6 things you need to know before starting your online graduate degree

Next month I'm writing my comprehensive exams and wrapping up a Master of Arts in Education and Human Development with a concentration in Education Technology Leadership from The George Washington University. I learned a few things along the way about distance learning in this graduate degree that will benefit others thinking about online learning. Here are five things to consider: [Edit: since this original post in June 2015, I have completed another master's degree from Queen's University. The lessons still hold true!]

Textbooks: Buy or Rent?

Digital rentals sound like a great deal. You get to use the most current text, usually for six months, for less than the cost of the print text plus you have access anytime and anywhere you have an internet connection. Reader apps include markup tools and the ability to annotate with margin notes that you can share with others. The ability to search within a chapter or the entire text for keywords is very handy, and bookmarks are synchronized between all your devices.

On the down side, you need an internet connection unless you "check out" sections prior to being off-line. Printing is limited, though generous and your access is limited to the rental period. The latter is a serious consideration when it comes time a couple of years down the road and you're wanting to review for your comprehensive exams. While you can still access your margin notes and highlighted items, you no longer have access to the text. There are no short-term rentals to reactivate, say, for a month or a couple of weeks and there are no discounts for renewals.You have to pay the full cost again. While digital rentals are less than a new book, the savings is not always that great. maybe 25% off a print copy.

Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Well, digital books are very handy when it comes to searchability, markup and sharing features. If the book were available as a PDF or ePub which you could keep forever for the same as, or a little more than the rental, I'd jump at that for sure.

Course Management Systems: Accessing Past Work

Online learning spaces like Moodle, D2L, or BlackBoard offer a lot of tools for sharing content and engaging with other students. Discussion boards have a rich store of thoughtful questions, many considered responses, and robust debates about course issues. It is also the repository for lecture materials, links to supporting resources, and the syllabus.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to archive anything and courses are often archived the following term. That means you no longer have any access to those materials. No lectures, no syllabus, nothing. Unless you have made notes while you read, or copied and pasted (and formatted, because that is often a messy affair) you have none of that course material.

Keep a record of your own posts, particularly if they contain important ideas and research. On a couple of occasions, I've been able to refer back to previous course contributions and revisit those ideas in the new course.

Citation Manager: You Need One

Best. Thing. Ever. Really. There are many out there, but I use Mendeley. I have a research folder on my computer that the Mendeley program monitors. When a new PDF file appears, it scans for the author, date, journal, title, etc. and makes it searchable in my Mendeley database. I can read, markup, annotate, and make notes within the application and it syncs with my mobile so I have everything there too. There is a Word plugin that inserts citations and a bibliography with a couple of clicks. The web interface lets me create research groups and share/receive documents from others.

This tool has saved me countless hours of formatting and I have even received several compliments on my APA compliance from different instructors in different classes. Mendeley even recognizes when and how to change inline citations with multiple authors after the first instance, and when to use ellipses for six or more authors... it's amazing.

Really. You need Mendeley.

Online Group Projects: Strategies to Make it Work

You're likely to have some group projects and they are great opportunities to get to know people from around the world, and to explore online conferencing tools. Skype is good for one-to-one meetings, but it's hard to beat Google Hangout for larger groups. Add in the ability to screen-share and synchronously work on documents, and Google offers a rich palette of collaborative tools that are well worth learning.

In your first group hangout, take some time to get to know each other. Talk about work and family, holidays, interests, etc. It's important to make personal connections which builds a sense of trust and community. Talk in broad terms about the project and determine each other's strengths. Come to some agreement about how to approach the assignment and some vision of the final product.

Set up a Google Doc for sharing initial ideas, research, draft writing, marginal commentary, etc. At the top of the page, copy and paste the assignment description and assessment rubric. Set out one page with a section title for each part of the project. Plunk in information as you find it in the relevant section.

An important piece of this is keeping track of research and references. Set up a shared folder and upload the research you find and use. If everyone is using GoogleDrive, these will sync for all people on the share list. If you set the folder as a Mendeley watch folder, it will also automatically be added to your research database! We would cut and paste the citations in APA format at the bottom of the document - it is really helpful if everyone does this in APA format, or whatever is required of you, right from the start. If you use web-based articles, take the time to make the citation as you grab the information. Don't just plunk in the URL, it's a pain to have to re-look up stuff when you're near the end and putting together the bibliography.

In the GoogleDoc, don't worry too much about formatting your content. Have someone from the group copy and paste the document into Word. There you can format much more easily and you can take advantage of Mendeley's features to insert all the citations and generate the bibliography. It is also worthwhile to have someone to re-work the paper from top to bottom to give it one voice, particularly if the group has each written a section and you're tacking it all together. My preference has been to get everyone to contribute to each section, then have one person wash through it. Then pass it along to a second person to proofread and clean up and finally to the whole group for a last polishing.

Make Connections

Part of the fun of online learning is connecting with classmates. In face-to-face learning, your peers are often from the same city. It is not uncommon in online learning, however, to share the virtual learning space with people from all over the globe. As a Canadian enrolled in an American university, I've worked with people from all over the USA as well as learners that were living at the time in Israel, Norway, Spain, Guatemala, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. I was also able to continue my studies while in Australia for 12 months and continued uninterrupted while travelling in Thailand and New Zealand. Many of us have connected on LinkedIn to maintain professional contact. Several have connected on Twitter as part of a professional learning network, and a couple have made their way into my Facebook feed as friends.

One of the criticisms leveled against online learning is the lack of face-to-face contact, yet, having experienced a significant degree of both, there is no doubt in my mind that I engaged with more of my peers, and more deeply, than could ever happen in a classroom setting. Imagine being in a classroom where you are discussing a topic with the person beside you. You get the one conversation and may receive a brief summary of the others when groups report to the class.

Now imagine being privy to every one of those conversations, and having the ability to participate in them all too. Now imagine that those conversations aren't limited to a three-hour class on a Tuesday night; these conversations are on 24/7. That's what the online learning space is like. It's intense, it's deep, it's overwhelming at times, but managed right, it's tremendously satisfying.

Grad School Battle StationPrepare your Battle Station: Or "office", whatever you want to call it

Online work tends to be mostly, well, online. Your lectures are online, the syllabus is online, the discussion boards, research library, marking rubrics, group meetings, work documents... it's all on the computer and you're going to want to look at more than one thing at a time. My laptop has both an RGB port and an HDMI port. That lets me add two monitors to my workstation; think of it as having a huge desk with a massive bulletin board. I routinely have my course management system (BlackBoard) showing the assignment criteria, my digital text rental for connecting my writing to the course readings, Mendeley for managing other research and citations, Word or Google Docs (or both) for the writing task at hand, and Chrome for research. I tried using a single screen and task bar to flip from one to the other, but, transition time between tasks, even when pursuing the same goal, requires task-reorientation, and introduces risk of distraction. (See my article on  multitasking). While there is a lot of visual stimuli going on, task-reorientation is minimized because no previous task has to be hidden and the time to switch tasks is reduced to fractions of a second.


Have you completed coursework online? Any tips or strategies to share? Would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

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