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Virginia Journal of Education


Fuzzy Slippers, A Cup of Coffee and Learning

by Karen Work Richardson

Opportunities for teaching and learning online are everywhere today. According to a recent report from the Sloan Consortium, over one million K-12 students participated in some kind of online course during the 2007-08 school year, an increase of nearly 50 percent from the 2005-06 school year. States and school divisions are busy creating virtual high schools. In Virginia, some 3,000 students participate in Advanced Placement and foreign language courses online, and many school divisions are taking advantage of the program to provide a wider range of courses to their students.

Teachers are also participating in virtual learning for their own growth and development. Online courses allow busy professionals to access professional development any time, any place. No more rushing to class at the end of the day or spending Saturdays stuck in a classroom. Instead of the student going to the course, the course comes to the student. Are you a morning person? You can log on before you head to work. More of a night owl? The course content is waiting for you when you're ready.

How about you? Are you thinking about taking an online course? As you venture into the world of virtual learning, you should be aware that the terms online learning and distance learning can be used to refer to a wide variety of different course formats and schedules. Some courses are completely online with no face-to-face meetings. They may be self-paced modules completed by the individual without a specific time frame and with little or no interaction with other students. Other courses meet during a particular time period, say over a regular semester, and students engage with each other in discussion forums or live chats as part of the learning environment. Hybrid courses, on the other hand, include both face-to-face and online components.

While online courses and face-to-face courses have some similarities, there are some special challenges related to taking an online course. As both a participant and an instructor, I can offer several tips for succeeding in an online course.

First, online courses are not necessarily any easier or harder than face-to-face courses, but they do demand a higher level of independence and self-discipline for the student. The very flexibility that makes online learning so attractive to educators can also make it easier to procrastinate. I recommend to my students that they schedule their online time just like they would if they had a face-to-face class meeting. Particularly in a course that incorporates online discussion, it is important for students to log in throughout the week so they can more fully participate in the conversation. By deliberately scheduling time for the course, participants can be sure to give the course the time it needs.

Second, good communication skills are essential. While there may be opportunities for audio or video conferencing, most interactions in online courses take place through written communications, whether they are e-mails with the teacher or discussion forum posts shared with other learners. Being able to express ideas, ask questions, or respond to others in a clear, succinct manner is essential. Most courses will provide guidelines for how to participate effectively. Be sure to review them at the beginning of the course, but also throughout to be sure you are staying within those guidelines.

Finally, it helps if you are fairly comfortable with using your computer. After all, it will be your interface with the course. You may need to install special software, such as media viewers, in order to interact with the content. You will probably have to create and upload documents as part of the course requirements. Usually, at the beginning of the course, you will be given a list of the technical requirements. Take the time to test your computer so you can participate fully in the course environment.

In short, not everyone will find online courses to their liking. Want some idea of how you would do? Lehigh Carbon Community College provides an online quiz that you can use to assess your potential success as an online student at It helps you think about how your learning styles and preferences match with the online environment.

One more quick note: All this online learning also opens new career opportunities for educators. Because of the proliferation of online courses, demand for quality teachers has increased. So, if you decide you like learning in your fuzzy slippers, you might consider teaching in them as well!

Richardson has been working as an educator for over 20 years, currently as an adjunct instructor in educational technology at The College of William and Mary, where she is also working on her doctorate in curriculum and educational technology. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education.



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