Online College and Time Management

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The whole idea behind online college is that it’s supposed to be more convenient, more flexible, more amenable to your schedule. Your time is valuable (or at least it’s worth slightly more than nothing). Your online education is meant to make the most of that time. So you can just kick back, forget your troubles, and let the magic web box do the work for you, right?

Those of you nodding in agreement, knock it off… and get your feet off of the desk. Sit up straight and get your head in the game.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so stern. It’s just that it’s a lot easier to screw up online college than maybe you realize. We don’t want that to happen.

The thing is, completion rates for online college generally do trend lower than on-campus rates. Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for WCET, an organization that advocates for effective technology use in higher education, conducted a survey of two hundred North American school officials in 2013 and found that on-campus completion rates generally outpaced online rates by three to five percent.

And you might be surprised by the reason. Or maybe not. Maybe you already know what I’m going to say. I don’t want to patronize you.

These trends have less to do with the quality of online colleges than the type of student that is drawn to online education. Increasingly, online education has opened new avenues of opportunity to non-traditional college students. While the vast majority of on-campus first-year students are fresh out of high school, online students come from far more varied demographics, especially when it comes to age.

Among the fastest growing populations in the online sector are learners in their thirties and forties, parents returning to school after time off, and working adults trying to juggle professional responsibilities with continuing education. So what does that mean? It means many of today’s online students have a lot more to worry about than just studying for tests and finding somebody to sit with at the dining hall.

While online college is pretty much the perfect solution for balancing all of that stuff, it also means that you are uniquely vulnerable to distraction, diversion, and even derailment. The pressures of work, life, parenting and whatever else you’ve got going can take center stage, thrusting your online education to the periphery. That’s how a lot of online students fall short of completion. It’s also how a lot of online students walk away with a less enriching educational experience.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Time management is a big part of succeeding in your online education. It’s not a magic potion that will suddenly make your hectic life easy. But it may at least make it manageable. Start with these tips, turn them into habits, and create a routine that makes time and space for every part of your life:

1. Binge-Read Your Syllabi

Step one is plotting the course ahead. When you get your syllabi, actually read them. Highlight the exams, the big assignments, and any critical deadlines looming on the horizon. Create a schedule with time blocked out both for your exams and for the studying that you’ll have to do in advance. Block out time to work on written assignments or group projects, and make a school-work schedule that meshes with your work-work schedule. This gives you the chance to spot any time conflicts far enough in advance to make arrangements, whether that means trading shifts with somebody at work or booking a babysitter. The day you get your syllabi, start marking up your calendar.

2. Get a Calendar and Write All over It

So yeah, based on the information above, you should obviously get a calendar. This one is largely up to personal preference. If you prefer a digital or online calendar, then use that. I like the calendar feature on Google Reminders, but that’s just me. If you’re really into the tactile experience of writing things down, then get a wall calendar, or my personal favorite, a desk blotter. Naturally, you’ll need a desk first. But the blotter is a giant monthly calendar that covers the full surface of your desk, which means you can write reminders large enough that you won’t be able to miss them. They’ll be staring you in the face every single day when you sit down to work. However you prefer to do it, make it a habit to write everything down in your calendar from work shifts to exams to next season’s Game of Throne’s premier.

3. Play Well with Others

One of the benefits of going to college online is that you don’t have to talk to anybody if you don’t want to. But you probably should anyway. Try to acquaint yourself with a few of your classmates, particularly those who might live nearby. Make a friend or two, compare notes, discuss class materials, study together, or just grab a coffee and complain about your professor. In addition to strengthening your grasp on the material by dialoguing with somebody else, this kind of engagement can help you escape the isolation that sometimes comes with online education. For many learners, this experience can really help to make online education a priority.

4. Room without a View

That said, there is no substitute for beautiful solitude. One of the biggest challenges online students face is the constant threat of interruption. You have the freedom to go to class on “your time.” But of course, “your time” also belongs to your employers, to your kids, to that one really needy friend who calls seven times a day for emotional support, and to the cable guy who said he was going to be there to fix the cable between 10:15 and 3:40 — which is simultaneously a really vague and weirdly specific window of time. Everybody wants a piece of you, and all you want to do is learn. Find a quiet place to do it, somewhere the chaos in your life can’t find you, or at least somewhere where it knows to knock before entering.

5. Go Mobile

You should also have the freedom to escape to that quiet place wherever in the world it might be. In other words, get a laptop. A desktop computer is great if you’re working in an air-traffic control tower. I mean, that’s really the only place you can be to do that job. But if you’re an online student, part of effective time management is giving yourself the ability to work and learn anywhere and at any time. Obviously cramming for a test during your lunchbreak at work isn’t fun, but if that’s all the time you have, make the most of it. It’s also a good idea to own a smartphone that can function as a wireless hotspot. You can get Wi-Fi in a lot of places but not everywhere. If you happen to be traveling while working, and you must submit a completed assignment to an online portal from the parking lot of a roadside Waffle House while the last seconds tick away on your deadline, that cellphone hotspot could get you out of a bind. Beware only to use this in emergencies, and briefly at that. It will absolutely devour your data plan.

6. Don’t Be Listless

Having a calendar is great for planning ahead. But you’ve also got stuff to do every single day. Big stuff and little stuff. You might have a block of time set aside for studying, a two-hour lecture, and a shift of work staring you down on your calendar. But when you wake up that day, there’s all kinds of other stuff you have to remember. You have to pick up clothing from the dry-cleaner. You’ll probably have to swing by Target for a few items. The cat’s been making a weird sound and you keep meaning to call the vet for an appointment. And while you’re at it, you also must remember to call the cable company and complain about how it’s 4:45 and somehow, amazingly, the cable guy still isn’t there! Making daily “to-do” lists may sound old-fashioned (although again, Google Reminders is a pretty new-fashioned tool that works great for daily listing). Anyway, waking up each day and plotting everything you must do is one of the best ways to stay on task, to prevent smaller responsibilities from falling through the cracks, and to keep the many strands of your life organized in your head. Besides, if you’re like me, you’ll get a small shot of endorphins every time you check something off your list.

7. Pace Yourself… But Make It a Good Pace

When I say to pace yourself, I don’t mean to take it slow. I mean the exact opposite. It’s up to you to set the pace, create workflow strategies, and use that to-do list of yours to designate an amount of time for each of your day’s activities. Don’t get entangled in one task. Move swiftly between household chores, work responsibilities, and course assignments. Finish today’s reading assignment, stand up, get a good stretch in, then move on to the next thing on your list. No time for shocking celebrity pics or cat videos today. Keep the ball rolling at all times.

8. Always Be Saving

Ever spend fifteen minutes filling out a complex online form only to have the browser time out, forcing you to reset and lose every meticulously crafted word and thought? I don’t know you personally, but I’m just guessing that you flew into a blind rage and called your computer names that you usually reserve for inconsiderate motorists. Time is tight and you can’t afford to spend it doing things twice. Whatever you’re working on, save it constantly. If you have to fill out a complex and lengthy online form, do it in your preferred word processing program first, then copy and paste your responses. And again, save it constantly as you go along. You should also get an external hard drive, hook it up to your computer, and save it there too. Now you’ve got a back up copy of everything.

9. Sending Out an SOS

Now, the reality is, you can do all of this stuff, and be really smart, and work really hard, and your life still might feel like a giant swirling maelstrom of constant obligation. Even if you take all of these steps, and plan perfectly, and establish a precarious balance that somehow manages to make room for every thing you have to do, the uncertainties of life always come crashing in. Unforeseen financial pressure, car trouble, health challenges, or natural disasters could throw your rightly earned balance into total freefall. I don’t mean to be a bummer. There is a bright side to this.

Even though you learn through a computer, there’s a human and/or humans on the other side of that computer. Spend time getting to know your professors, find out what kind of academic counselor options exist through your online college, and maybe even get to know an academic dean in your area of study. Lay the groundwork for a personal relationship by introducing yourself at the beginning of the semester, and perhaps even making them aware of any challenges unique to your situation. The day that your life places unforeseen demands on your time, that personal relationship could be the pathway to the flexibility and accommodation you need to weather hardship without bailing on school. Just know that if you feel like you’re in over your head, you may have better options than just drowning out there.

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