For the past 18 years or so I have been an English faculty member at South Seattle College, and the last ten of those years have included teaching online, college-level classes. Because my college is open-admissions and serves the community in which it sits, my students are from a very broad spectrum, including those who do not fit the typical age demographic of 18-21 or so. Many students are in the process of changing careers or fulfilling a life-long desire to go to college, and because many of them also have very busy lives, online learning is often seen as a good option for pursuing that desire. Of course, Covid-19 means that right now online is the only option at many colleges and universities, including mine. If you are nonetheless intrepid and want to delve in, I have some suggestions from the ten years I have spent teaching students much like many of you.

  1. First of all, make sure you understand what you might be signing up for. Read course descriptions, which are all available online. You can also find out if the specific section of the class you want to take seems interesting and doable. Most colleges offer multiple sections of some classes taught by different instructors every quarter. Don’t hesitate to email instructors and ask to see their syllabi. I have to say, I am always kind of impressed by such requests.
  2. Although this is probably not going to be true for you, I need to say it: don’t rely on your phone as the way to access course materials. Most LMS (learning management systems) apps are not the same as the online version of the same LMS, and you will miss things you wish you hadn’t. 
  3. Most LMS’s have notification settings for things like announcements, messages, grades, etc. that you can change for yourself. Set them to get notified right away whenever your instructor sends anything.
  4. “Online” is not synonymous with “self-paced.” Each week will have specific deadlines and a variety of assignments, some of which require collaboration with classmates in online discussion forums. Make sure that you keep track of each week’s schedule as well as the bigger picture for major assignments…
  5. …and if anything is not clear, contact the instructor right away. Instructors will always include ways for you to reach them.
  6. Also regarding contacting instructors, be diligent and your own advocate. There is no such thing as too many questions (well, maybe there is, but I still haven’t experienced it; learning happens best when we question), and you will help yourself, your classmates and your instructor by asking about whatever it is that is puzzling you.
  7. Develop the habit of reading ahead. If you are coming up on, say, Thursday or Friday of Week Two, take time to read what is expected in Week Three. 
  8. Typically, online classes have been taught asynchronously (do all the work at whatever times of day fit your schedule, as long as you meet deadlines), but recently, Zoom and other online meeting apps have meant that some online classes have synchronous components (logging on to a virtual classroom for real-time interactions). Make sure you know what the expectations are. If in doubt, see 5 & 6 above:).
  9. Print everything before reading. Weekly descriptions, assignment descriptions, instructions for discussion forum work, etc. will not be explained other than on the written page. The science on reading to learn still shows that reading paper is more effective than reading on a screen. Screen reading is more akin to skimming rather than reading for deeper learning, and the physiology of reading paper vs. screen reading is also very different. Learn more about this issue.
  10. Related to #9, read everything actively, which always means with a pen or pencil, taking notes and annotating everything, and maybe keeping a notebook as you would in a lecture class. Sometimes online learners approach the online classroom as they do online news websites or Facebook. Nope. Even if you followed #9, you still need to use the interactive reading strategies you learned in 8th grade.
  11. Engage! Yes, you might be sitting in a dark home office at 2 a.m., in your jammies all alone except for maybe your cat or pet ferret, but you aren’t really alone. There are some 20-30 other students doing the same work as you, and most online classes include ways to communicate intentionally among students. You can also organize online study groups and even exchange phone numbers. 
  12. Remember to breathe:). If ever you find yourself tensing up or getting frustrated, refer to #5 above. While you most likely won’t get an instant response, you did due diligence in terms of seeking out help with whatever is eluding you, so now relax. If you don’t get a response within 24 hours, see #6 above.

One final suggestion for anyone over the age of 65: many states and state institutions offer tuition waivers for people in this age demographic. The requirements for enrolling vary, but online classes are also open to tuition-waivered students. Check with the instructor to find out if they have specific, personal policies about how much participation they do/do not expect from such students. 


Holly Gilman has been teaching academic reading and writing for 18 years. She holds a Master’s Degree in Language and Rhetoric from the University of Washington and has returned to UW as a PhD student to further her studies.