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The online education experience unplugged

By Zachary A. Stone

A potential student ponders the best path to a college degree

Students who are new to online education come into programs with all sorts of preconceived notions about what the experience will be like—everything from the fear that the educational experience won’t be as rigorous, to the concern that they couldn’t possibly learn from home with two kids and a spouse running around the house.

But a lot of those ideas are outdated or simply wrong—at least, according to the three University of Phoenix students and the one student advisor we spoke to, all of whom have spent anywhere from months to years in online learning.

Here are some tips on how to thrive in online education programs from people who’ve figured it out by living it.

How to set up a study space at home

Students who are new to online education might think they need a whole, separate bedroom in their apartment to create a home office for school, but current students and advisers told us it’s easy to make do with much less. "Just make sure it's a quiet, little spot," says Arielle Wright, who’s finishing a Master’s in Education at the University. It could even be the kitchen table.

Consider incorporating cheap tools from a real classroom into the home, like a whiteboard for keeping track of assignments. Krista Pope, who’s studying social work at University of Phoenix, hangs hers by the front door so she’s always aware of her due dates. Distraction can be a huge issue for working from home, adds Pope.

"I make sure I hide the TV remotes, so it takes effort to go get them." She also has found the music that works for her—specifically, YouTubeTM videos of Mario music (yes, she’s talking about Nintendo’s® Mario)—that help her block out the rest of the world. "It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it's like white noise."

How to maximize your educational experience

Wright echoes a fear that a lot of newcomers to online education may have – "Am I really going to learn something?" But she found that given her drive to succeed and do all the work, her experience in a Master of Education program has been quite rigorous. "It's up to you. It's what you make of your experience."

Liz Peirce, a University of Phoenix re-entry representative, says that students may be surprised to find out how rigorous an online program can actually be, because "they're getting through their program a lot faster with the one class for five weeks. And they don't have someone holding them accountable" to a fixed schedule. A final tip from Wright: use "every single material that they give you."

How to take advantage of digital tools to work on the go

"Your classroom's literally everywhere," says Wright, who echoes everyone we spoke to when she praises her online university’s app that lets students get school work done on their phones no matter where they are.

When she’s waiting on her sons to finish football practice, Gina Bland says she’ll "just break out my phone, pull open my app and go in and start reading" materials for her MBA program at University of Phoenix.

"GoogleTM Docs is huge because no matter what device you use, you can access work," adds Wright. "I've logged on to do work at my mom's house, at work, everywhere. So that's the life of an online student."

How to form a relationship with your instructor

It may seem like online learning wouldn’t create the conditions necessary for developing an authentic relationship with instructors when you’re not running into them on campus, but conversations with students prove it doesn’t have to be that way, as long as you’re willing to take the initiative.

"You have to be proactive," says Wright. "You have to ask questions. You have to reach out." She’s found it makes a good first impression to direct message her new instructors the first day of class. "Make them get to know you."

And be sure to stay active on your class’s discussion boards. "That's a big part of what makes our students feel like they are still part of a traditional university or community," says Peirce.

How to bond with your classmates

It may seem trickier to make friends and network if you’re not running into classmates at the student cafe, but there are plenty of ways to build new relationships, and according to Peirce, she sees many of her student advisees planting the seeds for lifelong relationships in their digital programs. Join Facebook groups for your class. Go to any in real life meet-and-greets or events at the online university’s physical hub (if they have one).

For Pope, who considers herself to be somewhat anti-social, it was actually easier to connect with people online. "I found a lot of people I have things in common with," she says; she and her classmates worked together to come up with procrastination solutions, "like friends sitting around a cup of coffee"

Wright adds that "when we have team assignments, we trade phone numbers, we text, we email." She advises posting a photo to your profile so people can add a face to your name.

Pope gives a final piece of advice: be yourself: "I don't put out this different essence of who I am in the classroom versus who I just am day-to-day," she says. "It kind of establishes more of a connection on a human level."

How to access career services

A lot of students may not realize online universities have built out robust student services like career counseling and more. Over video chat and messaging apps, you can get help editing your resume or practicing for an interview. "Career service is huge with online," Peirce stresses,
"but again, it's one of those situations where you have to be responsible."

Luckily, online universities often take the initiative to check in and communicate with students on a more regular basis than a traditional university, and at the speed of the internet. "The communication is impeccable," says Peirce, who got her education online at University of Phoenix before she became a counselor. "Whenever I messaged someone, I received a response very quickly."

No matter the issue, online universities can offer solutions for the proactive student, who puts direct communication first.

Learn more about student life at University of Phoenix by exploring the student toolbox or visiting the Life Resource Center.

 How do real students make it work? Read how one student went from working three jobs to finding her dream job with the help of her University of Phoenix academic advisor.

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