Are You Ready to Learn Online? Five Need-to-Have Skills for Online Students

This post outlines five of the most essential skills students need to be successful with online course work, 1) basic computer skills, 2) digital communication, 3) Web search, 4) time management, and 5) collaboration skills, AND includes excellent resources for learning more about each. 

Success ahead sign

1) Computer Skills—The Basics
Why you need it:  At the very least you’ll need basic set of computer skills to function effectively in an online course. You’ll be communicating with the instructor and classmates either through discussion forums, email and video conference or chat platforms. You’ll also be uploading assignments, converting documents to PDF files, navigating within the course site, conducting searches, installing and updating software.

Applications/tools you’ll need: Access to a computer or laptop equipped with a webcam and microphone, an email address, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection (more so if accessing streamed lecture videos). If access to high-speed internet is a barrier, alternatives to view video content include: viewing in low definition setting, downloading video file to computer for later viewing, or reading lecture transcripts.

Access to word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages. Some courses require use of Excel and/or presentation software such as PowerPoint. You’ll need to be able to convert a document to a PDF file format, and have up-to-date plug-ins, such as Flash, to engage with web content. The main gateway into an online course is through the course management system, also known as the learning management system (LMS)—you’ll need to be familiar with the features of the LMS specific to your course.


2) Digital Communication
Why you need it:  As an online student you’ll be communicating and collaborating with your instructors and classmates in a variety of ways, most frequently through writing. Communication is either delayed, (asynchronous) where students post messages on discussion board for instance (similar to Facebook), or in real-time, (synchronous) during a video conferencing session, interactive classroom within the LMS, or a chat session.

What you’ll need to do:  To engage within discussion forums, which is a typical method to interact with your classmates and apply course concepts through dialogue. You’ll need to use netiquette skills when communicating online. Netiquette skills include for example, using full sentences, avoiding sarcasm, and using emoticons. These skills also apply to email communication, where you’ll want to be clear and succinct. Your instructor or institution may provide a list of netiquette skills for your class.

Tip: To make the most of learning with discussion forums, you’ll want to provide thoughtful responses that include deeper insights and/or resources (e.g. links to external content sources) that build on course concepts. Students can add value to online discussions by encouraging fellow classmates to expand on their ideas by posing thoughtful ideas and questions that will challenge classmates (and yourself) to think and reflect further about concepts.


globe_mouse3) Web Search
Why you need it:  Knowing how to conduct searches on the Web is a skill set needed in today’s digital culture, yet students learning online need advanced Web search skills that go beyond ‘Googling it’.  We live in an age of information abundance, yet information is not knowledge. You’ll be sourcing relevant information for your studies—finding resources to share within discussion forums, references for papers and projects. Also searching for sources to learn background information within the course subject area you aren’t familiar with.

What you’ll need to do:  Use a variety of search tools to find scholarly articles, search databases, discern credible sources, locate primary and secondary sources.

Resources:  If you are studying with an institution, check with library services for online tutorials in using library databases, search skills, etc. Often local public libraries have instructional resources for conducting scholarly research—all you require is a library card.

4) Time Management
Why you need it:  Life can get in the way of studying online, more so for students taking online courses that have full-time or part-time jobs, are juggling family responsibilities, or already have a full course load at a traditional institution, all of which suggest that time management skills are critical to student success. 

What you’ll need to do: Take charge of your learning from the beginning of the course; allow no time for procrastination to set in. Research suggests that habits of successful online students include consistent and specific times set aside each week for their online studies. Other recommendations:

  • Log on to your course at least three or four times per week. For discussion forum activities, you’ll need to post an initial response to a discussion question early in the week, then log onto the course site throughout the week to read and respond to classmates’ comments and elaborate on your own.
  • Read the syllabus on the first day of the course; print off a hard copy or keep a digital copy on your mobile device to refer to throughout the course.
  • Record all dates for assignments, exams, tests for the entire course in your calendar, and add reminders.


5)  Collaboration
Why you need it: You’ll be collaborating with your classmates for group projects and assignments. Numerous online courses require some form of interaction among students, and frequently students question the value of group work, especially in online courses. Yet it is beneficial for students. Working in small teams, in face-to-face and online classwork is a method that promotes application of core concepts, builds knowledge and provides learners with skills that allow them to view problems and situations from different perspectives.

Developing good collaboration skills will be an asset beyond the online classroom. Employers regardless of sector, seek people who are team players, can communicate across digital platforms with co-workers or clients on projects and/or research. Given the global and digital nature of current culture, digital collaboration is a competency considered an essential skill for all.

What you’ll need to do: There are three key aspects to collaborating successfully with other students online: 1) familiarity with the platforms and applications the group will use for communication, 2) effective communication skills, and 3) an understanding of factors that influence positive outcomes for team work in online settings. Below are suggestions for each aspect, with additional resources below.

  1. Determine which applications your group will use to collaborate and communicate— become familiar with how to use each. There may be more than one, e.g. a virtual meeting place specific to your group within the LMS, a real-time meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or  Groups usually use a collaboration platform to work on the project, such as Google Docs, WeVideo for creating videos, or other sharing platforms. If you are not familiar with a tool or application, seek out tutorial videos to learn it, or ask for help.
  2. Communicate with group members—be present, be involved, be vocal. Don’t be that group member that doesn’t respond to group communication, shows up at the last-minute, or doesn’t pull his of her weight.  
  3. Know the dynamics of team work in an online environment  • Different time zones can pose a challenge but are workable when acknowledged up-front • Set up a schedule with deadlines  • Getting the project started is the most challenging—brainstorming sessions work well to share ideas—synchronously or asynchronously • A team leader is critical to group effectiveness—suggest early that a group member assume the role • Get to know each other as people; being social builds relationships and trust  • If a group member is not contributing, team lead should contact him or her; if non-participation persists, notify instructor asap.


Other Resources for Online Students:

Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning

Students that are enthusiastic about online learning cite numerous reasons for preferring the virtual format, yet it’s flexibility that is extolled most often – the ability to study and learn on ‘my time’. Ironically, it is this convenience factor that can cause some online students to procrastinate, or worse fail to engage in the learning process at all, which often leads to students dropping out or performing poorly.

As discussed in previous posts, a key factor to student success in the online environment is self-direction, the capability and willingness to direct one’s own eduction. Online students, more so than traditional students, need to be independent and take responsibility for their learning. Self-directed learning involves a specific skill set: organization, motivation, and a sense of confidence.

The question—can online students ‘learn’ to be self-directed, or is self-direction innate? Most educators would agree there is an element of both at play. Intrinsic motivation is needed for learners of any age in any situation, though for the most part self-direction competencies can be learned, that is specific behaviours can be practiced and implemented. In this post I write for two sets of readers, first for online students. I’ve included a five-step strategy that includes a set of behaviours ‘real’ students have identified as crucial to their success in completing online college courses for credit. For educators, I’ve included a set of suggestions, actions that support students in becoming self-directed learners, one of which involves giving the responsibility to the learner, a critical component in the instructor-learner relationship.

Five-step Success Strategy for Students
I’ve customized the following strategy based on three credible sources of ‘real’ online students: 1) a student body of online learners at a four-year college (my workplace), 2) a group of successful online students from a study How Students Develop Online Learning Skills and, 3) from my experience as an online student.

Step One: Read the syllabus. The syllabus is a critical resource for any course. It is the road map or ‘game plan’ for the entire course—get to know it well. Print a copy on the first day of class, read through it twice. At the same time highlight, then record the due dates for assignments and threaded discussions in your personal calendar. If you need reminders, add those too.  Once the course gets going, review assignment instructions, discussion topics, etc. at the beginning of each week and consult grading guidelines and check dues dates [again]. You’ll be amazed how much easier assignments become once you are [very] familiar with the instructions.

Online Student: “I had work and family responsibilities when I took online courses – life would get crazy! After the first course when I missed the due dates for assignments one too many times, I was determined not to get behind again. The most effective method for me was to enter the due dates in my calendar. I was then able to get a handle on what was due when.”

A note about due dates: if you know it will be impossible to submit an assignment by the due date because of an urgent life situation (illness, work disaster, etc.), contact your instructor as soon as possible, before the assignment is due. You will get far more consideration from the instructor by contacting him or her before rather than after-the-fact.

Step Two: Plan weekly study times. Studying, participating in forums and completing assignments in an online class can be challenging, even more so when juggling multiple responsibilities. Time management is vital for online students. Planning a regular study time, blocking off set times each week is what successful online students do most often. According to the study referenced in this post, 79% of students identified this method of managing their time as critical to their success (Roper, 2007). Plan a schedule and stick to it.

Online Student: “Setting and staying to specific study days was one factor that worked for me. For example, in the evenings throughout the week, I read the lessons. Weekends were generally reserved for working on assignments. Saturdays were also devoted to online postings and building on what I had submitted.

Step Three: Log onto the course home a minimum three times per week. Logging onto the course home page consistently each week is associated with higher grades for students according to several studies on online student behavior. Get into the habit of checking in consistently, even daily, to read discussion posts, check for instructor announcements and/or review course materials.  While you are logged on, get involved and be an active participant in discussions. Though threaded discussions may appear daunting when you first get started, everyone has something of value to contribute. By logging on consistently each week, reading and responding to classmate postings, you will begin to feel part of a community, and enhance your learning experience at the same time.

Online Student: “The experience was greatly enriched by the relationships and interaction with my fellow students. It amazes me how well we got to know each other even though we were often thousands of miles apart and were only virtual classmates. I learned as much from other students as I did from the instructors.”

Step Four: Ask questions. Instructors want to help, they want students to be successful and expect students to ask questions. When I work with course instructors this is one complaint that is expressed most often about online students, ‘why don’t they ask?’ The virtual space in online learning can be a barrier, if you let it get in the way. If you have a question about course content, need clarification on a difficult concept – ask.  And when you do ask a question, make it count. Before you post a question, know what you are asking and why. Be clear and concise in your communication. You’ll be glad you asked!

‘Google Hangouts’ image credit

Step Five: Make connections with fellow students. Connecting with online classmates and building a learning community is easier than you might think given all of the social tools and applications available today. Reach out to one student, send an email to ask a question, or create a Facebook group for your class, even create a small study group. If assigned to a group project, try Google Docs, which is a terrific collaborative tool, and while in Google, try Google+ Hangouts, an application that allows you to video chat and discuss in real time, even share documents and Web pages.

To all online students: I encourage you to apply and try-out at least one of the five suggestions outlined here. Though there is no perfect strategy that guarantees online success, trying at least one strategy is better than no strategy.  The critical factor in online learning success is your role as the learner – the learning experience is what you make of it. Be an active participant, ask questions and enjoy the opportunities that learning provides.

Recommendations for Educators
Educators have a role in students’ self-directed learning too, and that is to give the learner the responsibility of learning, expect success and be there. Below are a few suggestions:

  • Outline expectations for students thoroughly, By articulating expectations and the role of the student in the course, we ‘give’ the student the responsibility.
  • Expect questions in the first two weeks of the course. This is the ‘syllabus blues’ phase. Students require more support during this phase than any other. See my post here that describes this phase in detail.
  • Respond promptly to student questions. The twenty-four hour rule is a good benchmark.
  • Don’t expect students to know how to be self-directed, they may need to develop this skill set. Direct students to resources that support students in developing their self-direction skills. Many higher education institutions provide excellent resources for online students. Find out if your school offers these resources, and inform your students about them. If not, consider including a list of resources in your syllabus for students. Below are a few excellent examples:

Tips for Success in Online Learning, Boise State University
Online Study Skills Workshop, Cook Counseling Center, Virginia Tech
Quick Start Guide for Online Students, Sidneyeve Matrix, Queen’s Univerity
Student Tips for Online Learning Success, North Hennepin, Community College

Online learning has its rewards for both students and instructors, as well as its challenges as we’ve explored in this article. But with a sound strategy for learning, a strategy for education that is specific to the online environment, students have the opportunity to be successful online students and life-long learners. I very much like this quote that applies to both students and instructors, ‘learning is not a spectator sport’.

Update: Most recent post on student success strategies from Online Learning Insights—Are you Ready to Learn Online? Five Must-Have-Skills for Online Students

Photo Credits: Jumping for Joy by Peter Voerman, Oude School  and Fun with Google+ Hangouts, by Josephine Dorado, Flickr

Resources for Faculty
Helping Students with Basic Skills,