Online education is booming. Ads for online degrees bombard us from our televisions, radios, and billboards we pass on our daily commute. The College of Online Education at Johnson & Wales University is no exception. With more courses being offered online every term, students can opt to take just one or two classes or pursue an entire degree online. Growing up, like most parents today, I didn’t take any online courses. Most of my undergraduate classes followed the same format: Read a chapter (or two), attend a lecture (or two), take a midterm and a final, and maybe write a term paper. College courses today, especially online courses, look a lot different. Students are expected to be more independent than ever before in the online environment. How can parents help their children succeed in the online classroom when most of us have never taken an online course?
I bring a unique perspective to this challenge: I’ve taken online graduate-level courses myself, I’ve taught online and hybrid courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, and I’m the parent of a child pursuing her master’s degree completely online. I also work with faculty to support the development and teaching of their online courses as my full-time job. All of this has given me insight into what makes a successful online learner, and what we, as parents, can do to help our children succeed.
As I reflected on the difference between successful and unsuccessful students I see in my courses, what other professors tell me about their online students, and what my own daughter has told me she knows that her peers don’t, I realized that how parents prepare their children for learning as young adults makes a big difference in their success.
Here are five tips that I found ultimately helped my daughter succeed in the online environment:
1. Model time-management skills.
Time-management is one of the most important skills to succeed in an online course. Students are expected to complete a checklist of weekly activities and get assignments turned in on time. There are no set times for them to complete their work — they need to figure out when to fit the work into their days.
How can you help?
Model good time-management skills yourself and encourage your child to manage their own schedule in a way that works for them. When my daughter was very small, I would hang a calendar on the refrigerator and draw her attention to daily and weekly events. Eventually, she started asking me to put things like her Girl Scout meeting or soccer game on the calendar. By high school, she was keeping her own written planner and we used a shared online calendar (we used Google calendar, but there are other options too) when she started working part-time. When she started her online program, I suggested she try the newly popular Bullet Journal system, which has proven to work well for her.
Allow your child to experiment with different methods of keeping track of their own schedule and they’ll be able to use what works for them as they begin to balance work, fun, and online course assignments. Remind them to block out time (in whatever system they use) for reading and watching videos that are assigned.
2. Include your child when making plans.
This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip. In an online course, students are often asked to complete term-long projects or papers. While there will usually be a few check-ins during the term, your child will be expected to work on these projects independently. Leaving the work until the last minute won’t be sufficient to ensure quality work or learning.
How can you help?
Include your child in making plans. Taking a family vacation? Let them help with the entire process – from choosing dates and flights and hotel rooms to each day’s itinerary. Let them help plan smaller scale things too. When my daughter was growing up, I frequently planned a week’s worth of meals and made my shopping list based on that. Allowing her to take some ownership of that process helped her think beyond today and helped her see the value of sticking to a plan. When she had science fair projects to complete in middle school, I encouraged her to map out each step in her calendar so she could stay on track.
By giving your child experience in planning their time and long-term projects, they will be better prepared to take on bigger projects and papers in an online classroom where they won’t be getting daily reminders.
3. Cultivate independence and a sense of personal responsibility.
This is a common theme in lists of skills students need for college, but it becomes critical for online courses. While a student may see their instructor three times a week in a traditional college course, the online student may only get “direct instruction” once a week in the form of a written or recorded lecture or announcement. The online student is expected to “own” their learning and read and watch the material provided and complete the necessary research and study.
How can you help?
While it may seem easier to do a lot of things for your child, they’ll do better in the long run if they know how to do things for themselves. It’s the old “teach them how to fish” approach: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed himself forever. Helping your child to be ready for an online course means thinking beyond budgets and household chores like laundry.
When it was time to fill out the FAFSA (the Federal form required to receive financial aid of any kind), my daughter sat down with me and we filled it out together. By her second year in college, she reported that all of her dorm-mates were coming to her with questions about how to fill it out. Just as they did about how to file their taxes. Because she was familiar with the forms and processes, she was able to take responsibility and fill them out independently.
What else can you do? Ask your child questions as they begin their college experience. Ask them who they would ask for help with financial aid. Ask them if they know when and how to schedule their courses for the following term. Ask them if they know how to access their school’s library databases from off-campus. If they don’t know, ask them to investigate their school’s website and
report back to you. Help them identify who else they can ask (such as their academic advisor).
4. Teach them how to communicate well and be their own advocate.
This tip follows closely to number three. Beyond knowing where to go for help and who to ask, students need to be able to articulate their questions and concerns. They also need to be able to interpret written instructions, more so in an online class as all instructions are written (although some may also be expressed via video or voice recording from the instructor). Online students need to be able to express their thoughts clearly in online discussion forums. They’ll be expected to back up their statements with sources and argue their points effectively.
How can you help?
Stress the importance of good, quality communication whenever you can. My own daughter, for example, learned early on that using “text-speak” abbreviations in her texts to me was unacceptable. I modeled correct grammar and email formatting whenever possible and expected the same from her. She was requ0ired to send thank you notes for gifts growing up and to speak clearly when talking to adults she met.
Teaching your child to be their own advocate is equally important. They need to be able to articulate when something is unclear or has gone wrong. Ask your child what they would do if they didn’t understand an assignment. When would they email their professor? How would they phrase their concern or question? Ask them what they would do if they got sick and couldn’t complete an assignment — would they contact their online instructor? When would they contact them? Would they offer a solution? Empower your child to take control of their own education and life.
5. Let them fail.
This sounds counterintuitive. By this, I don’t mean I think students should fail an online course. However, I do believe students need to have experienced failure at something prior to starting college. Nearly everything came easily to my daughter and she didn’t have to put in a lot of effort to do well in school. When she wanted to play the violin, however, that changed. She had to really work at playing the violin well. She couldn’t play a new song flawlessly the first time (or even the tenth time) she played it. This was an invaluable lesson. She learned that by practicing something, she could get better at it. She learned that even when she wasn’t successful at something, she was still a good person and that I still loved and respected her. She learned that effort was what mattered most.
Angela Lee Duckworth is famous for talking about grit. She maintains that it isn’t the students with the highest IQs that succeed — it’s the students with the most grit. It’s the students who know how to keep going after a stumble, how to get up and try again, who are the most successful in school and in life. How does this relate to online learning? Students may not do well at first with an online course. Or, they may encounter an instructor whose teaching style does not mesh well with their needs. If they have never failed, they will have no way to cope with such an experience. By arming your child with resilience and belief in their own abilities to succeed through hard work, you are providing your child with the tools they need to do well in an online course and beyond.
How can you help?
Provide a safety net for your child, but allow them to stumble now and again. Let them try an approach you may not think is the best. Let them try something that is difficult. Be there for them when things don’t go perfectly, and reassure them that they can try again. Knowing they have your love and support, even when they aren’t perfect, is powerful for a child. This translates to resilience and grit — and the skills they’ll need to succeed.
For more information on pursuing your degree at Johnson & Wales University College of Online Education, complete the “Request Info” form on this page or call 855-JWU-1881 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.