Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

6 tips for virtual learning success

Virtual classes continue for spring/summer term

In a world turned upside down, adaptation has become the name of the game.

Simple things we took for granted, like grabbing dinner or hanging out with friends, now require a fair bit of logistical planning. It’s not insurmountable, just different – and the longer the coronavirus pandemic disrupts our lives, the more adept we are at adapting.

Students and staff at NAIT proved this point several weeks ago when most in-person classes for the winter term were moved online – a decision that was repeated for spring/summer. Such unprecedented change isn’t without challenges but as Dr. Sue Fitzsimmons, vice-president academic and provost, recently told students, “We are open for business and will continue to meet your needs with our unique polytechnic education.”

Learning virtually is unquestionably different but with some advance preparation, a solid routine and – you guessed it – adaptation, success is a mouse-click away. A pair of NAIT virtual learning experts share their top tips for staying on track when online.

1. Know what’s expected from the outset

female student asks question while online

The biggest difference between learning in a classroom and online is independence, says Linden Couteret, a learning adviser at NAIT. Assignment deadlines might be the same but students have more freedom to keep up with their coursework than they’d have in a regular classroom.

“Finding that information right from the start is really important.”

Couteret says students can help themselves by understanding what’s expected of them from the outset. In many cases that information will be shared by the instructor through the course syllabus. But that shouldn’t stop you from asking questions like: how much interaction is required between student and instructor or student and student? How many hours a week will this course require? When are assignments due? How are you being assessed?

“Every instructor is going to do things differently,” she says, “so finding that information right from the start is really important.”

2. Make sure you have the right tools

working on a project with a laptop

It might seem obvious, but access to technology is imperative in a virtual learning environment. According to Jodi Manz-Henezi, chair of NAIT’s Disaster and Emergency Management program – which was delivered 100% virtually before the pandemic – that means having access to a laptop, desktop or something with a large screen that’s not going to result in eye or neck strain.

“Using your mobile phone is probably not going to be the best option for you,” she says.

Manz-Henezi also recommends using the tools available to NAIT students, such as Office 365, Moodle or WebEx, depending on the course.

If you don’t have access to a computer at home, students can use the Computer Commons labs in the Centre for Applied Technology (CAT215 and CAT280).

3. Make a schedule that works for you

creating a schedule in phone

Some students find it difficult to get started in a virtual environment, Couteret says. Making a schedule – and sticking to it – will help avoid behaviours such as procrastination. Make a plan that works for your habits or work and life obligations. If you’re a morning person, study while you’re fresh and the sun is shining. If you’re running after kids all day, hive off time in the evening for work.

It’s also important to take breaks. People can optimally maintain focus for 30 to 40 minutes at a time, Couteret says. Try and take 15 minutes every hour to step away to drink water, eat, go for a walk.

There’s research that shows some students in an online environment find it difficult to stop studying or take the breaks they normally would on campus, she says.

“They actually end up spending more time on their school to the point where it impacts other things negatively,” she explains.

4. Make connections with instructors and peers

group chat meeting

Even though your instructor is still present and available, the lack of direct face time (as opposed to FaceTime, Teams, WebEx, Zoom or email!) can feel isolating, Couteret says.

“When you don’t have that person in front of you, it’s sometimes harder to know that help is there.”

Help is, of course, still there, she adds. But an email reply might not be as immediate as an in-person query. Campus services – from learning services to the library to student counselling – are also still available.

“There’s lots of ways to get together, work together, connect and learn from each other.”

To overcome that feeling of isolation, Couteret recommends building community with peers just as you would on campus. “It looks different than meeting the students who are just sitting next to you, but it can still happen.”

In some cases those connections can develop during class using tools like Moodle forums, but virtual study groups are another option, whether on Microsoft Teams or through social media.

“There’s lots of ways to get together, work together, connect and learn from each other.”

5. Ask for help – and about your options

asking a question in a video call

Just like the onus is on students to create a study schedule, it’s important to ask for help when needed. Manz-Henezi, who completed her master’s degree online, recommends setting up a Teams meeting with an instructor or peers in a study group.

“Instructors will never complain about being asked what students can do to succeed.”

Don’t be shy about asking your instructor about options regarding course material, Couteret says. If your instructor uses a lot of video in the course and you prefer text, ask them about alternatives, including any transcripts or supplementary material on Moodle, she says.

“Instructors will never complain about being asked what students can do to succeed.”

6. Remember: you’re isolated, not alone

online meeting with group

In all her years of virtual teaching, Manz-Henezi says maintaining engagement is one of the biggest challenges for some students in a virtual classroom because it “can get a bit lonely.”

“Everything starts off really exciting, but by the end of term people are just wiped out,” she says.

Some programs, like hers, rely on group projects to keep students motivated. That way the onus isn’t just on the individual or the instructor but a peer group to say, “Hey, we’ve got work to do,” Manz-Henezi says.

Instructors often use course analytics in platforms like Moodle to identify if a student hasn’t been active online or spent much time in a learning module. If that happens, don’t be surprised if an instructor or chair reaches out with an email, call or chat to see if you’re OK.

“So, some of the onus goes on us [instructors], too. We do what we can to try to make sure they’re staying engaged.”


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