10 Big Mistakes Online Students Make

Kelsey Sheehy, Josh Moody

Avoid these online education missteps.

Online courses give students the flexibility to earn a college degree while juggling responsibilities such as work and family. But it is not uncommon for students to experience a few hiccups along the way. Smooth out your path to an online degree by avoiding these 10 big mistakes.

Skipping over accreditation

"Accreditation can impact eligibility for both federal and state financial aid, as well as competitive stance in the employment field. Regional accreditation ensures quality standards and ensures that programs/institutions are providing students with necessary job skills and student support," Lynette O'Keefe, director of research at the Online Learning Consortium, which promotes digital education options, wrote in an email. Before you enroll, check the program's website for its credentials and verify they are recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Ignoring their learning preferences

Online courses require discipline, so if you are disorganized or prone to procrastination, you may want to think twice before enrolling in one. "The bottom line is that online learning is no less rigorous or difficult, and in fact, works more efficiently and effectively for many students," O'Keefe says. She adds that students "will need to be a bit more self-directed in terms of meeting deadlines and pacing themselves" and in accessing online resources and seeking help.

Not reviewing the curriculum

Students eyeing a particular career field will want to take classes that properly prepare them for the work world. The curriculum for an online bachelor's degree in computer science, for example, should include technical work with operating systems and programming languages. Jason Ruckert, vice chancellor and chief digital learning officer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, says students should check school websites for "information about the degree program online, degree requirements, course descriptions, specialization options, possible career fields and even possibly syllabi." Additionally students may want to call the institution with questions.

Underestimating the difficulty

"Online degrees are not easier -- a common myth. And many online students are working full or part time while often raising a family. Adding a degree to the mix requires thoughtful time management and discipline," says Nancy Cervasio, executive director of learner services for the online arm of Arizona State University--Tempe. Other experts add that students should reach out for help if they struggle because robust school resources exist to assist students, whether on campus or online.

Brushing off red flags

O'Keefe cautions prospective students to look out for nonaccredited programs, particularly institutions that seem more sales-focused than student-oriented. Other warning signs, she says, include a lack of information on programs, faculty, courses and academic advising. And watch out for low "admissions standards that require only a resume or credit card, and programs that promise quick degrees for little to no work," O'Keefe says.

Overlooking the tech specs

"I believe most institutions have minimum requirements and recommended requirements for their online courses, and potential students should review these prior to enrollment," says Ruckert, adding that students should "attempt to meet the recommended requirements not the minimum standards as it can hinder their overall experience online." Typical tech needs include a computer with a newer operating system and a minimum of 250 gigabyte hard drive, broadband internet, a quality web camera and a headset with a microphone. Software requirements, he says, will vary and may be provided for free through the college.

Not researching the instructor

Great teaching skills don't always translate digitally, and instructors may need to get a few online courses under their belt to overcome the e-learning curve. Experts recommend students verify whether a professor has taught an online course before they sign on for a semester. Students should also make an effort to connect with faculty, experts say. "Whether through email, chat or phone, online professors are often eager to connect with students and answer questions and ensure they have the information they need to succeed," Cervasio says.

Cheating on assignments

Just because the professor isn't in the room doesn't mean it's easier to cheat in an online class. Experts actually argue that it's harder to cheat online. "It's a myth that students can cheat more easily in an online course. In fact, cheating may be more difficult in an online classroom due to the number of tools that faculty have to identify cases of academic dishonesty," said Karen Watté, director of course development and training at Oregon State University Ecampus.

Working in a bubble

While students may not physically sit next to their classmates, that doesn't mean they should expect to complete their degree program alone. They should expect plenty of interaction. O'Keefe says that "interacting with other students, the instructor, and the course content are all critical elements to a successful learning experience, and well-designed online courses and programs build in opportunities (and requirements) for these items."

Not asking for help

"Earning a degree online is not a simple undertaking, and finding a program (that) makes student support a top priority is paramount," Cervasio says. She adds that students should look for programs with success coaches and academic advisers. Other expert tips include participating in online study groups and other activities for e-learners and taking advantage of a professor's virtual office hours.

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Top mistakes made by online students

-- Skipping over accreditation

-- Ignoring their learning preferences

-- Not reviewing the curriculum

-- Underestimating the difficulty

-- Brushing off red flags

-- Overlooking the tech specs

-- Not researching the instructor

-- Cheating on assignments

-- Working in a bubble

-- Not asking for help