Top 5 Things Students Need to Know About Online Learning

By Ashford University Staff


Many students are drawn to online learning for the convenience and flexibility it offers. For working adults, the benefits of online learning go beyond the advantage of attending class any time or the ease of engaging with instructors and other learners anywhere there is Internet access. For students juggling multiple priorities, such as career and family, online learning is a likely choice because of the many benefits. While taking a class online provides for a great deal of flexibility, it also means an increase in responsibility and other skill sets. It doesn’t mean that the work is “easier” than an on-campus course. With the convenience and flexibility of a 24/7 classroom comes an increased responsibility to self-motivate, manage time appropriately, adequately prepare for academic success, actively participate and fully engage in your learning, and become more familiar and comfortable with the use of technology.

There are five things prospective students should know in advance about earning an online degree:

1. Online learning isn’t self-paced learning.

An online class is not an independent study where you work at your own pace. Instead, you will have deadlines to meet and will be required to participate in discussions on a schedule set by the University. This requirement calls for you to manage your time efficiently. Dr. Michael Reilly, a Professor from the Forbes School of Business®, Graduate Studies Division at Ashford University, offers this advice, “Create a realistic schedule. Plan to succeed by setting dedicated time aside to complete and submit work in a timely manner. Life will get in the way if you don’t focus time on your studies.” Dr. James Moore, Assistant Professor from the Forbes School of Business®, Graduate Studies Division at Ashford University, adds, “I would recommend that students look ahead at assignment and course requirements. We had a saying in the military, ‘prior and proper planning prevents poor performance.’ In academia, this saying simply means come to class prepared just like you would for an on-campus class.”

2. Online learning is typically asynchronous.

In an online course, most of your interactions with your instructors and classmates will be asynchronous and uniquely virtual. Discussion forums are used in place of the face-to-face discussions. Mihaiela Norton, a graduate student, earning her MA in Organizational Management with a Human Resources Management specialization at Ashford University, adds, "Extra effort is required to stay engaged and to learn; there is no face-to-face time with the instructor." Dr. Reilly adds, “The course instructor’s role is to teach and evaluate student learning. The student’s role is to learn and demonstrate learning. Students must recognize how these roles work together to achieve success in the course.”

3. Assignments are submitted online.

Ensure that you have the required software and become familiar with the learning platform. Dr. Moore emphasizes, “Students need to be prepared to operate in an online environment. They need to be aware of the changing educational milieu and its requirements.” Reliable technology is also a must. Graduate student Mihaiela Norton advises that, "Having a good quality computer and Internet access is critical. You cannot afford downtime due to technical issues.” Always have a “Plan B” in case of computer or other technical problems in the middle of an online class. If you do experience technical difficulty, ask for help and communicate with your instructor immediately.

4. Your writing is your voice.

A significant difference between online classes and the on-campus classroom is that almost all of your contact with your instructors and classmates in an online course will be in written form. Across all areas of the course, it is important to contribute actively. For example, respond to your instructor or classmates’ posts when they address you directly, even if you’ve already met the stated minimum participation requirements. Doing so demonstrates your active participation. Although additional research may not be needed for a discussion or assignment requirement, the use of resources adds credibility to your work. When responding to a discussion question that specifically asks for your experience, resources can support the point you’re making. If a discussion question or assignment is prompting for your experience, it doesn't mean you should write an opinion piece without proof, research, or well-reasoned rationale to support your conclusions. When you lead with your experiences and opinions, back your work with proof and research.

5. Attendance is your responsibility.

Self-motivation and your ability to guide and direct your own learning will be key to your success. Research suggests that students taking online classes require self-directed learning, a willingness and capacity to conduct one’s own education (Song & Hill, 2007). “Online learning takes individual self-discipline and blocked time to focus on what needs to be completed,” says Delana Bond, a graduate student earning her MA in Organizational Management with a specialization in Human Resources Management at Ashford University, of her experience. You must contribute actively to demonstrate your engagement.

If you have suggestions or recommendations on how your instructors can make your online course more meaningful to you, it is up to you to say so. You are encouraged to take an active role in your learning experience.

Written by Katie Thiry, PhD

Dr. Thiry is an Assistant Professor in the Forbes School of Business® at Ashford University.


Song, L. & Hill, J. A conceptual model for understanding self-directed learning in online environments, (2007). Journal of Interactive Online Learning, v 6 (1).

© 2015 Ashford University, LLC. All rights reserved.


Questions? Talk with an Advisor

Are you currently a licensed RN?

This program requires you to be a current licensed registered nurse. Please check out other programs to reach your education goals such as the BA in Health and Wellness.

Step 1 of 2

Let us help.

Fill out this form to talk with an advisor.

Are you currently a licensed RN?

This program requires you to be a current licensed registered nurse. Please check out other programs to reach your education goals such as the BA in Health and Wellness.