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With recent trends indicating the continued growth of online learning, students both young and old are likely to encounter an increasing number of online courses available to them. To navigate this growing learning trend, it is best to be prepared with the information you need to decide if online courses are for you.

For those curious about taking online classes, some common questions may come to mind. Check out the recommendations below to help answer some of these questions and don’t forget to read up on 3 big myths about taking online classes before you go.

What if I don’t have Word or PowerPoint on my computer?

Don’t worry. Though these Microsoft tools are great to have for online classes, they’re not necessary. You can use similar tools just by having an email account through Google’s Gmail. With a Gmail account, you can access Google Drive, where you can use Google Docs and Google Slides.

Google Docs is similar, but the online version of Word. And Google Slides is similar, but the online version of PowerPoint. Both tools even possess benefits over their Microsoft counterparts as Docs and Slides can be shared between multiple people online, making it easier to complete group work in real-time.

Once you have a Gmail account, log on and open Google Drive. Look for these two icons to use each tool. Between the two, most students should have the tools needed to succeed in their online coursework.

Are online classes self-paced or scheduled?

Both options are available depending on the online program. Self-paced courses mean you work to finish assignments and complete a certain number of online hours by yourself. In self-paced courses, you go at your own speed without much instructor interaction.

By contrast, scheduled online courses, also known as Real-Time Virtual (RTV) courses, meaning you will need to be online with the instructor and other students for each class period. RTV courses are much more similar to the in-person class experience than self-paced courses. Often, scheduled online courses come with more structured guidelines for accomplishing work and can include group work.

For those who need a lot of flexibility in their online learning due to other obligations or those who want to avoid the anxieties that sometimes come with in-class interactions, self-paced courses can be the best option. For students who are looking for an online class that can provide an experience as close to an in-person class as possible, RTV coursework is the right option for you.

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How often and how much will students interact with the instructor and other students?

The amount of interaction with instructors and other students depends on whether the class is self-paced or RTV. In self-paced courses, there will be little contact with other students and minimal contact with an instructor – most taking place via email or discussion board. Instructors of these courses decide how often they will check in on your progress.

RTV courses require being in contact with the instructor and other students for every class. During these classes, you, your classmates, and your instructor will all join an online classroom via video chat. RTV will allow you to interact in real-time and participate in lively class discussions.

Since both types of online courses differ in the level of interaction they provide, students thinking of taking a course online should determine which type will be best for their individual learning style.

How do I find what I need for class?

Most online classes take place on interactive platforms such as Blackboard Ultra. Such platforms make it easy to access anything you’ll need to complete your coursework – you just need to understand where to look.

As an example, check out the image of Blackboard shown below. The toolbar down the left side of the screen is where you can access instructor messages, schedule your time to work on assignments using the calendar, and check your grades.

This screen has the “Courses” section pulled up. As you can see, this is where you find all the courses you’re enrolled in. Once you select the course you need, you will be directed to the course site where you can find your weekly assignments, access course materials, check on due dates, and stay on top of future projects.

What if I have technical difficulties?

First, take a deep breath and relax. This is a common worry among online students but there are several ways to handle any issues you encounter. There are also several ways to prevent them.

To prevent technical difficulties:

  • Test all of the equipment you will be using for the online course
  • Visit the online course site, such as Blackboard, to make sure your computer is capable of accessing the platform and any multimedia that may be needed in class
  • Double-check your Wi-Fi strength before every class to avoid any connection issues
  • And don’t forget to test the camera and microphone on your computer to make sure they are working before class starts

To handle a technical difficulty that’s popped up:

  • Start by asking your professor – you may be experiencing a common issue with a simple solution
  • If you’re not able to solve the problem that way, check the help center of your learning platform for FAQ’s on troubleshooting – here’s an example from Blackboard
  • Lastly, you can always turn to your school’s IT team for help – they will be well-versed in the platform being used and should be able to help you resolve any issue