning programs, interaction mostly occurs through an online threaded discussion or online chat that allow students and instructors to interact in asynchronous time. This is a significant shift for students accustomed to in-class discussions.

"I miss the immediate social responses since all comments take at least a day to elicit a response," says an online student at Barclay College. " There is no direct verbal interaction between students, just the written word. Moreover, not all students are as articulate in writing as they are verbally and many simply do not want to take the time to respond."

This is a common challenge faced by many online learners and here the instructor's role is important in encouraging class discussions online. While selecting online programs, don't be shy to ask about the faculty's average response time to student queries and how they encourage classroom discussions and communication.

For example, do professors lead an active level of interaction in the class by encouraging discussions on real-world work scenarios and solutions to key issues; does the couresework include team projects to work on every couple of weeks; does the instructor encourage asking thoughtful questions to engage the class etc. 

"I like the honest engagement I found with both professors and students at Barclay. There were no inflated egos and they were honest when there were errors in the syllabi or when they did not have an answer to a question," says an online master's student at Barclay College. "Many instructors were readily available by email, telephone to answer questions or to clarify points - I like that."

Students should habitually incorporate a plan for regular communication with their faculty and classmates into their overall course schedule for greater success in their online program.

Select a Good Online Infrastructure for Learning:

Another common problem faced by online learners is the quality of infrastructure for online teaching. Students should get details on the actual engine the school will use for teaching online. Will it work on a wireless, mobile card? What kind of hardware does it need to function? How are the classes presented? How is their online laboratory set up? Do they have access to an updated, online library? What is their system capacity? Do they provide technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Which areas are there for uploading papers, posting lectures, communicating with the professors? How is information organized? "It is invaluable to go through the infrastructure before selecting a program to be fully prepared," says Lesli Corbo, a former online student from Utica College who recently completed her bachelor's degree.

Online learners should look for a platform which is extremely user friendly and interactive. A good online infrastructure which  uses an interactive classroom with different areas for guided discussions, reading assignments, classroom posting and library is extremely important to perform well.

No magic formula guarantees success in online learning. But students looking to take-up online programs should understand these challenges and identify ways to enrichen their online learning experience.