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What You Need to Know About the Online Learning Experience

Author: Sandra Roddenbury, Online MS in Communications Student

While I can certainly describe typical experiences in an online learning environment, there is actually nothing typical about it. Online learning opens a powerful world of promise and unlimited opportunities for those who commit themselves to it. Those who have never taken an online class may feel it is complex or unfamiliar. Those who have experienced online learning know of its possibilities and benefits. Though the environment is different from an actual classroom, the results are the same – knowledge, opportunity, growth, and, when the experience is complete, a degree.

So what does the online learning experience look like and how does it differ from the campus experience?

Difference Between On Campus and Online Learning Your First Week
When each semester starts, students in a classroom:

-    Make observations
-    Assess the professor and students
-    Learn the goals and objectives for the course
-    And soon settle in to the rhythm of university education.

Online students experience something similar but unique. During the first week of class, online students introduce themselves by sharing about their lives and even posting pictures. In this sense, online students actually learn about all of their classmates compared to students in a “typical” classroom. Once students become familiar with their fellow students, they look ahead to see what the course is all about.

How Do I Know What Expectations Are in My Online Course?
Each week of the course has the fundamentals clearly outlined: reading material, assignments, and a discussion topic.

Students also create a final assignment, which may include a presentation. Knowing these expectations for the class as it begins allows students to plan their learning around their lives. Many online students work full-time and may even have families, so having a roadmap of what’s ahead is invaluable in helping to stay on target.

Quick Tips: Read all the instructions for every assignment at the beginning of the course to fully understand what is ahead. Make a plan, and keep due dates in mind.

What is a Discussion Board?
Discussions with fellow classmates are a large part of online learning. After reading the journal articles and textbook chapters assigned each week, students can then thoughtfully respond to the discussion topic, posting their responses early in the week. Participating in a lively discussion online, while different from a classroom setting, provides students the opportunity to see inside the world of their classmates. Each student shares their unique perspectives on a wide range of topics to which their classmates respond. Some of these discussion threads get quite lively as some students may agree or disagree with what was stated. Others may ask questions of their fellow students, leading to a question and answer string of posts and comments.

Quick Tips: Read the assigned material carefully. Formulate your thoughts about the discussion prompt. Find quotes to use in your post. Compare and contrast ideas. Offer opposing viewpoints. Provide substantive responses to other students.

What are Online Course Assignments Like?
The assignments throughout the course allow students to delve deeper into research, challenging them to investigate and explore ideas, perspectives and solid facts. The final assignment provides students with an opportunity to share what they’ve learned about the topic they chose. For some courses, students showcase their findings through presentations shared with their classmates. Each of these assignments build on what has been learned in the course.

Quick Tips: Gather your research first: using journal articles, books, your textbook, etc. Put your findings into one place. For papers, create your reference list as you add the material (you won’t regret it!)  Look closely at the rubric and the assignment to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

A typical week of an online course has what is expected, material to read, discussions with classmates, and assignments, papers and presentations, but online learning is anything but typical – it is exceptional!

Learn More
Sandra Roddenbury is a student in Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.

About the Author
I have bachelor’s degrees in English and in nursing and am enrolled in the Master of Science in Communication program at Purdue University.

I am a registered nurse, but I’ve also taught English in public school and online. I now work as the Patient Communication Consultant at Lakeland Regional Health in Lakeland, Florida. My career passion is to find a way to enhance patient communication so that it results in better outcomes for patients and improves the healthcare organization of which I’m a part.

*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.