As the 2020-21 school year begins, many students face a full course load entirely online for the first time. With any transition comes frustrating difficulties and surprising upsides to the experience. Having spent my summer doing full-time online learning, I wanted to share some tips from my experience and hopefully make the transition a bit easier.
Online classes may provide greater flexibility, but remember that this flexibility can be a double-edged sword. When you can listen to lectures whenever you want (assuming they aren’t live), it’s easy to convince yourself there’ll be time for them later. To avoid this, some people advise scheduling specific times to watch these lectures, as if they actually are set, but personally, this doesn’t work for me. Instead, I schedule specific tasks that I’ll work on by the day, rather than a specific time. For instance, I might make Mondays the day that I complete work for my English course. Then on Tuesdays, I’ll work on my Psychology course, and so on. Setting specific times feels inauthentic to me because it’s still easy to convince myself I could do them later. When I work on courses by the day, I know what I have to get done for the day, but it doesn’t matter when.
Staying organized and keeping track of your deadlines is always important, but this is especially true with online classes. A planner is an incredibly useful tool for writing down what you need to get done for the week and other important notes. Alternatively, you can use a regular calendar to write down important due dates or test dates, and ensure you have enough time to prepare effectively.
I personally use both, since I can use my planner to write down what I need to do in the immediate future, and my calendar can show me what’s coming up in the next few weeks. Even if you don’t like using either, I still strongly recommend writing down all your important dates in one place or printing out your course schedules, and putting them somewhere you can easily see and access them. If you’re continually going back to your syllabus or course outline to figure out when to get things done, you waste time and even risk the chance of missing a deadline. Poor organization can cost you greatly, especially with online learning, so be on top of your priorities and remind yourself when you need to get things done.
Online learning comes with a lot more distractions. People can be distracting when you’re studying from home, whether this means starting conversations when you should be working or creating a lot of background noise. To avoid this, I recommend working somewhere quieter and where people are less likely to bother you. Work in your room or another private area to retain focus, but remember to take breaks and leave that area once in a while. Working for too long can make you lose focus too!
There are other ways to prevent distractions, as well. Some other things I did to stay focused while studying online were investing in noise-cancelling earphones and putting my phone out of reach, so I wouldn’t be tempted to use it. Regardless, keep in mind that learning from home comes with different distractions for every person. Take note of what distracts you most from your learning, and consider what you can do to avoid them.
So, where can online learning go from here?
The majority of the student population is using the online learning system for the first time. It’s far from perfect, but changes and improvements can be made with input from students and teachers about the experience. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) recommends that these groups work with the Ontario government to develop a clear plan for implementing better online learning and collecting data from students to evaluate its effectiveness and areas of improvement.
Accessibility is one of the biggest issues with online classes. First, because not all students have reliable internet or the technology to be online for classes regularly, and second, because students with disabilities may have other difficulties engaging in online classes. Schools should provide accommodations for students lacking sufficient technological resources for online classes, especially when online classes are the only option right now. Technology should make things easier for learning, not act as a barrier. Students with disabilities may also experience a number of new or exacerbated roadblocks. As a person without a disability, I certainly cannot speak for students with disabilities. However, a simple first step to making course material more accessible could be to require instructors to include both audio and visual components of their lectures for students. I’ve noticed this is something that not all instructors do, which could be frustrating for those with hearing or visual disabilities. As a general practice, instructors and institutions should listen to students with disabilities and provide any needed accommodations to help make online learning accessible.
Another major concern is related to the digital literacy of students. In 2018, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) released a policy brief that found that students have inadequate digital literacy skills. Prior to postsecondary, most students don’t take any classes online, and classes aren’t very technologically involved. Due to COVID-19, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools alike have been forced to move all their classes online. However, it’s likely that not much has changed in terms of digital literacy over the past two years, and students don’t have the technological skills to effectively learn online. Schools should consider implementing digital literacy classes for future students to ensure effective learning both on- and offline and use their technological resources to their maximum potential.
Online learning is a new experience for many this Fall. All experiences are unique, and some may find the transition easier than others; regardless, I hope some of the tips I’ve shared will be helpful to my fellow students, their instructors, and their institutions. Even when we can safely return to in-person classes, I believe online learning will remain highly relevant in the lives of students and I hope that the experience will continue to be improved.
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. (2020, January 6). Government’s Role in Digital Learning: Review and Recommendations for the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/en-ca/Research/ResPub/Pages/Government%E2%80%99s-Role-in-Digital-Learning-Review-and-Recommendations-for-the-Ontario-Ministry-of-Colleges-and-Universities.aspx
Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. (2018, November 21). Policy Brief: Technology Enabled Learning. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ousa/pages/1783/attachments/original/1542821325/Technology_Enabled_Learning_brief.pdf?1542821325
Rizk, J & Kaufman, A. (2020, July 24). Revisiting the Research: What does good online learning look like? Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Blog. Retrieved from http://blog-en.heqco.ca/2020/07/jessica-rizk-and-amy-kaufman-revisiting-the-research-what-does-good-online-learning-look-like/
About the Author
Teresa is a third-year Social Development Studies student at the University of Waterloo. Teresa is working with the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association for her co-op term. In her free time, you can usually find her reading a fantasy novel or poetry, or playing games online with friends.