By Ed Brennen
Now that schools across the country have moved all courses online in an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic, many students are getting their first taste of virtual learning.
At UMass Lowell, where 2,700 on-campus courses have shifted online for the remainder of the semester, students are adjusting to a new and unexpected academic way of life. Instead of interacting face-to-face with professors and peers in class several times a week, students are being asked to stay home and log in to their courses remotely, watching lectures on Blackboard and Zoom and participating in group chats.
Senior business administration major David Seybert isn’t a certified expert in online learning. But as someone who’s taken 10 courses online at UML in an effort to complete his undergraduate degree in just three years, he has some experience with learning remotely.
The Attleboro native is currently writing a book called “One Student to Another: 200 Tips to Ensure College Success” that highlights many of the lessons he’s learned in his time on campus – including how to get the most out of online courses.
“There’s definitely going to be some bumps in the road, but you just have to expect it and roll with it. I don’t think it will be that bad,” says Seybert, who was already taking his final two courses online this spring so he could work full-time as director of marketing operations at Thras.io, a Walpole-based company that acquires third-party Amazon brands. (Like most people, Seybert is now working from home as well.)
Seybert points out that students are already familiar with many aspects of online learning – whether it’s using the Blackboard learning management platform, writing papers on their laptop, collaborating on group work via email and text, or even taking quizzes and exams online.
“The only difference is instead of meeting in a classroom, we’re meeting on a video call,” says Seybert, whose concentrations are in marketing and international business. “It takes a little bit of the personal feel out of it, but I don’t think too much knowledge is going to be lost.”
That said, Seybert notes that taking courses online requires a different mindset for students. The university, of course, provides scores of resources to help students succeed in the virtual environment. But here are seven of Seybert’s own suggestions to fellow River Hawks for managing the final few weeks of the semester:
Build endurance: On campus, students are always on the go, walking from one place to another. But at the moment, they’re stuck at home, sitting in front of their computer. “It’s going to take some getting used to,” Seybert says. “Just being able to sit still and focus for several hours, that’s probably the biggest challenge.” As a former distance runner on the UML men’s track and field team, Seybert applies a similar training regimen to online learning: Start with short studying intervals and gradually build up your mental endurance. “Start by sitting down for an hour and getting some work done, then take a quick break,” he says. “Then maybe get to two hours, then maybe three.”
Give yourself space: Students who are used to studying in dorm rooms, libraries and coffee shops now find themselves confined at home – often with equally frustrated family members or roommates. If possible, Seybert recommends finding yourself a dedicated study space. “The most important thing is to have yourself a nice setup with your computer,” he says. “Make sure you have some water, some snacks – everything you can need within arm’s reach.” And if your siblings are making too much noise? “I put my headphones on,” Seybert says. “Everyone’s house can be hectic. That’s the best you can do.”
Stick to a schedule: One of the biggest pitfalls of online courses, Seybert says, is the temptation to procrastinate on weekly deadlines. “If it’s online and the week’s work is going to be due on Sunday, your brain automatically goes, ‘Oh, I’ll work on that Friday and Saturday,’ and suddenly you get to the weekend and everything is due,” he says. “When you’re on campus, it’s easier to spread out your work.” Seybert recommends establishing a daily schedule for studying – especially now that time at home can be so unstructured. “It’s mostly time management and sitting down and producing the same quality of work that you would do in an on-campus class,” he says.
Beware the rabbit holes: Time-killing distractions are always just a click away when working online, whether it’s social media, email or ... well, the list is infinite. These rabbit holes are nothing new to students, who have (hopefully) already developed study habits to inoculate themselves from distractions. Now’s the time to be extra vigilant, Seybert says. “I’ll make sure I only have tabs open that relate to what I’m working on at that point, because you can easily get distracted by Netflix, social media or even another class’s work,” he says. “Just pick a class and have only that class’s information open on your computer. Then just finish it and move on to the next.” And, of course, keep your phone out of sight (or turn off notifications).
Keep talking: Seybert has found that his professors in online courses are good about communicating electronically with students. For professors accustomed to in-person office hours who are suddenly making their first foray into online learning, those lines of communication may take some patience at first. “It’s going to be challenging, but I usually reach out to them through Blackboard if I need help with something,” says Seybert, who adds that students can also rely on each other for help. “Usually, in bigger online classes, if you check the roster you’re bound to know at least a person or two. But even if you don’t, it’s easy to email a note to someone saying, ‘Hey, I’m in this class. Could you help me with this problem? I’d appreciate it.’ People are pretty likely to help you out.”
Participation points: Discussing and debating topics is an important part of learning. In the classroom, students can simply raise their hand with a question or to build off of what someone else just said. “Now, you have to click a button to raise your hand or send a message into chat, so it’s a little different. It’s not as organic,” says Seybert, who notes that taking part in discussion boards and interactive chats is usually the most time-consuming aspect of online classes. But, he adds, students who are hesitant to speak up in class may find the online format much more engaging.
Give me a break: While it’s important to stay informed in these unprecedented times, there are downsides to becoming too consumed by the news. For Seybert, having work and classes to focus on at home provides a nice mental diversion. “It’s definitely good for students to be doing something other than being on social media all day and worrying about all the crazy stuff going on,” he says. And as students finish their classes online this semester, Seybert hopes they can continue taking care of themselves mentally and emotionally. “Now that I’m just online and pretty much in the same location all day, I like to go outside a lot,” says Seybert, who tries to take lunch breaks on his patio or go for morning walks in his neighborhood. “Try to get outside and get moving. Fresh air is key.”