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The online learning experience poses unique challenges, but the right resources can make the experience more approachable.

Online college offers unique benefits over on-campus learning. Online programs often place the same amount of emphasis on building a connected experience as their on-campus counterparts, while also offering convenience and flexibility.

However, thriving in online college still requires commitment, self-discipline, and initiative. Read on to learn more about what to expect from the student experience while in an online college.

Online Student Challenges

"It's very easy to fall through the cracks if I don't initiate conversations or ask the right questions." - Delynn Willis, graduate student

Online students face challenges that on-campus learners may not encounter. Since all learning occurs in a digital setting, online enrollees may feel isolated from their peers and instructors. They may also find it tougher to motivate themselves to complete coursework without the regular cadence of attending in-person classes.

Discipline, self-care, and access to assistance when necessary can help online students overcome these challenges and stay connected in an online learning setting.

How Do Schools Help Online Students Stay Connected?

Many schools offer dedicated resources for online students to keep them connected and healthy, such as mental health services, networking events, or academic support. Below, you'll find a few common resources you should look for, though offerings vary by school and program. Make sure to conduct your own research to find out what's offered at your school.

Resources

Mental Health Services

As enrollment grows and colleges become more aware of the need for mental health care, university mental health services have expanded to fit learners' needs. Most schools have long offered free access to on-campus mental health counseling, and many now also offer free telehealth counseling or access to apps. Northwestern University, for example, offers online support gatherings and phone consultations for students about mental health issues.

If you have a health and safety concern about a peer, you can contact that peer directly or report your concern to your school's mental health services department, which will then attempt to contact the student.

Academic Support

"My school provides academic counseling and guidance on which courses to take. This is a huge help when trying to navigate my program." - Delynn Willis, graduate student

Online students can also access academic support services designed specifically for remote learning. This usually includes free tutoring services, writing labs, and homework help — all in a completely online format. For example, Concordia University Texas offers students access to free online tutoring through Tutor.com.

Online students also have access to online education resources and amenities. They can typically purchase textbooks from online bookstores, which ship directly to their houses, and most campus libraries digitize printed media and make it available online. Online learners can also access class planning and enrollment assistance through virtual office hours and chat services.

Career Planning

Online schools and programs understand that online students need as much career planning advice as their on-campus peers. To meet this need, it's common for online enrollees to match with a career counselor or advisor, whom they can contact through email, scheduled phone consultations, and virtual meetings. These counselors will help them navigate course loads and career options after graduation.

Online students can also attend online and in-person career fairs and informational sessions, where they gain access to alumni networks and mentoring programs offered through online channels. For instance, Portland State University offers an official online group for its alumni association through LinkedIn.

Disability Services

Colleges and universities are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to support students with disabilities, which means tailoring its offerings to the needs of online students as much as on-campus students. Students with disabilities represent a large percentage of the online student population, usually for accessibility reasons, so schools must aim to create positive online learning environments for learners with physical and learning disabilities who may need accommodations.

Online courses can use asynchronous, self-paced formats paired with learning accommodations to help students with learning disabilities succeed. These accommodations can include additional time, online tutoring, and assistive technology. Schools may also partner with disability technology services, like the Learning Ally, which makes tens of thousands of audiobook versions of course materials available at partnering schools.

Networking

Social Platforms and Discussion Boards

Discussion board activity makes up a significant portion of online learning. Instructors often expect students to use their online discussion boards to share and critique views on course topics every week, demonstrating engagement with the materials.

Many schools now also leverage online social platforms to help online students network with faculty and peers. For example, graphic design learners might use the image-sharing site Pinterest to share their work with their professors and receive feedback.

Virtual Events

Virtual networking events can help online students connect with their school's broader network and prepare for their future careers. By chatting with alumni who are established in their field, online students can pick up helpful tips and learn about their career options after graduation.

For online students, schools often provide virtual networking events, where students get to meet with alumni through text or video chat on their computers, tablets, and phones. Some schools also offer mentorship programs using similar technology.

On-Campus Events

If they live close enough, online students can also take advantage of on-campus networking events, such as alumni meetups, speaking engagements, and concerts. Attending on-campus events occasionally, even when you're a remote students, can help you feel connected with your school in a more tangible sense and help you make new friends or become part of on-campus communities.

Strategies for Online Students to Stay Connected

Because online college occurs outside of the classroom, you may feel less connected to your instructors and peers on a personal level. To help, here are some time-proven strategies for connecting with faculty and peers in an online program.

Introduce Yourself to Your Professors and Classmates

Introducing yourself to your class through a non-discussion-related board before coursework starts will make a good first impression on your professor and classmates. Talk about your goals for the course, interests, or major, and be sure to ask others about their interests, too. Maybe you could even set up a study group.

Watch the Class Discussion Board Closely and Participate Often

"...reading through the feedback of my peers and professors can help guide me in the right direction or inspire me if I become discouraged." - Delynn Willis, graduate student

Your class will probably require a certain number of engagement posts per week in an online discussion board. Try to exceed those requirements and interact with your peers more often instead. This shows them that you want to engage with their thoughts and the material.

Join a Study Group

"I created a Slack workspace for students… It allows us to socialize and to form study groups for class even those outside of the department." - Helen Pinto, undergraduate student

Reach out to your peers to see if they want to form a study group. You can use virtual study sessions to help each other understand and engage with course topics while getting to know one another.

Reach Out to Get Individualized Attention From Your Instructor When Necessary

"I've leaned on staff and faculty a lot as sounding boards. They make themselves available to discuss my concerns in as close to a physical manner as possible." - Helen Pinto, undergraduate student

Online courses come with the drawback of less individualized attention from your instructor. This means it's imperative that you make an effort to reach out to your professors whenever you need help.

Remain Open to Making New Friends

"...try to reach out to others even just to say 'hi' via email or send a Slack message. I make sure to do this when I am feeling the most lonely because I imagine that others must be feeling the same way." - Helen Pinto, undergraduate student

Just because you're learning online doesn't mean you can't make friends among your peers. If you get along with someone, try to meet up in person and engage with them socially. Keep the lines of communication open and build relationships.

Stay Organized

"I keep everything organized by using a calendar app on my phone and computer with reminders set up for when things are due or when I should be completing a task." - Delynn Willis, graduate student

The fastest way to lose touch with your online program is to fall behind. It can be easy to procrastinate in the comfort of your own home. Make sure you have an established workspace where you can lay out all your course material. Keep a planner or use an online app to stay on top of tasks and assignments.

Online Student Experience Stories

We asked two online students about their experiences learning in their current online programs. See their responses below, and check out more student stories here.

Image of Helen Pinto

Helen Pinto

Helen is a senior at University of California, Berkeley, majoring in American Studies with a minor in Art History and Public Policy. Helen was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and is of Honduran descent. Before settling down in San Francisco five years ago, Helen lived in Milan, Rome, Shenzhen, and Toronto. She is a native speaker of English and Spanish and speaks Italian at an advanced level.

Helen's scholarship and interests heavily rest on decolonization, public policy as it relates to art (especially topics surrounding the New Deal and Mexican Muralism), and transculturation. Helen is currently applying to graduate school, helping to lead her student organization H.ART, and working with faculty as an undergraduate research apprentice.

Read Interview

How long have you been studying online? Were you always interested in pursuing education online, or did you end up in an online program due to necessity or circumstance?

I've been studying online for about eight months. We were forced to move online in late February, so I completed half my Spring 2019 semester online. I also took online courses over the summer that I had planned to take on campus.

In your experience, what have been the biggest benefits of studying online?

No longer having to commute is the best part, as I save myself at least 2 hrs a day of taking public transportation to/from campus.

What kinds of resources provided through your school have you utilized or found especially helpful while attending classes online?

I've used the Student Learning Center resources for writing. I have also consulted with the Career Center for advice. I've leaned on staff and faculty a lot as sounding boards. They make themselves available to discuss my concerns in as close to a physical manner as possible.

Everyone has online appointment setting systems that make things easy. I also appreciate that professors have made it a habit to provide their slides before lectures. This was originally done in case there were tech/internet issues, but it has become very helpful, especially because we can screen share the slides when in breakout rooms on Zoom.

What have been the biggest challenges and drawbacks to learning and studying in an online format?

The biggest challenges have been working from home. I sometimes find myself procrastinating school duties by taking up more housekeeping duties that would have been left behind had I access to library facilities.

What kinds of resources do you feel are lacking in your online program?

I can't think of any resources that are lacking in my online education other than physical access to libraries, which is understandable under the current health crisis.

How do you stay motivated and organized while pursuing your education online?

I stay motivated because I am passionate about the subjects that I study. I also realize that professors are trying their best to provide a comparable education to traditional in-person learning. Mixing lecture time with smaller breakout sessions is useful.

I stay organized by using a few programs routinely. I use Dropbox for all my files, transfer professor-provided lecture slides to OneNote, and take handwritten digital notes on my tablet during lectures.

I make sure to keep categorized folders by class and make detailed names for each file I save on my computer or Dropbox. I find that if I set up all my digital folders at the beginning of the semester, I can spend less time throughout the semester organizing myself or looking for things.

How do you stay connected with your classmates and teachers?

As part of my student organization, I created a Slack workspace for students interested in art, the history of art, and the department. It allows us to socialize and to form study groups for class — even those outside of the department. It also gives us some space to be goofy and send memes.

Overall, how do you feel about your experience so far studying online? Would you go back and do anything differently?

So far, I feel like it has been very hard to stay focused. I think I took too long not finding a good, consistent place to study in my home. I used to try to sit on the couch or tried to share office space with my partner and realized that I needed a desk that I can sit at where I can leave my books open and jump into things easily. I am happy that I have made this change.

What advice would you give a student who is curious about the online student experience?

I would tell them to definitely not overload themselves with online classes, especially in their first semester. The belief that "since it's all online, you can try to take on more classes than normal" is flawed.

At my school, now that everything's online, professors are really trying to get you to spend the same amount of time, if not more, on their material. As such, I have found myself more overwhelmed than normal. I would also tell prospective online students that it is wise that they start the classwork as soon as the class goes live online.

I know from the experiences of other students that it took them some time to log in the first few weeks, and they found themselves very behind just a week or two later. It is important to try to stay on task and follow the course material as it is laid out in the syllabus.

Anything else you think prospective online students should know about online learning?

I would tell them to figure out what are the best methods for them to learn. Do they need to print out every syllabus to stay on track? Do it. Do they need to speak to professors during office hours to make sure they understand everything? Do it.

I would also tell students that their peers may be deflated or bummed out about the current situation, so try to reach out to others even just to say "hi" via email or send a Slack message. I make sure to do this when I am feeling the most lonely because I imagine that others must be feeling the same way.

Image of Delynn Willis

Delynn Willis

Delynn is a 34-year-old current grad student studying creative writing. She's published short stories; written for blogs, educational courses, and magazines; and taught online and in person. She is taking the final course toward her master of fine arts (MFA) while living in Vietnam with her two dogs and a cactus named Carlton.

Read Interview

How long have you been studying online? Were you always interested in pursuing education online or did you end up in an online program due to necessity or circumstance?

I've been studying online for almost two years now. I had studied on campus in the past and wanted to do so again when pursuing my graduate degree. Unfortunately, my schedule and the location of my job did not allow for this, so I chose to pursue my MFA online.

In your experience, what have been the biggest benefits of studying online?

Online courses are easier to handle alongside a busy schedule. I know this is a broad generalization, but I've found it to be true in my case. I chose to complete an online graduate program because I work overseas and full time. There's no way I could have afforded to go back to school and leave my job.

I also really enjoyed being able to access course materials and lectures at any time of the day, even if that meant listening to a recording on pedagogy at three in the morning.

What kinds of resources provided through your school have you utilized or found especially helpful while attending classes online? (For example, mental health resources, tutoring and homework help, virtual networking events, etc.)

My school provides academic counseling and guidance on which courses to take. This is a huge help when trying to navigate my program. There's also access to an online library from which I can access texts and books that I can use in my research papers and projects. If a title isn't available online, I can order a physical copy from my school's on-campus library.

What have been the biggest challenges and drawbacks to learning and studying in an online format?

You miss out on a lot of community and networking when attending online classes. This is one of the things I miss most about in-person learning. College campuses are great ways to meet people and build friendships. But this aspect isn't just about personal growth; it's also important for networking and furthering knowledge.

On-site programs allow you to establish relationships with your professors and peers, all of whom can assist you in finding a job or internship once you graduate. Communal learning is also HUGE in furthering your understanding of what you study. Having discussions and butting up against ideas contrary to your own in your field of study are phenomenal ways to deepen your knowledge. You lose a lot of this when attending a school online.

Online communication can get tricky. I'm a hard worker who hates confrontation and almost always gets along well with others, but I've had multiple conflicts with professors and peers due to misunderstandings. This all seems to arise from the use of electronic communication.

In-person classes allow you to have discussions or talk through any problems face to face. Written correspondences are so easy to misinterpret. My advice for those working toward a degree online is to be very careful what you include in your messages and to always keep records of your communications.

What kinds of resources do you feel are lacking in your online program?

I'm not sure if this counts, but I do sometimes feel that my professors are held at a lower standard than they would be if I were on a physical campus. It's very easy to fall through the cracks if I don't initiate conversations or ask the right questions.

Some of my instructors are amazing and put a ton of work into their courses and students. Others are difficult to get ahold of and do not provide proper guidance. This can lead to problems and miscommunications.

I also feel that there aren't enough online activities or events to allow students to connect through my online university. In-person programs usually provide opportunities to foster relationship-building between peers and professors.

How do you stay motivated and organized while pursuing your education online?

I keep everything organized by using a calendar app on my phone and computer with reminders set up for when things are due or when I should be completing a task. As far as motivation, I try my best to stay in communication with my classmates and professors online.

I get nervous about the work I do or the stances I take in my field, so reading through the feedback of my peers and professors can help guide me in the right direction or inspire me if I become discouraged.

How do you stay connected with your classmates and teachers?

I communicate with professors primarily through email. My university provides general as well as degree- and class-specific forums. We sometimes have email chains for assignments that I can reply to. I've also made it a priority to connect to peers I have a strong connection with through social media.

Overall, how do you feel about your experience so far studying online? Would you go back and do anything differently?

I love the convenience that online learning has provided me. It's allowed me to live my life while still obtaining my MFA. I would have preferred attending my classes in person just because I miss getting to interact more intensely with a creative community of peers and experts in my field.

If I could go back and do anything differently in my online courses, I'd be more careful in my communications with professors. As I mentioned above, the intent and tone of electronic communications are so easy to misread, and it's a lot easier for situations to devolve into negative interactions when you can't look someone in the face while talking through an issue.

What advice would you give a student who is curious about what the online student experience is like?

If you have the opportunity, give both online and in-person learning each a try before settling on one. Take an intensive two-week or month-long course on anything — cooking, crafts, art, science fiction — it doesn't matter. Then, take a small online course on a topic of your choosing. These experiences will give you an idea of which learning environment you prefer before you commit to a long-term program.

Anything else you think prospective online students should know about online learning?

Because you're not showing up to a classroom, online learning is even more performance-based than in-person learning. Work hard, get your assignments in on time, and keep in close contact with your professors if you want to excel in your program.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Online College Right for Me?

Online college best suits the needs of students who must balance school with other life commitments, like family or job responsibilities. If this describes you, online college might be a good fit.

What Is Difficult About Distance Learning?

Distance learning can present some difficulties on the social front. Some online students have trouble connecting with peers and feel isolated from their school's community, making it difficult to stay motivated.

Do College Students Prefer Online Classes?

Some college students prefer online college because it eliminates distractions, offers more schedule flexibility, and often takes less time to complete.

Do Online Students Get the Same Resources as On-Campus Students?

Online students usually receive access to all of the same resources as on-campus students, though they may come in a different form. Online students may also find that they need to be more proactive about searching for resources and asking for help than their on-campus peers.

Is Online College Harder Than Regular College?

Because online college often comes with less individualized instructor attention, it can seem harder, especially if you struggle with self-motivation. Online students should be sure to ask for help from their instructor or peers whenever they need it.

Header Image Credit: Igor Alecsander | Getty Images

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