What It Takes to Be a Successful Online Student

Don McMillan

My husband Don working on his own online class. NOTE: This starts at 5 am daily.

The benefits to online learning are obvious: Meeting times are flexible. You can work at your own pace. You can take classes at schools geographically distant from where you live. You can even attend “class” in your pajamas.  This all sounds great, but I’ve never done it before. From what I read, there are some aspects to online learning that may be surprisingly difficult.

According to San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, successful online students need the following strengths:

  • Time Management Skills
  • Organizational Skills
  • Self-motivation and Independence
  • Technological Literacy
  • Tolerance for (or Enjoyment of) Challenge

So far, I’m in pretty good shape. I am self-motivated and committed to learning. My tech skills are adequate. What may pose a problem for me is that when something is challenging and I fail, I tend to panic. I just need to remember that real learning should be challenging. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be valuable.

San Diego Community College publishes an Online Learning Readiness Assessment with a short survey and suggestions for students considering online coursework. They also emphasizes the importance of time management and competence with technology, as well as an additional focus on the ability to communicate or interact with instructors and classmates in digital spaces. For me, the issue is going to be that I really like talking to people face to face. I’m a teacher. I talk to 160 students and who knows how many adults every day. “Talking” in the digital realm will be completely new to me.

Class participation, of course, feels different when you are working solely online. According to students in San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science, online communication can be challenging because with electronic text–

  • Feedback is often delayed
  • You don’t have cues like body language or tone of voice
  • It takes more time to read and write than it does to speak

So, online students need to take care that their writing conveys the content and the tone they intend. This may take a little more time and effort than in a traditional classroom. Also, I may need to remind herself to take a deep breath and relax while waiting for a response to a question or comment. It’ll get there.

One other pitfall I’ve encountered is the distraction factor at home. It is very easy to decide the laundry needs to be done, or that I need to call my dad, or maybe even check out what’s on television. And family members who aren’t in school might want to talk to me every once in a while. In a traditional classroom, those factors aren’t an issue, at least not during class time.

Online Teams

Anyone who has ever been a student knows that working in teams can be a great pleasure or a great aggravation. What is the secret to making teams work?

Dr. Ken Haycock, the former director of the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University, clarifies typical team problems and solutions in a lecture. He breaks up teamwork into four stages: Stage 1 Forming, Stage 2 Storming, Stage 3 Norming, and Stage 4 Performing. I was happy to hear that the storming stage–the time when everyone in the group is grumpy and complaining–is a normal part of most teams. The successful teams are the ones who are able to get through that stage and onto the reconciliation involved in norming and the satisfaction and good work of performing. Surprisingly, Haycock said that many groups never arrive at the performing stage. Dysfunctional groups may get stuck in storming, and even complete the assignment, but without the benefits they would have felt if they were able to work through that stage.

My takeaway from Haycock’s lecture is that most people struggle with teamwork. That is normal. The best teams will counter problems by clarifying team goals, defining ground rules, agreeing on a decision making process, confronting and managing conflict, and consistently checking for improvements. A good team leader will stick to that process and hold the team accountable.

Enid Irwin, a former San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science faculty member, gives more practical advice for working in teams. In acknowledgment of how hard team work can be, she calls her lecture on student teams “The Monster Inside Library School.”

Irwin’s advice to “slay the monster” includes defining what teamwork IS and what it IS NOT. According to Irwin–

Teamwork IS:

  • Having the right attitude: Participating (not “lurking), Collaborating (not just assigning separate tasks), Constructing goals (without egos)
  • Planning: Communicating and knowing the process or method to accomplish the task

I like how Irwin summarizes her overview of teamwork with the phrase, “THE difference = success vs. chaos. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.”

We’ve all been in chaotic or non-performing teams. At the same time, many of us have experienced the flip side: teams that work. When teams are functioning well, we truly are capable of producing something better than we could by ourselves. That’s the whole point!

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