Tips For Success For Adult Learners In Online Classes

H. E. JamesHattie E. James is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho, who has traveled throughout Europe and has spent countless hours in the car traveling around the United States. She has a varied background, including education and history, as well as journalism. Hattie enjoys sharing her passions through the written word. She is currently spending many sleepless nights seeking her graduate degree, but she always sets aside time to enjoy a good cider.

This Old Dog, Her New Trick

The older we get, the more difficult it becomes for us to learn new things. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn new things. What happens is that many of us fear learning something different — we’re like Garth in Wayne’s World. We fear change.

When I decided to go back to grad school, the only thing of which I was afraid was taking classes online. Granted, I am the typical online learner – a middle-aged white woman. This also means that I am a digital immigrant. I was not born with a smartphone in my hand. I still remember how to use a rotary phone and having to go to the computer lab as an undergraduate student.

I’m an ex-English teacher, so I whipped out many of my old teaching and learning habits, like reassessing my learning styles (multi-modal). Not all of us who are returning to the virtual classroom can do this, so I have a few tips to succeed if you’re like me – an older learner trying the newer trick of online learning.

Don’t Panic

The program that I chose, at my alma mater in Idaho, is a hybrid fast-track program, and when I began the program, I panicked. Do not do what I did. My school, Northwest Nazarene University, has an MBA Orientation course that guided me through both the rigors of the Masters program in which I enrolled and the online learning portal. The latter of these two was especially important as NNU had just changed platforms, and I had learned the “old” online platform the week before starting my first class! Having never taken an online course before, I took copious notes.

The teacher in me made sure I paid extra attention in this course, for I had honestly never seen an online learning portal before. The closest I had come was watching webinars as a teacher to facilitate continuing education. This was not the same. If you get lost (and you will), always remember there is a home button.

This may sound silly and a little patronizing, but when you are in the throes of navigating an online course for the first time, it can be overwhelming. Many of my friends and family consider me to the techie one, yet I got lost quite a few times in the first week of roaming around my online courses. Don’t panic – you will eventually get the hang of it.

Take Your Time – And Manage It Wisely

As I was taking my sweet time roaming around my very first online course, I realized that I didn’t have very much time. I had just eight weeks to do sixteen weeks of work! I had to quit procrastinating, which has always been a problem for me. As Thomas Descoteaux and Jared Reigstad of Norwich University state in their presentation Attributes of Online Learning, online learning lends itself to managing time more wisely for adult learners like you and me. It gives us a chance to do our learning when we know we will be at our best. For me, that is in the evening, after I’ve come home from work, had my dinner, watched a little Magnum, P.I.

I tried to read first thing in the morning, before I went to work. I am not that person. I cannot wake up three hours before I go to work, go to the gym, eat my breakfast, and get an hour of homework completed. I tried. For a week. And, I was exhausted. You might be able to do all that, and therein lies the beauty of online learning for us older adult learners – we are self-aware enough (and adult enough) – to know when something is not working.

Adapt And Overcome

When we do become aware of a chink in the armor of our time management skills, we adult learners, especially those of us who have a number of professional years under our belts, have the skills to make adjustments necessary to make online learning work for us.

At the beginning of the program, I warned each of my professors that I asked a lot of questions. For one poor adjunct, I think I became a bit of a pest. He was one of the first professors I had in the program, and it was also his first time teaching an online course. We were learning together! But it’s the ability to seek out assistance when we know we need it that sets up adult learners like you and me for success.

I am a writer and a former teacher, and though I am in an online learning program, there are things I still like to have printed. Many of my professors require digital case studies in addition to the hard-copy textbooks and nonfiction we read. I always print the case studies. I like to underline and take notes in my reading. It’s the English teacher in me – you can take the girl out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the girl.

Perhaps I’m wasting paper. But, for me, this is an important aspect of overcoming a major issue to online learning as I’ve grown older: I can’t see what’s on the screen as easily as I used to. My online program has even caused me to finally relent and get reading glasses – something that I refused to do for more than five years!

Organize, Organize, Organize!

Printing things doesn’t just help me read them, it helps me stay organized. If they remain digital, I forget about them. I may be a writer, but I am also that creative person who is very logical.

I print every syllabus for every class. I read every page of the syllabi, and I print an extra copy of the course schedule, listing all the assignments for each of the eight weeks. Because I rent many of the ridiculously expensive textbooks for my classes, I also buy Moleskine cahier notebooks for each class, and write notes by hand.

Oddly, I also take advantage of the technology at my disposal. Right? Scared about taking an online course, but here I am advising you to take full advantage of any technology at your disposal. It does help. I used some of my federal grant money to purchase a brand new desktop (my laptop was 10 years old and was failing at helping me through the first few courses). I also bit the bullet and actually purchased apps for all three of my platforms: the desktop, my iPad, and my iPhone.

I’ve taken advantage of the student discount that comes with being enrolled in a graduate program again, and having better, more full-integrated technology comes in handy when you work full-time as many of us do. Though we are digital immigrants rather than natives, many of us middle-aged online learners have become tied to our smartphones and our tablets. Use them. If you are a parent (I am not), they are a great way to stay connected to your online learning while staying connected to your family.

Ubiquitous? Maybe, Maybe Not

Many of my classmates are middle-aged like I am, and through various discussions, I have found that the majority of us employ similar techniques for navigating the new-fangled world of online learning. It seems many of us take our learning with us wherever we go – hence the beauty of online learning.

In the end, through traditional adult learners are defined as being over the age of 25, many online learners are even older. Many of us are Generation X, and what we do best is adapt to our environment. Make it work for you, as I have done.

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