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Quick Tips for Virtual Learning

 One of my first jobs as a faculty member was as distance learning faculty. I taught healthcare administration courses online. The courses ranged from Human Resources Management to Principles of Marketing to Healthcare Finance and Accounting. I taught online for five years, and then I taught hybrid courses a few years later at two other universities, one that was historically online based. However, the classes I taught for them were face to face. As a faculty member using online platforms, I found that the following tips useful to ensure my students were successful in my classes. I thought I would share those tips with you.

1. Designate a workspace. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors told me that being a student was a full-time job. I had always treated it like it was one of my part-time jobs, and I had several. However, once I changed my mindset and treated school like it was my full-time job, I found it less stressful. For middle school, high school, and college students (especially graduate students), school should be their full-time job. Now, think if you were working at home at your full-time job. Would you be productive sitting on your bed or in the living room or another common area where there is a lot of traffic in your home? Students should have a designated work area where they can learn, listen to the teacher or professor, and also do assignments if necessary. This also gives them a sense of ownership and a sense of power over a situation that they feel helpless in. Ask students to design their workspace, so it is something that feels comfortable to them.

2. Set up for success. Part of having a good workspace is having everything set up and ready to go. Sitting on the couch with a laptop isn't going to give students all the tools they need. Students may need to take notes, need scratch paper, or they may need additional devices to complete their assignments. For example, in one of the classes I mentioned above, I required students to use a financial calculator. They used that device in addition to their actual computer. Many times, they would work out problems on scratch paper and email them to me or scan or take photos of hard copies of homework. Just like in a regular classroom, students need supplies. They need pens, pencils, paper, crayons, rulers, construction paper, calculators, erasers. They also need additional items to make their computer setup work well. They need charging cables, a charging station, a microphone, earphones, and maybe an external databank or flash drive to store their assignments. When students sit down at their home workspace, they should have everything ready to go for them every morning, just like they would at face-to-face school. 

3. Have a schedule. Like in regular school, students should have a schedule. They should know exactly when school starts and stops. They should not feel like they only have to do a little bit of work and have playtime. If they have a designated workspace, then they already know when they sit down there, it is time for school and nothing else. The TV shouldn't be playing in the background, friends shouldn't be coming over, their Nintendo DS or iPhone shouldn't be sitting next to them while they play video games, and their toys should be put away. Just because school is at home doesn't mean they are at home relaxing. A virtual school should be treated with the same level of seriousness as a regular school. 

Having a schedule also includes time for breaks. Breaks shouldn't be too long, but they should be included. As an adult, I get tired of sitting at my laptop for hours at a time, so I'm sure a student would, too. However, break times should have a limit. To help start and stop break times, I set a timer. When the timer goes off, I know it is time to get back to work. 

This is Jeanette R. Harrison, MPH, the writer of this blog. 

4. Do the assignments. When students participate in online learning, they must do the assignments and engage in activities. Teachers or professors are not there in person to see if students are giving a blank expression because they didn't do the reading or a confused look because they didn't understand the assignment. Online discussions take place of in-class discussions. Good online teachers and professors can also create group projects or activities online for students to complete. This makes the student feel more like they are really in class. In my opinion, virtual learning is more work than online learning. That is another reason to keep up with the assignments. It's really easy to fall behind quickly in an online course. That brings me to my next point.

5. Spend the time. One of the things I have found disconcerting when I hear people talk about virtual learning is that they are saying they are spending less time learning than before. That is not okay. Actually, in my experience as a faculty member and as a student, online learning takes more time...not less. As a faculty member, I spent 20 hours a week outside of class on my online course. Of course, those were collegiate level courses. However, students should plan to spend the amount of time in a class as they normally would at school, plus extra time. For example, middle school students should spend 45 minutes a day in a class if the class period is normally 45 minutes. They then should spend another 45 minutes outside of class. High school students also should spend 50 minutes a day in one class if that is their normal class period. They then should spend 100 minutes (1 hour 40 minutes) outside of class for that one course. Of course, the rule for college students is to spend three hours outside of class for what you would normally spend in class. If you are taking a three-credit-hour course, you should spend three hours on the class and an additional nine hours outside of "class" for a total of 12 hours per three-credit-hour course per week. 

6. Communicate with the teacher/instructor/professor. The key to success in online learning is communicating with the teacher or professor. As I already mentioned, the teacher or professor can't see students' faces if they are confused or lack understanding. They aren't able to see if you are being serious when you say that your grandmother's dog ate your homework. If students have issues with the assignments, they will need to contact the teacher or professor and let them know. I set up virtual office hours for my students, and I also set boundaries for them. For example, my virtual office hours were generally 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, and I did not accept calls before or after those times. If a student emailed me with a question, I had a personal rule that I would have a 24-hours turnaround time, even on the weekend. Many online learners do a considerable amount of their homework on the weekends. My students would often email me their questions, too. I really liked it when they would send me a list of several questions at once. Then, I could go through each question and answer the questions. Please keep in mind that teachers and professors have more than one student in their class. The teachers and professors also teach more than one class. Receiving 20 emails a day from every student can become cumbersome, to say the least. Using online discussion forums is also a great way to communicate with the teacher or professor about how students are doing. Another thing I liked that my students did is that they would send me their assignments and show me what they were doing. I would then either screen share with them or review the assignments, make comments, and return it to them in 24 hours. I wanted to model the behavior that timely responses were important. I also made sure they had their grades updated every single week, so the students always knew exactly how they were performing in my courses.