Staying Connected as an Online Student

Avoiding Isolation Struggles While Taking Online Classes

Online students benefit from the flexibility, accessibility, and convenience of online programs, but they also face unique struggles. For instance, staying connected — to a program, peers, and/or instructors — remains one of the top struggles for online students.

So, how can online students stay connected in a virtual learning environment? Knowing the tools and resources available to them not only helps manage feelings of isolation, but it may also alleviate mental health concerns, which, if present, students should address immediately.

First-time online students may not realize how many resources like advisers, online tutors, and online counseling services their school offers. This guide offers ways for online students to stay connected in an online program, including how to avoid academic isolation and how to maintain good mental health during an online degree. Online students can learn more by visiting the e-learning guide.

Meet the Expert

Jamise Wilson

Jamise Wilson is a recent graduate of University of Maryland University College, having earned two AAs and a BS in management studies with a minor in business administration through its online campus. She is also a veteran of the United States Air Force and Air Force Reserves, where she served for a total of eight years. Ms. Wilson is now the founder and CEO of J Bianca Marketing LLC, a digital marketing and public relations agency that assists entrepreneurs and business owners in the entertainment and nonprofit industries.

When Jamise is not working, you can find her at the bookstore or coffee shop, catching up on the latest news and gathering information for her national podcast, the Uncovered Podcast, hosted by Storm Talk 365 Radio. Other interests include volunteering, writing, and raising two teenage boys and a tween girl. She currently resides in Suffolk, Virginia, with her family.

The Difficulties of Online Learning

Some of the common struggles students in online classes face are technical issues and time management. It is very important to manage time, especially if you are taking more than one class. Pay attention to due dates and try not to wait until the last minute. It is very possible that an internet outage could occur on the school website, [or] scheduled maintenance, or even operator error, where your files won't save or your connection could be slow at the crucial turn-in deadline.
Jamise Wilson

Like any college student, online students sometimes struggle to meet deadlines, complete assignments, and make progress toward their degrees. That said, online students face a couple of unique problems: academic isolation (because of their virtual learning environment) and the potential for mental health issues.

Fortunately, online students may benefit from resources offered by their school and elsewhere. First, prospective students can research how to choose a credible online college. Then, once enrolled, they can register for virtual tutoring sessions, meet with advisers, and/or schedule one-on-one sessions with instructors to stay on track. Many schools also offer virtual library services, online social clubs, and other support systems for online students.

Second, apps and learning tools offer an important technological solution to common online student struggles. For example, time management apps help students meet deadlines while flashcard apps help students study. Many apps also offer discussion forums or boards to connect with other students.

How to Avoid Academic Isolation

Forming communities is easy to do online. During the first few days of class, student introductions are made and you can see who lives near you, who is working on the same type of degree, and how far along they are in the process. Working in groups on assignments is another way the professors get you to interact more with each other.
Jamise Wilson

Academic isolation plays a role in many online student struggles. Lonely, isolated students may struggle to complete their work on time, fail to connect with other students, or withdraw entirely from the online community. Isolation in online classrooms makes it difficult for students to learn from each other or feel connected with the material. As a result, staying connected in online classes affects student success.

Connecting with other students should be a top priority for online students. Making connections helps students meet participation requirements, complete group assignments, and study for tests. Participating in online activities with peers, from study groups to networking, helps online students succeed. In fact, many classes provide online discussion boards or forums, and schools often offer online tutoring sessions, study groups, or forums to connect online students.

In addition to connecting with students, online learners can also connect with their instructors. Many online instructors offer virtual office hours or one-on-one sessions by appointment. Students can use these meetings to ask questions, receive guidance on projects, or gain extra help outside of class. Online advisers also help students stay connected, and most schools offer free online advising services. These resources can help students stay on track to graduate and make sure they fulfill graduation requirements.

Finally, online students are not limited to virtual connections. Programs may offer field trip opportunities, internships, or practicums where online students connect with professionals in their area. Many programs also offer hybrid options, allowing students to complete their degree through face-to-face and online classes. Finally, online students can use resources like the online student success center or resources through their program to improve their academic performance.

How to Maintain Good Mental Health as an Online Student

One of the challenges of taking courses online relates to mental health. Again, when a student struggles with isolation, time management, or defeat, her academic success can be greatly impacted. A significant number of college students also struggle with depression and anxiety, which can affect academic performance. Common symptoms of depression and anxiety include feeling overwhelmed, struggling to focus, and persistent sadness. Online students may struggle with mental health because they feel isolated or overwhelmed while juggling school with other responsibilities.

The good news is that online students can get help with mental health issues through their school and/or community. Many schools offer mental health resources for online students: online tutoring services, virtual advisers, and counseling services. They may also provide virtual community groups to connect with other online students. Students who continue to struggle may qualify for accommodations like additional time on exams or extended deadlines.

Imagine a day in the life of an online student focused around mental health. The student might seek out a virtual social club to connect with other students, meet with a virtual adviser, or attend an online group tutoring session. These support systems outside the classroom can help online students succeed.

The Traits of a Successful Online Student

Anyone who decides to take online classes must be disciplined and organized. It is very easy to get distracted while using the internet for assignments. Being organized in an online classroom is just as important as face-to-face classes. Keep your schoolwork separate from personal papers. Have a notebook to take notes for the classes and research for the many papers that will be written.
Jamise Wilson

Prospective students can avoid common online student struggles by learning the traits of successful distance learners. Earning a degree through an online program requires different skills than doing the same through a traditional program. For example, online students must be self-motivated to seek out support and find online resources to support their education. Online students generally benefit from the following traits.

Self-Motivated Online learners must be self-motivated to succeed. Of their own volition, students must seek out instructors for assistance, identify potential study partners, and meet degree requirements in a self-directed environment.
Organized Many online students balance school with work, family, or other responsibilities. Being organized and possessing strong time management skills help online students meet deadlines and stay on track.
Independent Unlike a traditional classroom environment, online students complete coursework on their own schedule, so having the ability to meet deadlines and learn independently helps students succeed.
Driven Online students need to be persistent and driven to complete their degree, ensuring they meet all requirements for graduation.
Tech-Literate Online programs use distance learning technologies to deliver course material. Students need basic computer skills to succeed.

Resources for Online Students

The following resources may help online students improve time management and organization, locate communities for student interaction, and identify accredited online programs.

College Student Study Skills Guide

With tips on time management, college study skills, note-taking, and more, this guide prepares online students to succeed in college.

Distance Education Accrediting Commission

DEAC provides information and resources for prospective and current online students. Their student center includes an institution database of accredited online programs.

Coursera

This online learning platform provides classes, lectures, and discussion forums. Coursera also offers academic support services.

U.S. Distance Learning Association

Founded in 1987, USDLA supports distance learning research; it also publishes books, articles, and newsletters on online learning.

Online Learning Consortium

Dedicated to improving digital teaching and learning, OLC publishes resources, quality benchmarks, and best practices for online education. The consortium also hosts events.

Apps and School Resources

Evernote

Online students can take notes, share their lecture or reading notes with other students, and capture text with this app.

StudyBlue Flashcards

This app lets students create flashcards to study for class. They can also share flashcards with friends or download flashcards created by other users.

Purdue Online Writing Lab

The OWL offers writing resources, including citation styles, research tips, and subject-specific writing advice.

Dropbox

Dropbox saves and syncs files across multiple devices. The service makes it easy for online students to access study materials, essays, or notes anywhere.

Quizlet

Quizlet offers a database of millions of study sets. Students can also create their own flashcards and games to improve their studying.