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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Just as a halligan tool usually trumps a screwdriver for forcible entry, having the right tool for the job always makes the task easier. Once you have selected the course or institution, make sure your computer hardware is up to speed. Without getting into a discussion of computer components and technical issues, if your computer is more than five years old, consider upgrading. This would be like rolling up to a working house fire with a turn-of-the-century pumper — you might knock down the fire, but it would require a Herculean effort.
Make sure your software is current too. If you are not familiar with Microsoft Word and Outlook, then tutorials should be in order. Word is the big name in composing and handling most of your written work. Outlook often is the software by which your e-mail messages and attachments are conveyed. (In some LMS's e-mail is handled within the propriety program.) These two programs are probably the most used in the online environment; however, they are not the only ones with which to need to gain some alacrity. Practice and learn how to create short PowerPoint presentations. Become acquainted with Excel, another Microsoft program for designing electronic spreadsheets. Anyone who has taken an online statistics class will tell you that without Excel a working fire of a class can become a total loss — rapidly. There is no reason to be intimidated by the software while grappling with course content, as many neophyte online students can attest. Familiarity with software and hardware is fundamental.
Connectivity is another aspect of a sound online planning guide. If your current connection to the Internet is a dial-up modem, plan to spend much more time online. This connection might be OK for a single class, but if you seek an undergraduate or graduate degree, consider a high-speed connection, says Edward Kaplan, education specialist at the National Fire Academy. NFA is launching a 13-course undergraduate fire science program in January via its seven regionally based colleges. They will all be online and require plenty of bandwidth to participate. "If you don't have broadband access, then you might as well forget it," he says. "We will be exposing students to hard-science research…with web searches and as much interaction as possible."3. Wield Strong Motivation
If we are to believe Abraham Lincoln, motivation is clear cut: "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing." It is in this spirit that self-directed motivation is required of the online student. Many higher education curricula require participation four days per week. They have minimum written contribution requirements, such as answering two or three weekly discussion questions in paragraph form, followed by two or three individual responses to others' replies. Quizzes are plentiful and usually timed. Final projects might consist of a 3,000-word research paper or a complex PowerPoint presentation.
These are not easy courses, says Dr. Marla La Rue, dean of the College of Education at the University of Phoenix, which is the largest provider of U.S. online higher education courses. "I get a lot of students who say that these (online courses) are way too hard." Online courses are derived from much the same course content as traditional classes and then crafted into online curriculum. Many classes that a student would take in person during a semester are delivered in six or seven weeks. Students who have taken a few online courses agree that one of the best ways to maintain your motivation is to stay current with the course.4. Develop Strict Time-Management Skills
Time management is one of the major pitfalls for uninitiated students. Problems stem not from the available time for a student like Jason, who works a 24/48 schedule. "I would get off shift and have every excuse in the book not to go home and do my classwork. It was easy to keep putting off assignments until the last minute," he says. "Then when it was time to produce (assignments and discussion responses), I would do a lousy job because I didn't have the time."
"You pretty much have to keep up with the class because it can be a real problem to see 200 e-mail messages waiting for you to read," says La Rue. You must make a commitment to be in the class almost every day. If you do not participate, then the work becomes overwhelming. It is not uncommon for an online course to require 15 to 20 hours of work per week, she says.