College students across the country are marking the start of another school year by packing bags, checking course schedules, and mapping out the best routes across campus. But back-to-school preparations will look a little different for the more than 6 million students taking online courses.
Tasks such as sorting out schedules, checking class materials, and connecting with professors are even more important in online classes, which often require a higher level of discipline and planning, experts say.
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"It's similar to a brick-and-mortar class, but you have so much flexibility that you really need to plan for how and when you're going to do it," says Jonathan Hill, who teaches online and in-person classes as the associate dean of the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University in New York.
These back-to-school tips from online learning veterans can help students ensure they're prepped for a successful semester:
1. Map it out: Online students typically receive their course syllabi via mail or E-mail a few weeks before the class gets rolling. Don't toss them aside; instead, go through and take note of due dates, class breaks, and big assignments and tests—and then plan ahead accordingly, experts say.
"As soon as I receive the syllabus for each of my courses, I sit down with a calendar and physically make specific time blocks that I will be spending on each course, each day," says Rina Shah, a part-time online student at the Harvard Extension School. "The physical schedule I draft at the beginning of each semester has helped keep me on track so that I'm acting as if I'm in a classroom, when I'm really just on my laptop at home."
Finding the time to block out for your online class can be difficult with work and family obligations also competing for your attention, so look for areas to "cut the fat" from your schedule, suggests Patrick Partridge, vice president of marketing and enrollment at Western Governors University, a nonprofit online university.
"If you have older children … ask them to put their dishes and laundry away, or help you tidy up an area of the house," Partridge says. "You can find an extra half hour every day simply by compressing your at-home duties and getting others involved."
2. Check your tech: In addition to due dates and textbooks, your syllabus should also list software and hardware requirements. If your course uses an online learning management system (LMS), instructions for logging into the platform and accessing the course should also be included in the syllabus.
Before classes kick off, poke around your course LMS and make sure programs such as Flash and Java are updated, advises José Huitron, who earned his bachelor's degree online through the University of Phoenix and is now completing an online master's through West Virginia University.
"Some online learning management environments, they only work in certain browsers. You absolutely want to make sure that you have what's compatible," he says. "I'm a Mac user, so there [are] some things that won't work ... Just make sure you meet all the technology requirements, and you want to do so early."
If you run into a technical glitch, most colleges have IT teams to help students resolve any issues.
3. Make a good impression: Some online students will never meet their professors in person, but that doesn't mean they can't chat face-to-face, says Huitron, who says he often connects with professors via video chat services such as Google Hangouts.
"I've had fabulous conversations just by reaching out to my instructor on social media," Huitron says. 'I had the opportunity to have Google+ Hangout with one of my instructors … it gave that instructor a window into who I am."
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Students should ensure they convey the right message within that window—which means cleaning up any photos or posts on your social media profiles that you would not want a professor or potential employer to see, he adds.
4. Scope out resources: Online students can often access resources such as tech support and university library materials without ever setting foot on a campus.
The University of Phoenix offers online math tutorials, an E-library, and 24-hour technical support for its students, says Michael Phillips, regional director of academic affairs at the online institution. The school also has an online writing center where students can get feedback on research papers and written assignments before they turn them into their professors.
Many colleges and universities also offer time management tutorials to prep first-time online students for keeping pace with their E-learning courses.
"It's really important to understand how to leverage those resources," Phillips says. "Doing that ahead of time as much as possible is really important."
Originally published at USNews.com on August 17, 2012.