7 Characteristics of Successful E-Learners

Paul Snodgrass reviews distance learning skills and how to use online education to further your fire-rescue service career.


When Jason enrolled for his first online fire science class at a local community college, he thought that a few hours at the keyboard and some fast and loose research would produce three college credits with minimal effort. He found the schedule inviting, but the work nearly overwhelming. "I admit...


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Regardless if you are a lifelong learner with excellent erudition skills or have been out of the college classroom for a decade or more, learning how to get the most of online learning opportunities is a process not a product. Because most firefighters, like the majority of the adult population, are primarily visual learners online learning can be a challenge. It requires adaptation, persistence and an open mind.

Here are seven key characteristics that will help you obtain an optimum return on your investment in online learning. Some of these seven are easy to acquire; others are hard to obtain, requiring shifting attitudes and relearning habits. Just remember, you will only get out as much as you put into the class, regardless of modality.

1. Choose a Good Program

Obviously, the word "good" has many meanings. In this context, it applies to the general attributes of what educators deem solid traits of a viable online course. For example, you should not enroll in a course that uses instructor-to-student e-mail as a sole communication vehicle to send lecture notes for you to read and tests to take and return. A good program has multiple components: regional accreditation for degree-seeking students, knowledgeable and experienced online instructors, adequate computer infrastructure, class discussion areas, stated course objectives, syllabus and student-based feedback for course improvement.

Briefly, accreditation in the college and university setting is provided by one of seven regional accrediting agencies. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes these agencies and charges them with the task of ensuring that member institutions maintain an acceptable quality of education. A list if accrediting agencies for distance education is available from the department's website.

Knowledgeable instructors are those who have designed and taught in the online environment, understand its limitations and can use its advantages to the benefit of students. Although no recognized teaching standard currently exists for online instructors, a look at the class syllabus should help you see if the class is organized along the lines of a 20th-century correspondence course or a 21st-century e-learning class. Look for rich content: case studies, outside article links, discussion boards, blogs, podcasts and streaming video opportunities. The syllabus should be detailed and contain a grading rubric, which delineates how your grade will be calculated. Ask to have access to a sample class to see if it offers up-to-date content. Also, stay away from classes that have such obvious shortcomings as myriad typographical errors and a dated curriculum — this is a sign that little attention has been paid to course content as the cookie-cutter class has continued to reap dollars for an institution whose main objective is profit.

Adequate computer infrastructure includes seamless access to online classes via data lines designed for the institution's online traffic volume. The institution should have a 24/7 help desk for student technical issues. Other considerations are the existence of a Learning Management System (LMS). This form of integrated electronic software can make your learning experience more satisfying through its consistent feel of course presentation. Many of these programs, such as Web-CT, Blackboard, Saba and PointeCast, to name a few, have their own user learning curves. Yet once you are comfortable navigating a specific LMS, getting to the course work will become second nature.

Class discussion areas are a vital component of any online endeavor: a valuable place for students to meet, converse and learn from one another. Many educational researchers suggest that one key difference between adult and adolescent learners is the experiential wealth that adults bring to a class. These life experiences, says Paula Porter, an adjunct professor at Ashford College and doctoral candidate in e-learning studies, allows a widespread dissemination of knowledge in electronic discussion. "Learners also become teachers; teachers, too, learn a great deal. It is almost unbelievable how much you learn from students in this setting," she says.

2. Possess Adequate Computer Skills and Hardware