A key way that online degree schools give students the most personal and direct learning experience possible is to use forums and chats to bring together professors and far-flung students. These digital community tools can be quite effective in bringing students into fairly in-depth conversations and even debates. Because it’s now a requirement that all students participate in a chat or forum in many online courses, you’ll want to improve your comfort level with them as quickly as possible.
The flip side of the coin is that if you’re just trying out a few online courses before signing up for a full-fledged degree program, the chats and forums will give you a good window into the school you’re interested in. How your professors handle student needs in social media environments will tell you a lot about how skillful and committed the professors at your school to the online learning experience.
The good news for older students going back to college is that most of these tools are really not that hard to use, and don’t require any special software. In a recent executive certificate program I took from eCornell, the forum set up for each course was easy to log into and use. Several times during each course, my fellow students and I were required to solve a problem (this was a business course) and give a clear explanation of how we arrived at the answer.
The eCornell forums were quite effective, in my opinion, at getting a direct response from the professor, as well as showing me how other students approached particular problems. I would say, in fact, that in some ways they provided a higher quality group discussion of many issues than a live classroom would, as there was room and time for every single person to participate.
Generally, there was a one week period in which each student was required to answer a particular question – a good approach for an adult student with a work and life schedule to deal with. Professors responded within 24 hours to any questions, and asked me to re-do certain problems I had done wrong. There were a few problems that, honestly, I did a terrible job of answering due to my less than stellar mathematical talents. The online professors however, were very polite in nudging me toward the correct answer.
A good little tip: If the forum for your online course has a “continuous” format – meaning questions and answers for all students run on one long page, you may have to do a lot of scrolling to find your own comments as the course goes on and the forum fills up. A simple but very good shortcut is to hold down the “Ctrl” and “f” buttons when you’re on the forum page, and then type in either your email address or name, depending on what identifies you in the forum. Hit return and you’ll go right to your own posts on the page.
Chats are a bit different, and perhaps a bit more stressful, than online forums because they take place in real time. Adults who never used chats before going back to college online will want to make sure they prepare for each one.
In a chat session, your professor and your other students are online at the same time you are, and everyone is seeing everyone else’s comments. To be successful, make sure you do some preparation on the topic to be discussed. It’s a good idea to even have a few good quotes ready from research sources to help you make points effectively.
It’s important to have some sensitivity to the tone of a chat. Generally, that means two things. First, don’t fly off the handle and start arguing with people. Unless you’re in a class focused on religion or politics, steer clear of both topics. Second, try to follow your professor’s lead. He or she will probably give some instructions on how to participate. Try to follow them as closely as possible. It’s also very advisable for you to read any “Rules” or “FAQs” that may be available on your chat board, so you are familiar with what’s expected of you
Think before you write! Try to write in full sentences, avoid misspellings, don’t write in all caps (considered an online form of shouting) or use lots of abbreviations like “lol.” The best approach is often to write your responses in a word program so you can edit them, and then cut and paste into the chat.
You don’t have to be overly formal, but you should not write as though you’re online with a group of friends. It’s best to maintain a professional tone, and focus on the main subject on the chat schedule rather than running off in too many directions. Lastly, if you’re browser has a spell checker, make use of it.