The numbers don't lie. Enrollment in online schools is growing with each passing year. A joint report by the Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium shows that a full third of students enrolled in college in 2013 -- 7.1 of 21.3 million -- took at least one course in the virtual classroom. Further figures produced by Pearson and Sloan show that online enrollment has risen 300 percent since 2004.
Some sobering statistics released in the last few years, however, have thrown some light on an issue facing these growing numbers of online students. In 2010 the Chronicle of Higher Education found that online students drop out of their classes at rates between 15 and 20 percent higher than their counterparts at traditional institutions. Additionally, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reports that full-time online students in Minnesota finished just 63 percent of enrolled courses during the 2009-10 academic year.
Analysts and administrators are still working on ways that universities can help online students succeed, but in the meantime there are methods that you can use to seize the initiative and create your own success. Here are a few habits that can keep online students from becoming statistics.
#1: Meet the technical requirements
The importance of avoiding technological frustrations can't be stressed enough, especially for first-time online learners. Since some courses may include audiovisual or interactive components, computing requirements may outstrip the hardware built into older laptops and home PCs.
Numerous community colleges offer basic computer courses, which can be a useful resource for brushing up on the terms and technology. Many online institutions offer these courses as well, so it can't hurt to check with your registrar during the enrollment process. One thing you'll always need is a reliable internet connection, so make sure one's available to you for at least a couple of hours a day.
#2: Keep a calendar
Not everyone is in the habit of marking important dates and appointments on a paper or software calendar, but anyone on the path to an online degree should consider it part of the coursework. Completed assignments are the lifeblood of successful online school, and things can get worrisome if you let your time management slip and start to get behind in the work.
Dr. Judith A. Halstead, director of the Office of Online Education at Indiana University, stresses this with students in her own classes. "I always make a habit of reaching out to students who I do not see in the course during the first couple of weeks and I ask them how things are going for them," she says. "If they don't get a handle on their time management during the first 2-3 weeks, they will unfortunately become increasingly unlikely to be successful."
#3: Read all course materials
This one may sound like a no-brainer, but it's easy to fall into the habit of glancing at your course syllabus that first week of class then stashing it away somewhere, never to be seen for the rest of the semester. Misunderstandings about due dates or the nature of an assignment can create unpleasant surprises for students who think they're keeping things on track.
You should already know that you're signing up for a great deal of reading when you enroll in a college course, so a few pages of dry course details shouldn't intimidate you. Once you get into the habit of reading the descriptions and instructions for your courses, you'll be amazed at how much confusion your fellow students experience because they neglect to do so.
#4: Practice constant communication
It can take guts to fire off that first email to an online professor, but Marie Barber, executive director of the Office of Online & Distance Education at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, recommends it highly. "Students have shared that they have struggled with… participating in a project or discussion, but after the first few weeks they have discovered they can do this," she says, "and then the class becomes exciting because it is about learning new content and meeting new challenges."
It's important to seek out interactions with your fellow students, either, since virtual classmates are all each other's strongest candidates for a solid support structure. It might surprise you how much more engaged you feel when your class acts as a group who's in it together.
#5: Keep a quiet place to learn
A quiet place to collect your thoughts, focus on your coursework and take private time to absorb class material can sometimes make all the difference between forgetting your lessons and integrating them into a deeper understanding. A solitary room with a shut door and limited distractions is prime territory for learning, and students who are lucky enough to arrange these conditions in their own homes should do so before their first course starts.
If that's not possible for you, public libraries often have internet connections as well as quiet rooms for scholarly work and a fairly agreeable atmosphere for learning. Local university or community college libraries can also be great places to work, and some may even have public wi-fi, so don't hesitate to check with a college librarian if you've got these facilities nearby.
#6: Know your goals
Clear, achievable goals are a big part of any self-supervised environment. Online school typically comes with both the long- and short-term variety, and it helps to keep your eye on each if you want to stay motivated to get the most out of your learning experience.
One tried-and-true trick for keeping your eyes on the prize is to write your goals on sticky notes or index cards and post them up around your study area. Make sure to list your main long-term goal -- "become a registered nurse," perhaps -- but also leave space for some short-term goals, like "reread lecture notes" and "finish worksheets," for example, so you can rack up small milestones en route to your ultimate objective.
Bonus advice: Underestimate yourself
Online teachers have seen it time and time again: first-time students who jump into a full course load too fast and end up in over their heads. According to Dawn Coder, associate director of advising and learner success at Penn State World Campus, "It is important to start off slow when choosing a course load. Not only does the student need to learn the course material, in the beginning s/he needs to learn the systems required of the university."
Although there's a whole catalog of reasons that students may drop online classes, starting slow and cultivating habits like the ones above can go a long way toward helping you avoid major pitfalls. Remember, no one is born a good student, it's good habits that make them that way.
If you're interested in learning more about the types of online courses that might potentially work for you, check out some of the programs on offer below.
"Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2013," The Sloan Consortium, June 2014, http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/grade-change-2013
"Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011," Babson Survey Research Group, June 2014, http://sloanconsortium.org/sites/default/files/pages/OnlineLearningSurvey-Infographic-1.png
"Preventing Online Dropouts: Does Anything Work?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/preventing-online-dropouts-does-anything-work/27108
"Audit flags dropout rates, scores at online schools," StarTribune, June 2014, http://www.startribune.com/local/south/130145813.html
Interview with Dr. Judith A. Halstead, director of the Office of Online Education, Indiana University, June 3, 2014
Interview with Marie Barber, Executive Director, Office of Online & Distance Education, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, June 6, 2014
Interview with Dawn Coder, associate director of advising and learner success at Penn State World Campus, June 6, 2014