Online education typically isn’t any easier than learning on a physical campus. Rather, it’s a different type of experience.
Instead of attending classes in person, students in online degree programs primarily complete coursework and communicate virtually through a platform referred to as a learning management system. Online students can generally access course materials, contact student services, track their progress in classes and submit assignments, among other things.
“The learning management system for an online course is the student’s campus, to a certain extent, or their classroom,” says Karen Ferguson, vice provost at Colorado State University—Global Campus.
Ferguson adds, “It is their resource center for what they’re going to learn and how they’re going to learn it. Just like you would think of a traditional campus – you’re navigating from one classroom to another classroom, or walking over to the library – all of those same resources should be available.”
[Explore four steps to get organized for online courses.]
Sage Kirk, who’s completing an online graduate program in clinical mental health counseling at Oregon State University Ecampus, uses one called Canvas. The 31-year-old Seattle resident says she synched the LMS with her email to receive important class announcements from instructors. Through the system, she can view her grades as well as upcoming deadlines.
Some online courses hold live classes on their LMS, and students may participate in real-time discussions through videoconferencing. The LMS is also where discussion boards – a type of assignment where online students discuss answers to a question the instructor poses – take place.
Experts recommend prospective online students plan to complete these six tasks before starting an online program so they know how to successfully navigate the LMS.
• Attend orientation: Some online colleges and universities offer students training – either online or as part of on-campus orientation – on using the LMS.
In online graduate programs that the online education company 2U develops with universities, for example, students complete an orientation course that introduces them to the curriculum along with key features of an LMS, says James Kenigsberg, founding chief technology officer at 2U. Experts advise prospective students to participate in this orientation, if offered.
[Learn why online students should bother with orientation.]
• Click around: Some online programs also provide students early access to the LMS. Kenigsberg says 2U gives them at least two weeks before courses begin.
Others provide access to a sample version of a school’s LMS before students enroll so they can explore how online education works, experts say.
Experts recommend using that extra time, if provided, to ask tech support and professors any questions. “It’s just really critical that the person understand their style of learning and if they have that discipline to really engage in the material,” says Kirk, the OSU student.
• Get organized: In certain LMSes, users can sync their course assignment calendars with their email to receive reminders about due dates. Features like these are particularly important for online learners who need to manage their time to balance schoolwork with jobs. Prospective students should check what options are available and start synching once they enroll.
At CSU—Global, Ferguson says, “You can type into this tool how many pages of a certain type of assignment are due on a certain day, and it will kind of create a planning calendar on when you should have your research done, when you should have maybe your first draft done, or your outline.”
She adds, “It helps them plan. Our students are very busy, so we try to give them tools so that they can plan their projects throughout the semester, and it emails them and then they can upload that into their calendar so they have reminders.”
• Check accessibility on mobile devices: Prospective students – especially those who may not have unlimited access to a computer – may also want to check how difficult it is to use the designated system on mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets.
Kim Norton, an online doctoral student in organizational leadership at for-profit Grand Canyon University, says the LMS her program uses, LoudCloud, isn’t responsive on mobile, meaning the screen won’t adapt to the device’s smaller size, making it tougher to navigate. That’s important to know beforehand, experts say, in case a student needs to complete assignments on the go.
[Discover what to ask about accessing online courses on mobile devices.]
• Determine attendance and login requirements: Once enrolled, students will want to check the syllabus to see how often they need to log into an online course’s LMS. This will vary by class.
OSU, for instance, designs its courses so that students must log in at least three times a week, though many do so even more often, says Shannon Riggs, OSU Ecampus’s executive director. She says instructors can track this information.
• Get social: Prospective students should also plan to look into an online program’s opportunities to join social groups or connect with other students through the LMS, says Kenigsberg. One example for 2U programs: a virtual pub where online students interactthrough chat and videoconferencing.
“People literally just drop by and talk to other students and sort of unwind a little bit,” he says.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.