online-learningAlthough online learning is mainstream, there are some critics who wonder if students are able to engage with classmates and professors at the same level as those who attend brick-and-mortar classes. Thanks to innovations and technologies, today’s online educators are able to bring their students together in discussions, offer real-time lectures, and share contributions and insights in a number of ways.

This is especially true for smaller online institutions like MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas or Trinity College in Connecticut, at which students form close-knit relationships despite not meeting in the same location.

Here are some of the unique ways online classes stay in touch…

video-conference-educationVideo conferencing – While much of online learning is done asynchronously (in which students log in to learn on their own), many have a synchronous component in which everyone learns together in real time. One way this happens is thanks to video conferencing in which people in different locations are able to communicate. Many companies offer discounts to students and educators in order for them to use the service without going broke. Often, companies like InterCall or GoToMeeting also offer free training guides to their software.

Streaming video – Many professors create video content that their online students can view on their own time; some even create a class YouTube channel for these videos. While watching a video clip is not exactly the same as sitting in a lecture hall, at least online students have the advantage of being able to replay important segments to help with their studies.

Skype, Google Hangout, iChat – These are just three examples of technologies that allow for groups of people to hold a virtual conversation via their webcams. Some institutions utilize Blackboard and other education software to manage the course discussions as well. More and more online educators are incorporating such tools into their courses, even bringing in guest speakers from across the globe to enhance graduate-level study. Because such tools are user-friendly, they help students stay connected whether or not they have a strong technical background. The best part is graduate students can join these virtual get-togethers from anywhere, whether at home or at the office (as long as it’s OK with the boss, of course).

Social media – Class twitter chats and Facebook pages/groups are perfect ways for students to stay in touch, study together, and continue class discussions beyond designated course times. Students can follow a topic using a designated hashtag, or poll classmates about their thoughts on the coursework.

online-studentClass message board/forum – Most online courses have a class website in which professors and/or students can contribute to discussion threads. Students can post or respond to different topics any time of the day, ask questions, and delve deeper into the curriculum, and how it relates to real world applications. Oftentimes, students are graded on their contributions to class message boards and other communications.

Webinars and conference calls – These technologies offer a modern take on an “old school” class set up that featured a professor lecturing while showing slides on an overhead projector (remember those?). With a webinar that uses audio and/or video, a professor can talk over a visual presentation, and watchers/listeners can chime in with questions and comments.

Of course, not all correspondence that takes place in an online class is intended for everyone to see. For times in which a professor wishes to have a private discussion with a student, email, a phone call, and/or a Face Time chat (if applicable) are probably the best options. Professors of online courses, just like their campus-based counterparts, most likely have designated “office hours” in which they are available to take calls or connect in some way.

Online learning has come a long way over the past decade, especially as video conferencing and online communications and social media tools have improved. Gone are the days of online students feeling disconnected from their classmates and professors. If anything, educators and their students are better connected than ever before.

About the author: Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, NY-based writer specializing in education, careers, parenting, and personal finance. Her work has appeared in publications including Family Circle, Parents, WomansDay.com, CreditCards.com, and more. She has a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from New York University. Connect with her on Twitter and Google+.

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College student studying in ParkThe moment you’ve been waiting for the last few years has finally come; you’ve graduated high school and you’re on your way to becoming a college student. Going away to school may seem like just a change of scenery, but living and studying at a university is a very different lifestyle than what you experience when you were living under your parents’ roof. In order to get the most out of the next four years, there are a few things you have to leave in the past, and a few new skills you’ll have to pick up on the way.

Disorganized Room, Notes, and Habits

With the new classes, environment, and new social life, there can be a massive amount of things to juggle. The first place to start organizing your life is the place you spend the most amount of time in: your dorm. Keeping a clean and organized area will not only keep your roommate off your back, but it will help keep your mind focused on the task at hand. Start by sorting all of your belongings, school supplies, and upcoming projects/tests with bins, planners, and wall calendars from shops that specialize in dorm stuff like OCM.

When it comes to taking notes in class, use separate notebooks for each class. If you don’t feel like hauling five or six different notebooks, use tabbed notebooks for your Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes and another for your Tuesday-Thursday classes.

Yes, these tasks may seem mundane but, in the long run, they’ll save you a world of grief. No scrambling to find your long-lost notes from Chemistry or scaring away your crush with piles of messes!

Shyness and Not Asking For Help

While high school teachers send home progress reports and keep a close eye on their students, professors do not have the time to constantly checkup on students. That being said, it’ll be your responsibility to speak up if you don’t understand an idea during a lecture or schedule office time to speak to an instructor. At the very least, the professor will give you information about tutors or review sessions.

You shouldn’t only rely on a professor or tutors to help you succeed, as joining study groups is an excellent way to stay on top of school and make new friends. Since college is about experiencing new things and finding yourself, you’ll have to put yourself out of your comfort zone to get the full experience.

Procrastination, Empty Days, and Cramming for Tests

As a high school student, you probably had massive amounts of downtime. Schooldays were filled with hours of busywork and daydreaming. Since the amount of hours you’ll physically be attending your college courseswon’t be nearly as long, it may seem like you have even more free time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Projects will be more time consuming and your work will be held at a higher standard, so cutting corners is not an option.

If you were the type of student who could get good grades without studying, don’t even try that at your university. Just going to class and casually taking notes won’t be enough. With the new ideas and topics you’ll be learning, along with lecture styled classes, cramming for tests won’t work as well as it did in high school.

In order to fight off procrastination and keep your grades up, create a weekly schedule with homework, reading assignments, and study time. Not only will this help you academically, you’ll be able to create blocks of time solely dedicated to relaxing and meeting new friends. One program that helped me keep track of my time was Toggl.

Only Befriending your Immediate Clique

Most likely, your high school was much smaller than the college you’ll be attending; it might not be farfetched to assume that you picked your friends on the first day and stuck steadfast by their side until graduation. While this is very sweet and there is nothing wrong with loyalty, abandon this strategy when you come to college. There will be thousands of new individuals to interact with and, if you only become buddies with the people on your floor, you’re selling yourself short. Always be open to getting to know others, even if they seem somewhat different than you. Now is the time for self-discovery and exploring the interests of others might open up your perspectives.

College is one the most exciting time in a young person’s life, but with so much freedom comes a great deal of responsibility. In order to get the best experience possible, make sure you leave a few high school tendencies in the past as you go from high school senior to college freshman.

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