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Homework and other challenges in online learning

Homework and other challenges in online learning

Threats, bribery and harsh discipline—that's the gamut of techniques I use on myself to encourage after hours study, a challenge many face when juggling a job and education. But what works best?

The rise of online learning has many benefits, among them convenience, flexibility and the ability to accommodate different learning styles. These benefits, however, come with challenges that range from finding the discipline to do the course to a lack of accountability when it comes to achieving course milestones.

At the moment I'm studying E-learning and Digital Cultures at the University of Edinburgh as part of a free massive open online course (MOOC) via Coursera. Studying online learning via online learning I admit is a bit meta but I'm enjoying the course material. That is, when I get to it. Embarrassingly, considering I am an advocate for online learning, I seem to be falling behind in my readings and it's only the third week of the course.

Generally speaking, discipline has not been a problem for me. While I admit to falling into internet rabbit holes every now and again, I have worked in a deadline-driven industry for my entire career and am perfectly capable of getting things done. I was one of those annoying kids who did their homework on the bus in between trading opinions on which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle was the best (Donatello, of course). And I often wake up earlier on my days off than I do on a work day.

The problem is not that I'm busy, even though I work during business hours, do freelance work outside of business hours and spend most evenings and weekends out at events. The problem is not about finding time as it is making time.

I compare my experience with the E-learning and Digital Cultures course to another online course I completed last month, Apply First Aid (HLTFA311A); I pretty much completed the 10 modules of theory over two evenings. What was the difference? Why did I dedicate myself to Apply First Aid—which, despite cool pictures of venomous creatures, was a lot more tedious—and not E-learning and Digital Cultures?

Money talks
I paid a grand total of $85 for Apply First Aid. While it isn't a lot compared to the cost of some of the qualifications in our directory, it was enough to constitute what celebrity investor Warren Buffett calls 'skin in the game'. The $85 fee meant that I had a stake in my educational investment and the possibility of losing that stake by not completing (or failing) the course was enough to spur me into doing the coursework.

E-learning and Digital Cultures, by comparison, is a free course. Unlike Apply First Aid, if I don't complete it I lose nothing but potential opportunity, which is less tangible than $85.

The consequences of failure
Without completing the 10 theory modules of Apply First Aid, I would not have been able to undergo the practical component to gain my certificate. At enrolment I had to choose a date for the practical session, which set a deadline for the theory part. Additionally, once I'd started the theory, I had only 7 days to complete the modules before my access expired—a great incentive to pick up the pace!

By contrast, there has been no accountability for studying E-learning and Digital Cultures. Although I'm following discussions on the course via various social media platforms, I'm yet to really feel I've fallen behind. It's only my own diligence that makes me feel guilty for not keeping up.

For whom does the school bell toll?
Other than me, who benefits from the study? To whom am I beholden? Both decisions to enrol in Apply First Aid and E-learning and Digital Cultures were made voluntarily. About 10 years ago I held a Senior First Aid certificate for work, which had expired. I thought I should probably maintain it as I lead a bushwalking group and thought it might come in handy in case of an emergency. I represent CoursesNow, an education consultancy that offers a number of online courses, and I thought E-learning and Digital Cultures might assist me in gaining an insight into online learning styles so I could transfer wisdom via this blog.

While there's no explicit expectation that I learn first aid for my bushwalking trips, as a leader there is probably an unspoken expectation that I possess the attributes to react appropriately to adverse events, which is where first aid comes in. On the other hand, there's no such pressure—direct or indirect—to use what I acquire from E-learning and Digital Cultures. A lack of a sense of duty has thus removed the imperative to study for the latter.

All this brings me to these three key tips for online study:

  • Raise the stakes. Whether it's a course fee you can lose if you don't study, or a reward you can earn if you do, put 'skin in the game'. When you have a stake, you have a sense of ownership and are more likely to act in kind.
  • Find the right motivation. If you are deadline-driven, work to a deadline; if you are goal-oriented, set a goal—whatever it is that gives you encouragement, use it.
  • Answer to someone. Study for someone who will be disappointed if you fall behind or quit. This 'someone' may be abstract, for example the battlers you could be helping as a financial planner. It helps to tell your friends and family that you're studying because they'll ask how you're going—what impression will you give if the answer is 'I haven't done anything since I last saw you'?

I do recognise the irony of writing this post instead of doing my readings but I hope that, at the very least, it will help you find the drive to study online successfully.

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