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Preparing for the Worst: An Online Student’s Guide for Handling Emergencies

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A few terms ago, I had a brilliant student in my English composition class. She actively participated in all the discussion forums, she gave her classmates insightful and encouraging feedback, and she wrote with a passionate elegance. In short, she was an ideal student. About midway through the term, she disappeared without a trace. After weeks of silence, I finally heard back from her advisor: one of the student’s family members had passed away, and she was so distraught that she was unable to concentrate on her classwork. The student tried to make a comeback, but she didn’t have enough time to make up all the missing work.

Sadly, these stories are all too common. Many online students fall off the radar halfway through the term. It usually has nothing to do with their academic abilities. More often than not, students disappear because they encounter unforeseen challenges. Online courses vary in length, but most courses are around 8 weeks long. Although the accelerated format has its advantages, it can make it more difficult for students to rebound after experiencing a setback.

That’s why it’s important to come up with a game plan so you’re prepared to deal with the curveballs that life may throw at you. Here are some of the most common problems you may encounter during your online class and the best ways to deal with them!

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Our Top 10 Favorite Forums for Distance Learning Students

Discussion forums are designed to engage all types of learners in an educational community. Through the various types of forums, students can freely share their ideas, opinions and experiences and can create challenging discussion in an interactive, friendly environment.

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Happy Holidays from Top 5 Online Colleges!

Only a few days ago basically, I posted about how it’s now autumn and the leaves are changing colors and the air is getting crisp. Well, here in Chicago, it’s already winter. I’m being dramatic, but only exaggerating slightly. We’ve had our first snow flurries already and when I woke up this morning, the news was telling me it was 29 degrees outside! While I personally love the fall – the memories of shopping for school supplies as a kid, playing soccer with long sleeve shirts under the jersey, heading to football games, and curling up under a blanket with a hot cup of tea while studying for midterms – this unseasonably cooler weather is getting me ready for one of the best two month stretches of the year!

Halloween next week kicks off Holiday Season, and I couldn’t be more excited! It’s a time to spend with family and friends, to reflect on the past year, and to prepare for things to come in 2014. Holiday Season tends to fly by so quickly, but even though you feel like it’s here and gone before you know it, it can certainly be the cause of a lot of stress. There are travels to be arranged (and the long lines, delays, and traffic to put up with), too much time spent in close proximity to family members you only see once a year and maybe for good reason, gifts to buy while trying to maintain your budget, and big meals to prepare that always take longer than you thought they would.

So, with that being said, especially knowing that many of you are in a year-round online school – which means you don’t get a long winter break between terms – there is a lot on your plate these next few months. But guess what! A few of my previous posts can help with that! Check out tips on time management, or even the most recent one about managing stress. Although the holidays can get crazy and move quickly and become stressful, it’s easy to take the tips we’ve discussed about your education and apply those to your holiday planning as well. Especially when you’re adding schoolwork to the mix.

So think ahead and schedule things out as best you can, but also know that when it comes to this time of year, it’s good to relax and go with the flow whenever possible. As I said before, this is the time of year to rejoice in the people in your life, the opportunities you’ve had, the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are now, and the steps you’re currently taking to get further. Be proud of how far you’ve come and where you’re planning on going, and take some time to celebrate you this holiday season!

The Top 5 Online Colleges Blog will be going on hiatus over the holidays – we don’t want to add to your plate either, by giving you so many interesting things to read when you should be studying! But we’ll be back in the new year with more information, tips, and topics pertaining to your online higher education.

Happy holidays everyone!

Top 5 Reasons Online Higher Education ROCKS!

Today, what I want to address are the top 5 best things you get to experience with an online education. Before I give you that list, I do have to give you this disclaimer – I, myself, am not a student within online higher education. I work in the field, which gives me some insight, but I am still an outside observer. You may or may not agree with my top 5 list, but hopefully it’s at least fairly true to the online higher education experience!

These are in no particular order, and I should also warn you that this is very lighthearted and not at all too serious – in honor of it being the first Friday of fall!

  1. You get to wear pajamas to class! There are definitely pros and cons to going to school online (as there are with any big decision and experience), and this has to be one of the best pros. Now, I know that some traditional college students show up to in-person classes in pajamas and sweatpants, but I have never been on board with that concept. I believe that pajamas and sweatpants don’t belong in public (leggings are not sweatpants in this case, but only when worn appropriately!). So being able to go to class in your PJs, with no judgement and even with slippers on too, is a great perk of online higher education.

  2. You get to make new back-to-school traditions! Instead of buying plaid skirts and sweaters with elbow pads (unless, of course, you want to) and stocking up on pens and notebooks, you get to come up with new back-to-school routines. Perhaps your back-to-school is every 10 weeks, when a new term starts, and it involves you downloading new computer programs or e-books to your e-book reader while playing a song that inspires you. Or maybe it’s the time that you spend arranging your calendar for the next term, and deciding when your time for schoolwork will fit each week, using fun colors to prioritize and organize your days. Whatever you do, I encourage you to make it into a fun routine or tradition. Do something that makes you happy, proud, and excited for school to start again!

  3. You don’t have to live the dorms! Again, there are pros and cons with dorm-living – especially when you’re in your late teens and early twenties. However, I can’t imagine that the prospect of sharing a room with a stranger or even a close friend is all that appealing to anyone. Sure, sharing an apartment with a friend or new roommate can be fun and exciting. But actually living in the same tiny space, with very very little privacy? That’s not something anyone wants to be doing. So rejoice in the fact that you don’t have to suffer through that experience in order to go to college!

  4. You get to make new friends without the awkward meet-and-greets! Online higher education comes with the perk of friendship over social media. Instead of dressing up and making an effort to go meet new people or connect with newer friends over dinner or coffee or a drink, you can send messages and emails to the people in your classes and in your student organizations, and make meaningful relationships all the same! You still have to get out of your comfort zone a little to initiate those communications, but at least you don’t have put on makeup – or even pants – to do so.

  5. You can eat food in class without annoying your classmates! This is directly relates to an email that recently went viral, from a law student to his snacking classmates. I’m not sure this is the typical reaction to students eating during a college class, or that all too many students actually eat in class – but it’s amusing nonetheless. However, you don’t ever have to worry about this! You can eat your tuna salad sandwiches and crunchy apples and jalapeno potato chips (Side note: I personally cannot STAND the smell of those chips!) whenever you want. If you get hungry, you don’t have to suffer the awkwardness of a rumbling stomach – and if you have one, you also don’t have to worry about who else can hear it. So go have your cake and eat it too!

Happy Friday everyone, and I hope you get to enjoy some of the top 5 reasons you love your online education this weekend and in the following weeks!

Social Media and Your Online Education

I know what you’re thinking: Wait? What does my education have to do with Facebook and Twitter??

Well, I can’t say it has a lot to do with your education, but you should definitely think about how it can relate. And that’s because one of the most important things to remember when you get involved with social media is that no matter how private you have your settings, there is still a whole lot of public. The things you post can often be found, and the pictures you share can often be seen. And when it comes to your education and your career path, you definitely want to keep this in mind.

A great way to test out how public versus how private your social media usage is is to Google yourself. And check out the Google image search too. It can be hilarious (didn’t realize that article promoting the play I was in during college would be right at the top!), but also a bit alarming if you didn’t expect so much stuff to show up (also didn’t realize I still had a Myspace profile and all my old pictures are public!). For those of you with relatively common names, it’s less of a concern since it’s hard to sort out who’s who and what’s what in that search. But for the rest, our stuff just pops right up.

Even though the Google search might seem scary after seeing all that’s public, there are a lot of great ways to use public social media to your advantage in life. The abilities we have to connect with other people thanks to all the different types of social media is slightly mind boggling. And when you attend an online school, you can learn how much of an impact things like Facebook or Twitter can have on your connections with peers, faculty, staff, etc. You can tweet questions at your instructor. You can have a casual conversation on Facebook with a classmate who lives halfway across the world. You can see and share inspirational quotes from your university on Pinterest. You can blog about your personal experiences in the hope that it may help others. It’s all pretty cool when you think about it!

However, on the flip side, you can also use your university’s Facebook page to vent about a negative experience or use Twitter to complain about a specific situation. And maybe that’s helpful to you, to publically express your concerns, but it also can reflect very poorly on your character. And it can even have an impact on your future career path. After all, you’re always told that no matter how much you’ve disliked a previous job or company, you should never badmouth them during an interview for a new job. And that’s because when an employer hears something like that, they can’t help but wonder what you’ll say about them in the future. The same thing goes for badmouthing a university. If you’re interested in transferring schools or applying to a program at another school in the future, they may do their research, find some of the things you’ve said and decide to decline your application. And that can even be the case with a job application as well.

Social media can be something that, when used negatively, can impact your future. And online students have to remember that more than traditional on-campus students, because you can’t just mention a professor’s unfair grade to a friend over lunch in the cafeteria and then forget about it a week later. Instead, your easiest option may be to mention that to a friend in a post on a university Facebook group, and you’re probably not thinking about how it can stay there forever and be seen by staff members or new students. Therefore, the easiest option may not always be the best one for online students, and using social media can become frustrating. But do remember that social media can also be a beautiful thing: a tool to communicate with people you may never find otherwise, and to enhance your online education by offering more ways to stay connected online.

In order to use social media to your best advantage, here are my quick tips:

  • Make sure to set your own privacy settings to the level that allows you to feel comfortable with the content you share. If you plan on using your Facebook profile to vent when you’re frustrated or share personal photos with friends, go ahead and do so! Just make sure that it all stays private to your page and your friends, and double check that it’s working (and again whenever Facebook changes things).

  • Don’t share photos, links, quotes, etc. publicly online if you think it’s something you’d be asked to take down if you were in a physically public space, like a school or office.

  • Consider how you vent frustrations. It’s always okay to say something if you’re looking for a solution, but if you’re just trying to release some anger, it’s not a good idea to post on the university’s Facebook page. They’re usually monitoring and will often take action – either to help you if there was a problem (even if you’re currently in the process of solving it) or against you if there’s anything threatening.

  • In general, just always really think about the things you post on public social media – such as Facebook groups or pages, anywhere on Twitter, pins on Pinterest, blogs, comments on websites, etc. Additionally, consider when and where it’s appropriate to use your full name.

  • Use your social media profiles and posts to promote yourself! Employers are probably Googling you these days, and the more good things you put out there, the better you look as a future employee. Think outside the standard social media box too – i.e., you can even use Pinterest to share images and topics that show you to future employers in your best light! A lot of positive stuff being shared can drown out the few “it lives forever on the internet” mistakes that we all have made.

How You Can Get Involved Outside the Online Classroom

I have to start this second-part post with a disclaimer – each institution will have different options to get involved, and I can’t guarantee every suggestion I make here will be available at every online university. However, I strongly encourage you to begin to look into your options – and to look into the options available when you are still deciding on which school to attend as well!

So now you know why it’s important to get involved in college, but you’re not quite sure how to get things started. After all, as mentioned before, you can’t just walk into an office for student engagement or grab a flyer with the date and time of an upcoming student organization meeting. But never fear, this is still the internet and your online school’s website will have a lot of great information for you!

A good place to start looking, especially for those of you who are looking before registering at an institution, is to check out the university’s public website. Most websites will include a section about student experience. This is a place for universities to include information about “campus life,” services offered relating to your career search, student involvement and organizations, disability services, social media resources, information about events and webinars, and more. If you can’t find a student experience or similar section, you can look for some of those breakout topics individually as well. And don’t forget about the handy dandy search function!

Another spot to learn more about ways to get involved outside the classroom is within your student portal. This isn’t something you can see unless you’re enrolled at a university, but once you have access, I definitely encourage you to explore all aspects of your portal. Not only will that help you learn more about what your institution offers in general, but it will also provide you with details about how you can engage with the university beyond just your classes – you can find things like webinars that are only offered to students at the university or information on joining online clubs or access to a career network that provides resume building tools and more. Usually, what you see on the public website is just a hint at what you have access to as a student, so the portal often has more details about student engagement.

If you’ve been digging around on the website and on your portal, and you’re still not sure what is offered, you can always check your university’s catalog. Usually it will include basic information about the student services that are offered, including engagement and involvement opportunities. You should be able to use the catalog to find out what is offered – like student organizations – at the very least, even if that does mean you still have to do a little more research to figure out how to then involve yourself. Also, read those emails that your university sends you. I’m sure you get a lot, but you never know when one advertising a club or inviting you to an honor society or promoting a webinar on time-management might pop up – sort of like a virtual flyer! So keep your eyes open for direct communication from your institution too.

Finally, one of the quickest, easiest and most helpful ways to learn more about how to get involved at your institution is to ask someone! Ask your advisor, ask your admissions counselor, ask your instructors, ask your peers. Let your advisor or instructor know that you’d love to get involved outside the classroom and you’re interested in knowing what’s available. Even if they don’t have a direct answer, they should be able to set you off in the right direction. A lot of student organizations are actually connected to different academic departments and schools as well, so your instructors and peers within your classes can be a great resource regarding organizations that relate to your education.

Student involvement at an online school can be a more difficult thing to discover than at a traditional campus, due to the nature of the online campuses and the huge focus on academics (Yay!). Academics aren’t always the first things noticed with traditional institutions, so it can be easy to find out how to join a student group when they’re very present around campus. But by having to do a little research to see what is offered at your online school, you’re only enhancing your skills that can be related back to the classroom – after all, you’re doing research! – and allowing yourself to learn more about your university. It can be easy to log on, go to class, do your homework, and log off, so by simply looking for how to get involved outside the classroom, you’re already starting to engage with your institution on a higher level. Which, as we know from the previous post, has a lot of benefits!

Why You Should Get Involved Outside the Online Classroom

Student involvement in college is a big part of the higher education experience in traditional universities. Because most traditional students are leaving their parents’ houses, saying goodbye to their social circles from their hometowns and high schools, and entering a whole new world for the first time, getting involved outside of the classroom is a vital part of creating a life on campus.

So even though many of you have set up a life for yourself already – with family, friends, community activities, etc. – and you’re taking courses from the comfort of your own home instead of starting in a new city, you should be interested in getting involved with your university as well! And this is why…

(You may begin to notice that I’m a fan of bullet points.)

  • Getting involved outside the classroom allows you to connect to your university on another level – which means it’s one more thing you have to disconnect from if you would end up leaving in the middle of your education. That’s why involvement actually helps with retention rates at universities. And while that seems beneficial to the insiders at the institution who want to keep you as a student, it’s also beneficial to you, the person who wants to graduate with that college degree and may find some extra motivation to stay with it until the end pretty useful!

  • Who doesn’t want to make more friends!? While I’m sure there are actually many people who aren’t looking to make friends when they choose to attend an online college, graduating with a few new unique people in your life can’t be a bad thing. Especially because a lot of online students have the privilege of being able to connect with people all over the world, so who knows – you may end up with a pen pal in Russia or New Zealand!

  • Speaking of friends, being able to connect with others who share your experience of attending an online school can be very helpful as you work on your degree. The classroom may not be the easiest place to ask others for tips on topics for papers or to ask about how to reach out to a professor about a grade, but joining a student organization or interest group gives you a forum to talk with other students that you may not have access to without getting involved. You may also have the chance to learn new ideas from folks that share an interest but have a different level of knowledge, which can be beneficial both inside the classroom as well as in your “real life” too.

  • Networking. Online university students have one thing in common that not all 18-22 year old traditional college students always have – you are here for an education in order to ideally better your life and your career. It’s not just “something you’re supposed to do after high school” – it’s a big decision that you’ve made with a lot of thought put into it. A huge part of building a career these days is networking and knowing the “right people.” By getting involved with different groups and communities, you are stretching your branches on the networking tree to more people – which can really only help, and not hurt, your job search and career opportunities.

  • And finally (though I could continue with this list for quite some time), getting involved outside the classroom can add to your resume… that other vital part of the job search. You may take on a leadership role within a student group – something as small as a committee member for a one-time webinar or a bi-monthly newsletter, or as large as the president of the organization – and that’s something you can definitely list on your resume. Additionally, if you are a member of a nationally-affiliated organization, the name alone can stand out on your resume.

This was a wordy list, but one that is pretty important (though my role as a Student Life Specialist makes me a bit biased toward student involvement). And I’ve given you a lot of “whys” when it comes to involvement, but what about the “hows?” The unique aspect of online education can sometimes make finding out about organizations and student engagement a bit challenging – after all, you won’t be walking around a campus plastered with flyers for an upcoming meeting or guest speakers. You’ll need to seek it out on your own a bit more, but luckily I’m here to help with that!

So let’s call this a two-part post, and you can look forward to part two in the near future, in which I will begin to tackle the “hows” of getting involved!