Kupu āwhina – advice

As I began blogging and building a PLN on Twitter, I came across a lot of supportive advice on how to do stuff. It really helped in using my time efficiently and stopped me from making some rookie mistakes. I’ve been thinking about how I could pay-it-forward, about what kind of helpful advice I could pass on. And I came up with ‘how to be an effective online learner’.

Here are my top 5 tips for successful online learning:

#1 Network:
Many online courses come with some kind of shared space for students online. These spaces are designed for students to discuss, collaborate and share their learning – if your learning was a solo endeavour only reliant on your contact with your tutor, they wouldn’t bother providing these. So, use them.
The best way to begin is by courteously responding to other students comments, either by agreeing with, elaborating on, or questioning what they have posted. Be mindful to treat these public spaces professionally and thoughtfully, as they are viewed by students and tutors – it is not the place to link your personal Facebook account and tell your entire course to ‘friend’ you, or to get involved in disagreements or criticism of the course, staff or other students. Once you have built up some contacts, you can have more casual conversations via email, Skype or FB 😉

#2 Back-up:
Online learning can be the equivalent of a triathlon for your computer, some days you might be building a slideshow while downloading documents, talking on Skype and uploading photographs. I nearly lost my whole first year’s work when my laptop suddenly gave up on me. Other study-buddies have had computers break in transit, breakdown or get stolen. You need to find some kind of back-up for your electronic files, so that if the worst does happen you can claim insurance and carry on. I use an external hard-drive; other people choose to use Google docs or to save their files to disk. Whatever you choose, make sure you back-up regularly.

#3 Experiment:
Throughout your study you will get opportunities to showcase your learning. This is the time to experiment with tech tools! Don’t wait until you have an assessment worth 30% due to begin fiddling with slideshows or tools you have never used before. Often, there will a choice of presentation method for non-assessed learning projects and these are the best times to experiment. If you are asked for an art piece, you can draw something, take a digital photo and upload it, or you could begin experimenting with photo shop editors. If you are asked for a report, think about making it an online slideshow. There are a lot of tech tools available, best to get a handle on them when stakes are low, rather than waiting until an assessment is due.

#4 Schedule:
Online learning provides a lot of flexibility. You could begin your day at noon, in your pyjamas, if you so choose. Online learning can be so flexible that you might find yourself taking a week off mid-semester or you could end up working through the midnight hours so regularly that people begin to suspect that you are in fact a vampire. To ensure you don’t fall off the study wagon, or end up devoting all your time to study, set yourself a loose schedule and try to adhere to it. This might be as simple as setting a daily start and finish time, or setting a timer so you go to the gym each day. Keep your schedule realistic and make sure you think about everything that is important to you: study, family, friends, fitness, food, whatever, and set aside some regular time for those things.

#5 Hot-spots:
Know where your nearest (or cosiest) Wi-Fi hot-spot is. You never know when some electrical or internet failure will occur, and knowing where you can get re-connected can stop a whole lot of anxiety while your connection is fixed. You can even make visiting a local hot-spot part of your weekly schedule just for a change of scene or to catch-up with other students, if there are any in your area. It could be a public library or a café. My hot-spot is currently a McDonalds, so I can happily sip a latte mid-morning while my weekly study documents download (for the cost of a coffee, I can download up to 50MB without using up my own precious data limit).  A map of free NZ Wi-Fi hot-spots is available from here.

I hope that some or all of these points are helpful to you and happy studies!

If you also have a tip or hint to share, please add it in the comments.

"Morning coffee and Twitter" CC Image courtesy of Rubenerd on Flickr


8 responses to “Kupu āwhina – advice

  1. Hi Carolyn,
    Although I haven’t done an online degree, I think this is a great list already, particularly #3 and #4 where I’ve seen people fall over.
    I think the most valuable piece of advice I can offer in terms of tertiary study is somewhat counter-intuitive. I hate to admit it but I often did no readings for a lot of my subjects, but because I focused on the lecture powerpoints and tutorial questions, I received first class honours. I think some students spread themselves too thin by engaging in so many readings that they lose their focus on the key points in exams/assignments and instead mention relatively obscure evidence to support their opinions. Extra reading is great, but it is primarily for developing in-depth knowledge of the key course content. In short, in my opinion, too much breadth = not enough depth (in tertiary study at least). Thanks,

    • I think you raise a really good point. Often lecture slides and tutorials are the big ideas in condensed form, so are valuable tools in focusing on key concepts. Emphasis can be lost in translation, particularly if you are getting all your information in print form. I remember my ‘a-ha’ moment when I heard a tutor speaking about important ideas and where he was placing his audible emphasis – something I hadn’t quite picked up on in the written instructions.
      In-depth understanding of the key concepts is crucial.
      Thanks Anna.

      • I agree with your experiences with written vs oral information, Carolyn. We all interpret information subjectively, and there have been many occasions where I could have blindly gone down the wrong path if it weren’t for my fabulous study buddies. Having said that, sometimes going down the ‘wrong’ path is when the most learning and innovative thinking occurs! My experiences at university have also lead me to understand that you get the highest grades by telling the lecturers what they want to hear, but I am not at university just to get a pocketful of A’s- I am there to learn how to think critically and reflectively about the world around me, so that I can think and make decisions for myself. Buggar the grades! This is not to say grades are not important, but as we know they do not tell the whole story about how educated a person really is.

      • Good point Massey student – sometimes focussing on the destination means you miss out on the journey.

  2. Hi Carolyn,
    Regarding networking most of my course set up closed Facebook groups for course discussion. I wouldn’t say they’re devoid of bitching about the tutors, but they’re useful for having a whinge, chatting about non-politically-correct views of the course work, and other things you wouldn’t want to say within earshot of the tutor. So in other words, for all the kind of interaction you miss out on from not being a face to face student. And with closed groups, you don’t have to ‘friend’ your colleagues.
    I think it’s good for morale. You can go into the ‘zone’ with online study and these study buddy groups give you much needed reality checks.
    Great post!
    I have started a snarky online learning series myself. But I have a positive post coming up shortly to balance it out.
    (Online study has its bad days.)

    • I read your first post and I thought it was great!
      Closed groups is a super suggestion, and much safer when you need to have a good rant to relieve stress (we’re all human).
      Thanks RW.

  3. You have passed on some sage advice, Carolyn, which is really valuable since it has come from your experiences with online learning. I completely agree with your top 5 tips and have another couple to add:
    *Use the library services for distance students. As well as access to the outstanding range of books, journals, multimedia and exam papers through the library’s online service, they are more than happy to help track down that elusive book or article you need for your assignment. All of the resources are sent by courier, and a postage paid sticker is included, so there is no cost to the student. Taking full advantage of this service has supported not only my online learning specific to each paper, but it has also afforded me the opportunity to critically evaluate educational resources before I go ahead and purchase them.
    *Another good tip is to use the assignment pre-reading service if your university has one. You do have to be well organised to submit the assignment a good week or more before the due date, but it is well worth it when it is returned with all of the referencing, grammar and essay structure checked. I hate losing marks over silly mistakes, so this service has really helped me, and I used the information to help check subsequent assignments too.

    A very interesting post, Carolyn, and good luck for the semester ahead!

    • Great tips Massey student.
      Thanks for sharing (um… and reminding me as well) that your training provider will set you up for success and there are suppport services available to help you achieve your learning goals! I am a huge fan of the distance library service – particularly as mine are happy to scan the article/chapter/section of text I need and email it to me. No return date and no late fees!

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