7 Characteristics of Successful E-Learners

Oct. 1, 2007
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 that I thought this would be an easy way to pick up some college credit for my degree…but when I logged in and saw how much work was there, I about quit."

Jason (who requested anonymity) is not alone. He says that if he had a better understanding of how to manage his time and knew some of the requisite skills before the class began, he would not have been so unprepared.

With more than 3 million U.S. learners turning to online opportunities to bolster their knowledge and careers, educational researchers are finding this burgeoning methodology a valid and useful tool for educators and students alike — especially adult learners to pursue higher education. But many adults are not accustomed to Internet-based learning. An uncounted number have little idea of how to best use this new modality to their advantage.

Learning via the Internet is significantly different from attending a course in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Certain skills and attributes require retooling before plunking down several hundred dollars for an online class that is both fast-paced and rigorous. A 2006 Sloan survey found robust growth and widespread acceptance of e-learning. Online education, it found, is one of the best methodologies for adult learners, especially those in higher education. The survey of 2,200 U.S. colleges and universities show attendance in these courses jumping from 2.3 million students last year to 3.2 million during the fall 2005 term. Yet one troubling statistic has emerged — the dropout rate for online courses ran as high as 60%, compared with 11% for traditional classroom learning, according to a 2007 study by Lee and Nguyen, researchers at New Mexico State University.

Online learning, e-learning or computer-based learning are among several synonyms defining an educational setting where instructors and students usually are separated by time and space and use computers and networks to communicate. Online educators divide e-learning into three broad modalities. Asynchronous learning involves accessing course materials from a computer attached to the Internet, allowing students to access the virtual classroom at anytime or any place. A generalized schedule, controlling the course's weekly pace, is in place to keep students focused on such tasks as posting discussions or accessing content. Asynchronous courses are popular because of the freedom to schedule one's coursework around a busy life. Synchronous learning, as one might expect, adds specific times at which students access materials and discuss course content. These programs, because of their time constraint, are less popular in higher education. Blended courses combine the traditional classroom for tasks like lecture or group discussion with the Internet for dispersing course content such as case studies, Flash movies and streaming video.

The notion of distance learning is not new, having its roots in the correspondence schools of the early 20th century. Just as the automobile had roots in that same era, distance education also is vastly different today. New terminology and user techniques apply for each. One of the big differences facing adult e-learners today is learning how to learn in the computer age. As more fire departments seek recruits and promote to officers those with college degrees, chances are there will be an online course in your future. Making the transition to a proficient e-learner is not difficult. Like most endeavors, it requires some guidance to avoid pitfalls.

Seven Characteristics Of Successful E-Learners

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

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.

One of the best ways to stay current is to construct a daily routine for class participation and assignments. For example, if you are a morning person, plan to do discussion questions and replies before the rest of your household stirs. This quiet time allows online students a focus necessary to succeed. Plan larger time slots in your weekly calendar for reading and writing assignments. But remember, if you pencil in Sunday at 3 P.M. for research, stick with it.

5. Polish Your Reading, Writing and Research Skills

The online environment, with its icon the computer keyboard, necessitates students do considerable writing. Unlike traditional classrooms where verbal skills prevail, e-learning requires good writing. "In these online courses," says NFA's Kaplan, "responses must be written accurately, unlike in a traditional classroom where it might be easy for a student to spout off." Well-constructed sentences and a fluent vocabulary are necessary.

If you have not written much recently, a good reference that is an invaluable asset for all writers is Strunk & White's Elements of Style. This classic book is an indispensable reference and refresher. Depending on which institution you attend, plan to become familiar with a particular method of citing references, such as MLA or APA. These stylebooks are available from a variety of sources and some precognition of a particular style makes for smoother organization and composition of research papers.

Research methodology has changed considerably with the ubiquitous Web. But be cautious of what sites you rely on when researching. Some professionally designed sites offer "research" that is nothing more than an infomercial. Be careful when using sites such as Wikipedia, because anyone can edit the information contained within. Peer-reviewed, scholarly literature should be available through your institution's electronic library.

6. Develop Team-Player Attitudes

Education, like American industry, has adapted the notion that teams can accomplish bigger, more complex projects than an individual working alone. In the online environment, according to researcher Seung Won Yoon, writing in a 2006 edition of The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, virtual teams can explore many avenues of research via the Internet that result in a complex method of problem solving. As e-learning educators have discovered, a well-structured team with clear-cut goals can be an engine of innovation and efficiency. They also allow teammates a non-threatening environment to learn from one another, which is a key ingredient of online learning.

To successfully attend a virtual team, some of the same etiquette rules used in a face-to-face meeting apply. These rules are called "netiquette." They apply to all posts and e-mails, and are especially applicable to the learning team environment. The rules help you avoid unintended offensive behavior and include:

  • Do not type a message in all capitals; it indicates shouting.
  • Use smiley faces in moderation; they can clutter up your message and add no real emotion.
  • Do not forward a message to others unless you have the author's permission; this is especially important with any private e-mail.
  • Delay replying to a message that inflames your sensibilities or emotions; give it some time before writing something that you might live to regret.
  • Always remember when communicating via written messages that you can unwittingly use poor judgment in your tone; your recipients are human — not e-mail inboxes.
7. Familiarize Yourself with E-Learning Concepts

If you have not already researched some of the concepts of online learning, before plunking down your hard-earned cash, open that search engine and start polishing your research skills while becoming more familiar with the design and structure of online learning principles. E-learning is here to stay. Experts agree its growth will continue and become more prevalent in the education market. For shift-based firefighters, the asynchronous schedule can be easily managed. As Jason attests, before going online make sure to have the correct skills you need to succeed. E-learning is a rich, innovative way to learn, provided you are prepared for it.

  1. Choose a Good Program
  2. Possess Adequate Computer Skills and Hardware
  3. Wield Strong Motivation
  4. Develop Strict Time-Management Skills
  5. Polish Your Reading, Writing and Research Skills
  6. Develop Team-Player Attitudes
  7. Familiarize Yourself with E-Learning Concepts

PAUL SNODGRASS is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department. He is an adjunct professor in fire science at Hillsborough Community College and a former fire chief. Snodgrass holds a master's degree in adult and distance learning. He has designed and taught online courses for a variety of institutions and businesses. Snodgrass can be reached at [email protected].

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