How to Get Used to Online College

TBS Staff Writers
Updated September 14, 2023
Adjusting to online college can take time. This means that just a shade under six million of you are taking some or all of your classes online.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

So you’re new to online education, you’ve been raising your hand for thirty minutes, and nobody has called on you? This is probably a good time to explain a few of the ways online college differs from the brick and mortar classroom you’re used to.

For one thing, nobody can see you — unless you’ve got your web cam on. If you’re not sure whether you’re webcam is on or not, I guess that’s the first thing we should discuss. But we’ll get to that.

First, let’s acknowledge that online education is among the fastest growing sectors of higher education. According to a Babson Study, as of 2015, twenty-eight percent of college students were enrolled in at least one online course. This means that just a shade under six million of you are taking some or all of your classes online. This represented a 3.9% increase just between 2014 and 2015.

So what does that tell us?

That a lot of you are probably experiencing online education for the first time. If so, some things will take getting used to. This isn’t the old classroom with the chalkboard, or the motivational posters, or the pale green walls meant to enhance your calm, or that one kid who drives you to distraction by compulsively clearing his throat so loudly and so frequently that you want to pelt him with lozenges.

This is a classroom you can take anywhere, that can transport you a thousand miles away, bridging the geographical divide between you, your classmates, and your professor. And of course all of that sounds magical and inspired and mystifying, like living in the not-too-distant future. But it doesn’t come naturally to everybody. You’ll need to make a few adjustments before you can thrive in this new setting.

Fortunately, you’ve got us. We’re experts on distance learning, online college, and pretty much any kind of educational experience that doesn’t actually require you to leave your house. So on that authority, we offer you a few tips to help ease your transition into the virtual classroom.

If you already know what you’re doing, you can just go ahead and check out our comprehensive ranking of the best online colleges.


1. Learn How to Use Your Equipment

So back to that camera thing. Most computers come with built-in webcams these days. If the green light is on, it means everybody can see you. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the implications of this to you. Stated simply, don’t bring the laptop into the bathroom with you unless you’re sure that light is off. Beyond that, prepare to become tech-savvier. Learn how to use your computer efficiently because it is the primary medium through which you will now be learning. Familiarize yourself with any chat boards, library portals, file sharing programs, or video-conferencing software required for your courses. If your computer, peripherals, or internet connection are not up to speed, it could cause problems. Freezing video screens, a sketchy internet connection, or time spent downloading updates can get in the way of your learning experience. Make sure everything is working, up to date, and that you know how to use it all.

2. Be Your Own Boss

Even in a giant lecture hall, the watchful eye of the professor gives you the sense that somebody is looking over your shoulder. They probably aren’t, but that perception can be a great form of motivation. Well, if you’re learning from home, and the only one watching is your cat, it can be easy to lower your intensity. That would be a mistake. A big part of online education is managing your own time effectively. Just like traditional school, you still need to put time aside every day to study. You still need to complete all of your readings and assignments prior to class time. If you have live lectures, group meetings, or text-based chats, you still need to attend them. On the one hand, it’s easier to get to class because it’s right there in your living room. On the other, it’s also easier just to skip because, well, you’re in your living room. Nobody’s going to crack the whip, so you’d better be prepared to hold yourself accountable.

3. Learn to Talk Good

Did you ever send somebody a text that was supposed to be funny, only to realize as soon as it left your fingertips that it probably came off as mean and jerky? It happens. We live in a world where communication is increasingly mediated by mobile device. We’re all completely dependent on the written word to exchange information, ideas and romantic overtures with one another. But we’re not necessarily excelling in our use of the written word. (U no exactly wut i mean:-)’ Well, as an online student, your ability to both communicate using the written medium, and to receive information the same way, will be a big part of your success. And I’m not even talking about essays or research writing. It’s more basic than that. Most of your interactions with your instructors and classmates will require you to write emails, feedback, and chat board messages in complete, coherent, and informative sentences. Being misunderstood is tantamount to being left behind. Oh and also, your professor is not your buddy, even if he or she is really cool. So when you send your professor a message, no abbreviations, no emojis, and no LOLz. Compose an email as if you’re speaking to a future employer, each and every time.

4. Develop a Routine

There’s no longer a bell to tell you’re running late, nor a stern disciplinarian taking attendance. It’s assumed you’re in the class because you want to be there. Make it your business to back up that assumption with action. To do that, treat online college the way you’d treat a traditional education. Wake up the same time every day, engage in your usual routine (which we hope generally involves brushing your teeth, having a well-balanced breakfast, and maybe even some light stretching). Plan the rest of your day around your class time, study time and, if you have a job, work time. Prepare any materials you’ll need for class ahead of time and put a few hours aside every day to complete readings and assignments. Not only will this help you formalize your online educational experience, but it’s a good way to prevent the responsibilities of work, life, and school from piling up at once.

5. Get to Know Your Professors

If you only engage your online education by showing up to giant virtual lectures and sitting for exams, you simply aren’t taking advantage of the access you have to your professor. Not only that, but your professor probably has no idea who you are, which won’t help when you come looking for a letter of recommendation. Send a personal email to each of your professors at the start of a semester. Introduce yourself and let them know how excited you are to be taking their class. Don’t have to lay it on too thick. Just be cool, y’know? The important thing is to open lines of communication and keep them open. Don’t be afraid to correspond outside of class time to ask questions, seek clarifications, or even just express a greater interest in subject matter that really speaks to you. You never know when you might be initiating correspondence with a future mentor, somebody who can truly deepen your knowledge and appreciation of a subject. Correspond only through the proper channels, of course. Your online engineering professor won’t be impressed if you show at her front door on a dark and stormy night with a fruit basket and a profound inquiry about quantum mechanics. She’ll just call the police. But a respectfully enthusiastic email now and then could foster a valuable relationship.

6. Create a Positive Working Environment

So, remember that guy from high school with the throat-clearing problem? Would you believe he goes to the same coffee shop as you? And he’s still in desperate need of a lozenge. Not only that, but the new barista is having a really hard time working the cappuccino machine, they’re playing some weird, atonal, experimental, industrial noise jazz over the stereo, and some dude three tables over thinks everybody should hear the details of what should be a very private cell-phone conversation with a doctor. So this is where you decided to set up shop for a text-based live chat with your professor and classmates? How’s that working out for you? Even if the idea of working in a bustling coffee shop seems awesome in a Kerouac-meets-Friends sort of way, it may not be the best working environment. Then again, maybe it is. Everybody works and thrives differently. The point is, you need to define a space that both stimulates and motivates without pulling attention away from your studies. As part of establishing a routine, create a space that makes you feel studious, energetic, and focused. When it comes to online education, just because you can do it anywhere, doesn’t mean you should.

7. Avoid Distractions and Time-Burglars

Are you the kind who glances out the window, catches a glimpse of a big car with tinted windows, and thirty minutes later, emerges from a complex and elaborate daydream involving a diamond heist, a crooked cop, an investigation from internal affairs, and your own heroic turn in foiling said heist — only to realize that you’ve basically slept through a calculus lecture with your eyes open and a massive puddle of drool gathering on the notebook beneath you? Because, if you are that kind of person, online college will present a pretty serious challenge. Surrounded by the comforts of your own home — a well-stocked refrigerator, a television, a dog that loves belly-scratches, and a house-adjacent Dairy Queen — it’s easy to treat your online education like background noise. While I wouldn’t recommend working in an isolation chamber, there’s probably a happy medium between that and the room where you keep your Playstation. It’s also best if you make sure that your family, friends and pets know, if the class is a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’.

8. Don’t Expect It to Be Easier

If online college was your plan for an easy way through college, you should come up with a different plan. First of all, if you’re taking your online classes through a reputable and accredited college or university — and we can’t recommend this enough — your experience should be just as rigorous and challenging as the brick-and-mortar experience. In fact, the challenges of time-management and self-motivation noted above can make online college even more difficult for many students. This is true even if the curricula are identical. That shouldn’t be a problem if you consider yourself up for the challenge. On the other hand, if you thought online education would somehow be academically easier and thus a more attractive option, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Gear up for a challenge and prepare to work hard like you would in any class.

9. Know the Rules of Plagiarism

Now that you’re working almost exclusively through the internet, you must know the rules of order when it comes to cheating, plagiarism, and academic integrity. Admittedly, the lines are a little blurrier these days, with authorship of online content becoming increasingly diffuse and hazy. Social media only further complicates the question of that which can be considered original content and that which must be cited. And of course, the cottage industries of paper millage and academic ghostwriting have increasingly normalized contract cheating. In other words, it’s everywhere, especially online. So here’s a simple rule of thumb for approaching a complicated matter. If you came up with it and wrote it, it’s yours. If you copied, borrowed, quoted, or even paraphrased the information or idea from somewhere else, it belongs to somebody else. Credit that person, persons, publication, or website accordingly. Of course, your new online school will have its own policies, procedures, and guidelines concerning plagiarism. Familiarize yourself with this information so that you don’t run into any problems by virtue of either ignorance or temptation.

10. If You’re Looking to Party, Get It Somewhere Else

We don’t mean this in a judgmental way. It’s not like some of your online classmates don’t also like to party. It’s just that they all live in different states and nobody can see that you’re wearing a party hat. What I mean to say is, online college is the educational experience without the social perks and/or drawbacks of living on campus. If that’s exactly what you’re going for, that’s great news. On the other hand, this will be an adjustment if you think you’ll miss having the opportunity to grab a bite with your classmates after a lecture, to get together on the weekends, or to laugh at each other’s limited athletic prowess while playing campus intramural sports. Fortunately, some of the best academic outcomes are reported by students who take a blended approach to learning, attending a mix of on-campus and online classes. In fact, if you’re new to the online game, that might be a great way to dip your toe and find out if it’s for you.

Of course, underscoring all of these tips is the fundamental importance of attending a high-quality online institution. Fortunately, growth in online schools is strong among private and public four-year schools, and has been on the decline among shady, for-profit schools. This means that your opportunity to get a great online education is better than ever.

Get started by checking out the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.

If you still need more information, check out The Online Colleges Source for answers to all your burning questions.

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