What I Learned in My Online Program

What I learned in My Online Program by Angela Whitlow, M.A. Media Communications ‘14

Webster University’s Online Learning Center (OLC) reached out to me about feedback from my experience as a December 2014 graduate of the online Master of Arts Media and Communications program. I’ve been a non-traditional student working on my undergraduate and graduate degree completion since August 1997. During this time, I was employed full-time and parenting my three children, one of whom has special needs. Attending class during the day, in the evening, and eventually online, was challenging. But I was committed, so I persevered.

Here are some of the things I learned:

Identify your study habits. What worked well for me was to wake as early as 2am to finish writing a paper rather than stay up until 2am. In most cases, because I am a visual learner, I preferred reading discussions over on campus classroom discussions. I could respond to posts in the morning and later that evening continuing the conversation.

Love reading and writing. Our assignments in the MA-MEDC program often included watching films with a written critical reflection. It was a benefit for me to have time to respond in a paper or post. Other assignments were 1-2 page papers or leading a written discussion, which I particularly enjoyed. Written response has always been a strength for me. I remember getting excited about essay tests; I’m the type to provide ‘comments’ on the end of course surveys so that I can express myself more clearly. When I’d see a syllabus with lots of papers and research required, I’d smile because I already knew the grade – A!

Read the syllabus completely. I received one ‘B’ grade during my graduate program at Webster. I submitted a paper late. If there is a downside to online learning, sometimes it is the technology. Webster’s Online Learning Center provides support, who could have advocated on my behalf, if I chose to fight the submission time stamp. Read the syllabus carefully. Communicate with the professor; it’s just an email!

Plan ahead and pace your learning. For my final course, the capstone, the instructor plainly laid out the 100 page assignment, requirements, and deadlines. Submissions were required throughout the 9-week term and adequately paced. I wrote on my Facebook post during that time: “I typed with the synchronicity of playing a piano”.

Invest in an upgraded laptop. Convenience is the number one reason people choose an online learning environment. Why aggravate the convenience with a poorly performing machine? Online learning worked for me, but it is a challenge for some. Computers are our modern day robots. How well it communicates with you is a matter of updated software.

Setting a schedule requires discipline. My study habits since undergrad haven’t changed dramatically; I work best very early in the morning before my day gets started; that way I enter the day with a sense of accomplishment. In my undergraduate program I would have class until as late as 10pm, twice per week. Some semesters I felt like I only saw my kids in the morning. It was like Groundhog’s Day all the time. Choose a time of day and day(s) of the week that you designate for being “in school”.

Accountability. In a traditional classroom, attendance means accountability is met when an individual is physically present. Online learning is the opposite. You must be virtually present (logged in) in order to complete discussions, typically 3 times per week, and your feedback on other’s posts is typically a part of the grading system. To do well in an online program, any program really, you must be mentally present “in school.”

Find a distraction-free area to work in. Determine if you will need alternate areas that can be quickly made available if there’s an unexpected problem. This can be as simple as connectivity, personal visitors, interruptions, and surrounding volume. Coffee shops can be problematic for some audio learners.

Sign up for the alerts and notifications features. It can’t hurt! Do it early when you first review the syllabus.

Be prepared to introduce yourself to the professor. This is usually an online assignment in week one.

Read your classmates’ introductions. This will give you a sense of perspectives being offered in discussions.

Comment and ask questions of each other. This is like your chance to study abroad! Get in tune with the class participants so that the dialogue on discussion boards feels more genuine. Discussions can be fun, allow them to be!

Add dates to your calendar (or import the Calendar Feed). Anticipate conflicts and get those remedied now.

Acquire the book(s) and determine how you’ll keep them on you at all times. Online learners are moving around and often are not in a singular environment all day. Doctor’s appointments and time in lobby/waiting rooms become great study opportunities.

Compromise. What can you give up to increase your time available especially around deadlines?

Communicate. Let others know that you’re taking an online course so that they respect your time restraints. Often online courses are not considered real classes. You’ll quickly learn that nothing can be further from the truth.

Be organized in your electronic filing. Assign sub folders by class and section number in one system.

Don’t wait to start. Write an outline even if it is not part of the assignment. It will organize your paper and help you visualize the amount of work so that you can pace yourself through completion. Ask classmates about their best practices.

The online master’s program at Webster fit well into the pace of things (home, personal, work). The rigor challenged me to feel that the investment was well worth it. In the early days of being a non-traditional student, it was the start of each semester that often brought me to a personal “recommitment ceremony” each time. Inevitably something conflicted with my children’s after-school commitments and Saturday programs. One Thursday each week for nearly two years was dedicated to being in a classroom until 10pm. I’d leave work at 4:30 to get to class by 5:00 with no break. An online program would have been a lifesaver for me as an undergraduate!

Listen to Angela talk about her Webster Experience:


Angela Whitlow is a M.A. Media Communications graduate and is Director of Services for Boys Hope Girls Hope and Founder of Irons in the Fire.