On the surface, online graduate school might seem to be just like any other type of learning. After all, online courses still just courses, right?
Well, not exactly.
Although it may come as a surprise to some, online classes bear little resemblance to their campus counterparts. If you have a question, you can’t simply raise your hand and stop the process in order to gain further insight on a topic. And if you need help with your notes, you won’t be able to turn to a nearby classmate and ask for assistance. No, online learning is structured much differently, and is far more nuanced than I thought it would be when I first began my journey at Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication.
In order to best assimilate to an asynchronous educational setting, students really must prepare for the notable differences from traditional learning. For instance, all communication with professors and classmates is done in writing, and though that might not seem particularly daunting at first blush, I am frequently reminded just how painstaking quality online communication can be. In fact, it can take considerable practice learning to effectively articulate subtlety, humor, and empathy in the written word, whereas we can achieve those behaviors in person with something as simple as a wink or a laugh or a pat on the back. Written communication with students and faculty can be far more labor intensive than one might think!
Also, online learning is totally self-directed, without the classroom momentum created by students exchanging ideas and anecdotes, and professors elucidating and elaborating on the subject matter at hand. In an online setting, especially an asynchronous one, inner thoughts and the sound of fingers on a keyboard are one’s primary companions. As such, students must be able to maintain a level of a motivation above and beyond a classroom environment, a consistent discipline to control the distractions that often surround us in our homes, including the television, telephone, pets, and family members who feel like chatting when the mood strikes them.
Overall, online learning can be a solitary and systematic journey, in which questions asked to instructors are not answered in real time, classmates are not physically present to tutor us when we “forget” to do part of our reading, and the submission process of critical assignments is subject to the vagaries of power outages, software updates, and digital force majeure. In many ways, effective online learning is the result of dedication, patience, and self-direction, which rewards students with the flexibility and affordability that has become increasingly rare in traditional education settings.
Scott Camp 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.
*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.