Prioritizing for Online Course Success

listUnbeknownst to me back in my first year of undergraduate studies, success in education is not only about intelligence. There are a number of additional skills required, many if not all of them learned. These include things like time management, social skills, and the ability to control ones emotions and direct ones energy.

In my professional life I am a project manager. Project management relies upon many of these skills as well. A key to project management is knowing what to do and when to do it. Specifically, prioritizing. We all know the saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I believe it wholeheartedly, and translate this to mean that as you begin an online course, prioritize what you want to get from it.

My basic order of priority in the online classroom environment, given its openness, is as follows:

#1 Priority – “A deadline will be missed if I don’t get it done”

This is relatively straightforward. You obviously need to meet the course requirements, whether they be assignment due dates, forum posts, classroom sessions, or other. You obviously must, must, must meet these commitments.

#2 Priority – “This will represent a significant set-back if I don’t get it done”

This may be finishing up an assignment on time and in a quality way. This may be selecting a topic with enough time left to complete the assignment. Or this could be posting to a forum in order to get sound feedback in order to improve your work or even fast-track it a bit.

#3 Priority – “This is critical to long term success”

This is the bigger picture. In an online environment, the learning really is left to you. You are hoping to get a good grade, sure. But why did you take the course? Focus in on your goals and what you will take with you when the course is over. Do you have a particular interest in a course sub-topic? Do all the readings and then some, and write the professor/guest professor on this topic. Make sure that the course and how it fits into your long term success are both well understood, so that you can complete these #3 priorities. In my opinion, just meeting priorities #1 and #2 is not enough to have a successful learning experience. You need to strive to hit at least #3.

#4 Priority – “This is something I really want to do”

This is an extension of #3. It might not touch on a burning desire or a strong interest, but you may really want it nonetheless. If you manage your time well, you should hit your #4 priorities.

#5 Priority – “This is something that I would like to do”

This is less than something that is critical to your long-term success, or what you really want to do. Nonetheless, you have an interest and want to explore the area.

#6 Priority – “This is something that I feel I should do, even if I am not interested in it”

For me, this goes back to career goals. I don’t particularly like reading about communications, but it’s a part of my work and can help me reach my professional goals. In a sense I feel “obligated” to do it, but in a good way. I know that the short-term pain is necessary to reach some long-term satisfaction. I think we all have these things, so identify them in your course, and if you can hit them, all the better.

When talking about online learning I wouldn’t say it is common for me to hit #5 priorities, but I routinely hit priorities #1-#4. Even my #6’s are often hit before my #5’s, which, to be honest, is perhaps due to that inner voice telling me that they will help me in the future.

Before starting your next course, I would like to provide the recommendation that you think things through or even use this framework to identify how to get the most from your course. I think you will be surprised at how useful simply thinking about prioritizing can be.

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Why Proactivity Beats Procrastination in Online Courses

parcel-575623_640As college students, we’ve all had this temptation. It’s Wednesday and the teacher closes class by passing out your next homework assignment. After you let out an involuntary sigh, you look at the top of the paper and find some comfort: “Due next Wednesday.”

The temptation we all face is to translate that “Due next Wednesday” to “Do it next Wednesday—right before class.” Our inner procrastinator sits on our right shoulder and whispers, “Put it off,” while our inner workhorse sits on our left and shouts, “Do it today!”

As online course students, the temptation is even stronger. The flexibility of online courses often gives us greater freedom to choose when to do our work throughout the week. Sometimes that flexibility is a good thing—opening up time for relationships and extracurricular activities. Sometimes it’s not. For those prone to procrastinate, flexibility quickly turns to neglect, which inevitably turns to stressful last-minute cramming. In either case, flexibility forces us to choose between procrastination and proactivity.

Imagine this scenario: you live on South campus and your friend asks you for a favor. He gives you a heavy package and asks you to walk it to the post office on Franklin Street by next Wednesday. Since one week is plenty of time to carry out such a simple task, you don’t think much of it. You take the package, put it in your dorm, and forget about it until the following week. On Wednesday, you remember your friend’s request, pick up the package from your dorm and take it to Franklin Street.

Now imagine another similar scenario. You live on South campus and your friend asks you for a favor. He gives you a heavy package and asks you to walk it to the post office on Franklin Street by next Wednesday. But there’s one catch. Until you deliver the package, you have to carry it around in your backpack. Even though you have plenty of time to do the favor, you don’t want to carry around the heavy package for a week. As soon as your friend gives you the package, you walk to Franklin Street and drop it off.

When most of us think about assignments and deadlines, our minds turn to the first scenario. If an assignment isn’t due for another week, we can drop it in the back of our minds and forget about it. When the due date comes, we pick it back up and get it done.

But in reality, assignments and deadlines are much more like the second scenario. We can’t actually forget about a task. When we put it off and procrastinate, we carry around stress, knowing that we have to eventually do the homework. The task gets heavier and heavier as the due date comes closer, and it keeps us from doing the things we want to do.

Procrastination doesn’t bring peace; it brings pressure, causing us to carry around the load of unfinished tasks and upcoming due dates. Peace comes from proactivity. When we carry our tasks to the back of our mind, we still carry them around. But when we carry our tasks to completion, we can drop them off and rest.

So when it comes to assignments in your online course, don’t listen to the lie of your inner procrastinator. The workhorse on your left shoulder has better advice.

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A Project Planning Approach to Online Learning

projectplanning2With the benefit of experience on my side, I have recently been thinking a lot about a standard process for planning and getting the most out of an online course. These are things that I myself will be thinking through in a structured way before my next online learning experience. I am not talking about thinking about what course I want to take, or any course selection details, but instead about the things you need to think about right before the course starts. You’ve selected the course, it starts next week (or tomorrow!), and you need to think these things through in order to get the most out of it. Let’s be clear: You can pass the course, you can get “the most out of it”, or both. They are not always the same thing.

Ask Yourself “Why am I taking this course?”

Are you taking the course because you earnestly want to learn the material? If so, are you interested in all of the material, or just some of it? Or are you taking the course because it will help you receive some kind of credential or certification that you think will help you once you have it on your resume? Or is there another reason? First you need to be honest with yourself and identify why you are taking the course.

Set Up a “Plan of Attack”

After understanding why you are taking the course, you need to consider the implications that flow from this in terms of how you will “attack” the course. If you are very interested in all of the material – which would obviously be a good thing – then you will need to figure out how much time you will need to dedicate to the course per week in order to get what you want from it.

Review Progress

A week (or at max. two), into the course, sit down and honestly look at what you have accomplished and what time you have put into the course. I don’t necessarily mean “accomplished” in the sense of completing assignments successfully, but it may instead be in terms of learning what you are hoping to learn. It all depends on you and your reasons for taking the course. Look at the time commitment you have made – when and where are you studying and completing assignments? Is that schedule working for you? If not, what changes do you need to make?

Stay the Course or Make Adjustments

This flows out of your progress review. If things are working well for you, then stay the course. If not, make either major – or hopefully minor – adjustments. These adjustments should be easy to identify if you are clear on the above steps and are coming from a place of having completed them honestly.

Follow a Periodic Review Schedule

Trust me, an online course can finish up before you realize it. One day, you are bright-eyed and ready to absorb all the knowledge that you can, and the next you are overtired, have jettisoned all of your personal course goals, and are just working to “get it over with.” To be honest this is something that has happened to me personally. When it did, the end of the course really wasn’t a cause for celebration like I expected. I had “gotten it over with,” but I was left with more of a feeling of defeat than anything else. Sure, I passed the course…and I did learn some things. But I did not come anywhere close to my personal learning goals that I had before the course. So to me, a month after completing the course, it really did feel like a failure.

Years of online learning have led me to this process, and I truly hope that it is useful to you. Please take advantage of my missteps so that you do not make them yourself, and get whatever it is that you want to get out of your online learning experience, should you ever undertake one. Good luck!

Five Reasons Why Communication Has Been Key To My Online Learning

DiscussionCommunication is considered “a purposeful activity of exchanging information and meaning across space and time using various technical or natural means.” I have found communication to be central to my success in online courses that I have taken over the years. This might be obvious, but I none the less want to discuss 5 key reasons why communication has been vital to my success in online courses. These reasons span from perhaps the most mundane, to the most surprising.

1. Work Completion: Online coursework is obviously heavily dependent on communication simply for course completion. Falling under this header is the standard communications required to complete readings, assignments, and tests. This of course includes emails, uploads, downloads, and forum posts. You obviously need to undertake this communication in order to do well in the course, as it is the method that you share your work with the professor and, if applicable, fellow students.

2. Forum Participation: Online/course forum participation may or may not fall under Work Completion, above. Some forum participation is usually necessary as part of course assignments; you may simply need to post an answer in a forum, and/or respond to others’ posts. Other forum participation may be voluntary and not undertaken by all students. This could include everything from a ‘hello’ in the ‘Welcome’ forum to posting a link to an interesting and relevant article for your classmates. This kind of forum participation is a great way to make connections with classmates, share interesting information, and go ‘above and beyond’ for your professor. Remember, you are interested in this material, and so are your fellow classmates. Making the connections with each other is of value to all of you, and this is one way to do it.

3. Questions: Sooner or later it is likely that you will have a question, most likely for your professor. It might be content-related (what does X mean), or logistics related (is this week’s assignment really due on Wednesday? All of the previous ones have been due on Friday), and perhaps even beyond the scope of the course material. Communication is the only way to have these questions answered, and do not shy away from it. I usually communicate with my professors early, if not always often, and it has helped me tremendously.

4. Deadlines: I am not a bad time manager, but I have had situations which have led me to submit an assignment late. Early and clear communication with the professor is key when this happens.

5. Career Advice: Remember, your professor is an expert in their field, a field of very high interest to you (if it weren’t, why would you take the course). You are likely not an expert, which is what has put you solidly on the ‘student’ side of the course. Think about how often you have an opportunity to ask questions, receive advice, and even build a relationship with an expert in your field. It isn’t always as frequent as most of us would like. Therefore, going beyond the coursework minutiae and having a broader communication with your professor – whether career related or otherwise – is really is an amazing opportunity. Not only has this type of communication helped me gain greater clarity for my career, it has helped in the nuts and bolts of my current position. You may cross paths with your professor professionally sooner than you think!

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Reflections on My First Online Class

Computer_keyboardBefore this semester, I had no intention of taking an online class. I enjoyed the typical academic environment of sitting in a classroom at a certain time each week surrounded by other students with a professor lecturing in front of me. It’s what I was used to and I didn’t want to enroll in a course that diverted from this typical academic model.

However, last spring I was assigned a pretty terrible class registration time, so I knew I’d have difficulty getting into all of the classes I selected. Unfortunately, my expectations were accurate. Due to their popularity and small size, I couldn’t get into two classes I needed to take. I knew the Friday Center’s online classes would probably be my best alternative, but I was hesitant to break away from the traditional classroom setting.

Now, I realize it was somewhat silly of me to try to avoid online classes. I just finished my first online class, GLBL 210 (Global Issues), and it was a great experience. My online class was both rewarding and convenient. I received three credits I needed, was relieved by the convenience of the course, and felt as though I learned just as much as I would have in a classroom.

My online class was designed really well and provided a lot of opportunity for learning, collaboration, feedback, and flexibility. Substantial weekly readings and forum posts ensured I kept up with the material and learned just as much as if the course had been in a traditional format. The requirement to respond to other students’ forum posts created a collaborative classroom feel I’m used to experiencing when actually sitting in a classroom with other students. My professor did a great job at providing weekly feedback to forum posts and essays, making sure we all stayed on track, as well as responding promptly to any questions and emails. The flexibility was my favorite aspect of the course. I loved having the option of knocking out my weekly assignments well ahead of time to free up my schedule, or delaying them until later if I was overwhelmed with other assignments.

Looking forward, I definitely plan on taking more online classes through the Friday Center. If you don’t get into a class you need, or if you’re just interested in furthering your education in some way, don’t count out online courses. They are convenient, enjoyable, and a great way to learn.

Toddler vs. Deadline, Round 1: The Importance of Time Management

The following is an account of a recent ‘challenge’ to completing my coursework, narrated by myself as if in the moment. It is given to illustrate a very real challenge that some of us may face in completing a course online. For me, time management has been the most significant challenge…and unfortunately, it isn’t always in my hands…

father-toddlerReal Life

It is Thursday. 9pm. I have completed half of the weekly class assignment earlier in the week, and am anxious to continue. I still need to read some material and complete the second half of the assignment. Deadline? Friday night. About 24 hours away…Ordinarily, I would be working through the second half of the problem set as we speak, finalizing my discussion forum response, and feeling pretty good about it all. I would soon be one-click away from assignment submission and a feeling of achievement, followed by relief, followed by motivation for next week’s assignment. Ordinarily…but not today.

Today, my son has decided that ‘bedtime’ is an arbitrary concept. Usually sound asleep at 8:30 pm, today he is running around like a crazy little man pushing 9:15 pm. Ordinarily this would be fine, but today it is posing a challenge. On many days, the two-hour sweet spot between 8.30 pm (after my son’s bedtime) and 10:30 pm (nearing my bedtime) is often the key time for me to focus on my coursework. It is my ‘sweet spot’. If I miss my sweet spot today, I’ll be in a real crunch tomorrow. And all indications at present are that it is going to be missed. Time slowly ticks away, and my son isn’t giving any opportunity for ‘Papa’ to sneak away to get started. If only my financial accounting textbook grabbed me around the leg as hard as he does, perhaps things would be different…

But then, out of nowhere, while feeding some imaginary chocolate to a row of stoic stuffed animals, my son points upstairs. It hits me; his eyes are growing tired, his resistance is waning. I seize the moment and, at the top of the stairs, hand him off to Mommy. She then rushes him away into the darkness and towards a good night’s sleep…Finally, I am able to delve into my textbook. My son can never wrap his head around why daddy needs to spend time reading a boring book while he wants to play. In his eyes it’s not even a good book…no thick pages, no pictures, no sounds or moving parts. Yikes! That does not sound fun…But with him fast asleep, I now turn to the book with a mix of eagerness and earnestness.

The Importance of Time Management

This story brings me to managing classroom responsibilities. Online courses are a wonderful opportunity to learn on your own terms, around your own schedule. For people like me they can’t be beat. But before you take one, you must know what you are getting into. A flexible schedule still means a real schedule, and you need to be prepared to make sacrifices to learn and be successful. You have to put in the time and effort as if it were an in-person, live course. In another post, I noted my surprise that the quality and breadth of my Financial Accounting course was the same as one that my brother took in pursuit of his MBA. That meant that in order to get the same out of the course as he did of his, I had to put in roughly the same amount of time.

Never think that just because a course is online, its ‘easy’. On the contrary, the great benefit is that such courses can be difficult – which is a good thing. You need to put in the time to make of it what you want. If the course were easy, there would be no reason to take it.

Learning Financial Accounting As a Busy Father, Husband and Professional

The Desire: Learn Financial Accounting

Feel free to use this image just link to www.rentvine.comFinancial accounting is very exciting to me from a personal interest standpoint. I enjoy learning about how companies organize and present their financial information and how this information is interpreted and used by third-parties in their decision-making processes. I also find it useful to know in order to assess potential investments, although I am admittedly an extreme novice in this area. Before taking my current course, I had been reading about financial accounting on my own for some time and had many, many gaps in my knowledge. It had become clear to me that if I wanted to really become competent, I needed to find a high-quality, comprehensive financial accounting course – one that I could fit around the demands of my personal and professional lives…lives that seemed to be getting busier and busier every month.

The Challenge: Finding Time

Professional Demands Responsibilities: Like most people, my biggest time demand is my professional life. I work in global public health, which is full of people who feel a deep link to their work and its impact. This leads them to push themselves to do their very best, sacrificing, among many things, time. I am fortunate to work at an organization imbibed with this culture, a culture that I identify with myself. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to work on Ebola-related activities, which only sharpened this feeling among our staff. I think that we all feel the importance of our work and give our all to have the most significant positive impact we can, every single day. For many of us, that was the main reason we became global public health practitioners.

Family Life: The other big responsibility in my life is towards my family. For me, this includes my wife (and a continued adjustment to life in the USA from her home country of Nicaragua), a very active toddler (who loves to wrestle with daddy), and frequent family visits to my mother. There is always an endless to-do list; current items include mowing, dishes, parent-toddler gymnastics class, a teaching certification, laundry, oil change, etc. Throw in infinite toddler playtime and things get overwhelming.

All of these responsibilities really push me to my limit simply in terms of the time available in a given day. None the less, I knew that I wanted to learn financial accounting, and I am of the attitude that if you don’t make something happen, it won’t happen. So I had to make it happen…but I needed a course that could work with me and for me, and not overwhelm me or my family.

The Solution: Financial Accounting at the UNC Friday Center

My brother is an MBA graduate with extensive financial accounting knowledge. I came across the financial accounting course offered by the UNC Friday Center and very quickly sent the course syllabus to my brother for his brief review. To my surprise, he found the course content to be of the same high-quality as his MBA financial accounting course, with which it shares the same textbook. Although I was very happy to have found a course that actually exceeded the quality standards I was looking for, then came the moment of truth: Could the course meet the needs of being manageable beyond my daily responsibilities as a professional, husband, and father? The answer was a resounding yes! It could and does. I am able to complete readings, assignments, and quizzes on a flexible schedule, around all of my other life responsibilities. It truly has been the perfect solution to meet my desire to learn financial accounting, while overcoming the challenges that professional and family life present. I am convinced that I truly could not have found a better course!


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Tips for Success in Your Online Class

The fall semester is winding down. This term I’ve learned a lot from my online class both in content and about being a better student.

Here are some tips that I’ve gathered over the semester in managing an online class:

success sign1. Communicate with Your Professor

Just because you don’t meet with your professor face-to-face, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the opportunity to get in contact with them. My online professor served as a valuable resource during the semester. Professors are helpful in answering questions about course material and can help guide you in the right direction for studying and mastering course content. For instance, my professor for POLI 101 offered to give feedback on our term paper outlines and was able to give me feedback on my paper after I turned it in.

2. Print a Copy of the Syllabus 

In some respects, online classes require a bit more responsibility and vigilance to make sure your work is meeting expectations. Your online instructor may not be able to remind you of expectations as easily as a traditional classroom lecturer can. It’s good to keep a reference copy of the syllabus nearby so you’ll know policies on items like discussion board postings and readings. Again, if you have any questions about the syllabus, it’s always a good idea to send your professor an email.

3. Write Down Important Dates

Many online classes incorporate discussion board postings to reinforce course material. It’s important not to miss the due dates for this simply due to negligence. An online planner or paper agenda can become your best friend because it will keep a comprehensive look of when things are due in the semester. This past term, I used a calendar from the UNC Learning Center that displayed a 3-month view of the semester in order to keep organized. Writing down dates will help you manage your time more effectively.

4. Don’t Leave Things to the Last Minute 

If an assignment is due at midnight, I wouldn’t recommend that you start at 11:30 pm. It’s easy to underestimate how long an assignment will take, and you never know if you might have an unexpected problem with technology. Putting off assignments also makes it easier to forget to do them entirely. My best suggestion is to start early and perhaps even work a little bit ahead. That way, if other classes get busy or your non-academic life becomes hectic you still have a little bit of room to breathe.

5. Don’t Get Distracted 

It’s tempting to do online course work lying in bed or in front of the television. However, if you do this, I can attest that you are more likely to fall asleep or get distracted than take note of the material. It’s best to find a place where you can sit and concentrate. Find a quiet work environment that will allow you to focus better and learn more. I really like studying in a library, but a positive work environment for you might be anywhere from a desk in your house to a quiet coffee shop. Pick a space with minimal distractions that is most conducive to learning.


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The Golden Rule of Forum Posting

computersMost online courses require interaction between classmates over a forum. In my POLI 101 course, we post on the Sakai forum up to three times a week. While some of the posts follow a simple question and answer format, they mainly consist of responses to other classmates’ posts.

There are a ton of benefits to forum posting. For starters, you have to think much more critically about your arguments, since you know twenty-five classmates are going to be scanning your words, trying to find something to critique. You can also digest the course content much easier this way; your classmates will point out things you would have never thought of on your own.

At the same time, forum posting can be dangerous. Like anything that’s online, we can be tempted to write things that we would never say in real life. We see this all the time on Facebook and Twitter. People take on an online alter ego that’s much more bold, aggressive, and distasteful than their actual selves.

If you don’t believe me, look at the “comments” section of any popular blog and you’ll find some of the most horrid and degrading words that humans can produce.

You would think that in an academic setting, this kind of talk gets weeded out. And indeed, forum posts are much less unpleasant than Twitter posts or a blog’s “comments” section.

Even still, online alter egos make some frequent appearances on forum posts. When you know that you’ll probably never see your online classmates, it’s tempting to be a little bolder, a little more aggressive, and a little less tasteful.

To avoid this, you just have to follow one, simple rule. If you follow this rule, you can avoid being that student whose posts sound more like a high-school kid’s Facebook rant than an educated thought. Here’s the rule:

“Post unto others as you would say unto their face.”

In other words, don’t post anything in your online course that you wouldn’t say to someone in a physical classroom setting. Following this rule will keep the words that inform your classmates and remove the words that are likely to cause harm.

So before you click “submit” on that next post, ask yourself if you would say it out loud in a class of twenty-five people. If the answer is no, don’t post it.

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5 Steps to Online Course Time Management

time-371226_640The last 30 seconds of class are crucial. Students start clicking their pens, closing their laptops and zipping up their bags. As the clock is about to strike the minute, everyone listens to the professor give the most important information of the day: homework.

In an online course, these convenient homework reminders don’t exist. It’s just you and the syllabus.

As I started my online course, I realized how much I was missing these reminders. Without the professor’s warning of upcoming assignments, it would slip past my mind, and I was forced to do assignments last minute.

I quickly realized I couldn’t approach my online course like my regular courses. If I didn’t develop a time-management system, I would fall into procrastination and play catch-up throughout the semester.

The first few weeks of your online course don’t have to be this way. In five steps, you can manage time in your online course.

1. Put all of the critical dates into your calendar.

This includes your exams, projects and essays. As soon as you receive your syllabus, put all of the exam dates, and project and essay due dates into a calendar. This way, none of these will come as a surprise.

If you work better with a physical calendar, that’s fine. But I recommend using an electronic calendar that can send reminders to your smart phone. If you’re a Windows user, I recommend Google Calendar. If you’re a Mac user, the Calendar app, which syncs well with the iPhone and iPad, will probably work best.

timemanagementblog22. Put all homework tasks on to a weekly to-do list.

Most often, it’s not the major tasks, but the little assignments that sneak up on you. To avoid this, every weekend, look at your syllabus and put the week’s homework on a to-do list with its due date.

Again, if a classic sheet of paper works best for you, that’s good. But as with the calendar, I would recommend you use an electronic to-do list that can send you reminders.

Though there are high-priced task apps you could use, I’m assuming you’re a college student with a tight budget. In that case, the Wunderlist app could be right for you. It’s free. It’s easy to use. It works. And that’s all you need.

timemanagementblog33. Decide how much time each task will take.

Most people stop at the to-do list. They tell themselves what they need to do, but they don’t decide when they’re going to do it. When that happens, homework gets pushed aside for going to the basketball game, playing video games and checking Facebook.

Avoid this by deciding how long each task will take. Parkinson’s Law says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, a task will generally take however long you give yourself to do it. If you don’t define how long a task will take, a simple 45-minute assignment can take hours.

Next to each task on your to-do list, write approximately how long each task will take. A good rule is to add 10 minutes to however long you think it’ll take. It’s much better to get ahead in your schedule than to have to catch up.

timemanagementblog44. Schedule each task into your weekly calendar.

After you’ve decided how long each task will take, decide when you’re going to do each task. You can block off the exact time you need in your calendar.

This all may sound like over-planning, but when you take these steps, you don’t have to give homework more time than it deserves. This will free you up to do other things you enjoy.

5. Get to work!

There’s no way around it. This system is no good if you don’t do what you planned to do. When the time comes to do your task, stop what you’re doing and get it done!

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