Know what you're getting into with online learning

By Ashleigh Viveiros
Special to

It's the newest wave in post-secondary education, and all you need to do to be a part of it is turn on your computer.

In the last decade, classes taking place completely online have become the norm as more and more students opt for a less traditional approach to learning.

But online learning isn't for everyone, and it's important you know what you're getting yourself into before taking a course on the Web.

"Taking an online course offered a different type of learning than I was used to," says 23-year-old communications student Chantal Desjardins.

Desjardins took an academic writing course at the University of Winnipeg a few years ago, and says the overall experience was a positive one.

"I liked the flexibility in the scheduling that an online class offered," she says "(They're) great for people that have an already packed schedule."

Not having to set foot in a classroom at a specified time each week also gave her more time to dedicate to her assignments, says Desjardins.

"Because there wasn't any actual classroom instruction that took up my time, I could devote more time to working on my papers," she says. "I could work on my (course) at noon or at four in the morning."

It's that flexibility that's making online courses more popular with both younger, full-time students and mature, part-time ones as well, says Ian Allen, director of distance education and e-learning at the University of New Brunswick.

"They're really popular," he says. "It's just grown exponentially in recent years."

"We're seeing a large number of mature students who are working, who have (responsibilities), and who can't make it to the campus," says Allen. "With online learning, as long as you have dial-up you can participate."

But even though increased access and greater flexibility are major benefits of online learning, there are a few things that take some getting used to.

"Because I wasn't in a traditional classroom setting with teachers and students reminding me of upcoming assignments, it would have been very easy to just forget to read a book or complete a paper," says Desjardins.

Another problem Desjardins had was navigating the online classroom.

"I would get confused trying to post my assignments in the right spot," she says. "It probably didn't help that I'm computer illiterate."

While a basic knowledge of computers is necessary to successfully complete an online course, says Allen, most online programs are designed to be user-friendly for even the most technologically challenged.

"Whether you take one course or ten courses, they all have the same kind of look to them," he says.

But there are a few things you can do to make the whole experience easier on yourself. One of the most important may be getting the phone number of someone else registered in your class.

"That way, whenever one of us had a problem or question with an assignment, we could just call each other up and talk about it," says Desjardins. "Also, having someone to talk to about the course kept me from feeling like a cyber-nerd."

It also helps to have your professor's contact information on hand, so you can call them when problems arise, says Desjardins.

For her part, Desjardins wouldn't have any qualms about taking another online course in the future.

"It takes discipline, but if you're organized and can force yourself to meet deadlines, it's a great way to complete a university course," she says.

Ultimately, the only way to find out if online learning is for you, says Allen, is to give it a try.

"Some people think 'that's not for me' until they try it," he says. "Some people try them and don't like them. Other students love them and wish they had done it sooner."

Modified on April 23, 2009