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Online learning is an amazing opportunity, but it can also be a lot of work.

There are endless online resources available about any subject that you could imagine. However, without some self-discipline, drive, and solid study techniques, it’s difficult to access online learning’s benefits.

If you are looking to jumpstart your career by picking up new skills or gaining important certifications, online learning may be the perfect solution.

But if you truly want to see benefits from online learning, you need to be smart about the process you use. This survival guide will help you navigate the world of online learning and show you tools that will help you achieve your learning objectives.

1. Why Are You Doing This?

Before you begin, it’s important to think about why you are choosing to study online. Do you want to learn a new skill for fun? Do you need to complete a course for school? Will getting a certification lead to a raise at work?

Each of these reasons requires different considerations. If you’re learning a skill for fun, you may choose to do a free course with an instructor you like, even if it isn’t as rigorous as other courses. On the other hand, courses for school may be limited to only one or two options. Lastly, if you need a certification, it’s important to choose a course that is recognized by your workplace!

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Recognizing this motivation from the very beginning can help you stay interested in the course over time. In the most stressful of times, being able to remind yourself that “once I learn this skill I can get a better job” can make a world of difference!

2. Pick Quality Courses

Whether you’re a casual online learner or a serious student, you want to be certain that you’re investing your time in a high-quality course.

This doesn’t mean that you need to choose the most expensive course, or the most prestigious. Essentially, you just want to choose a course that is effective, that teaches you accurate information, and that is reasonably up-to-date.

You may also want to see if the course site features reviews from past students, or if it is certified by any recognized institutions. Additionally, talk to people in your industry about courses that they recommend! This can be a great way to find industry-specific learning opportunities that don’t always show up on mainstream course lists.

Consider one of the following sites:

  • EdX (founded by Harvard and MIT) and Coursera feature free (payment required for certification) online courses on a wide range of subjects taught by world experts from established academic institutions.
  • Drawspace offers free and paid art lessons from a beginner level through to techniques for specific mediums.
  • Khan Academy is one of the most popular education websites online – and for good reason. It is completely free, and offers lessons in almost every subject imaginable.
  • Yale and MIT offer several online courses that provide a world-class education for free (college credit not available)
  • Udacity offers targeted programming courses created by leading software companies like Google, AT&T, and Facebook. Most of these courses require payment, but a 7-day free trial is available.
  • Udemy has an incredible breadth of learning opportunities, with a clear rating system to help you choose courses that are the best fit for you.
  • Duolingo is a fantastic free resource for language learning, but Open Culture lists 48 other language learning options available if you don’t like Duolingo’s style!
  • Dave Conservatoire provides music education in many different areas (including theory, improvisation, music software, and more

3. Have What You Need for Success

The best way to set yourself up for success is to make sure that you have all the resources you need to complete your course. In most cases, this means having access to a good internet connection (libraries and cafés are great options if you don’t have internet at home). You will need a reliable laptop, tablet, or phone that will let you watch videos, type up responses, and open different file types.

Specific courses may have other requirements as well, such as a textbook, a software program, or specific equipment. You also can’t go wrong with some noise-cancelling headphones and study tools to help you focus 10 Online Study Hacks for Every College Student 10 Online Study Hacks for Every College Student From sites dedicated to helping you with grammar, to free videos explaining any subject, these ten websites and study tools can completely redefine how you study. Read More !

4. Set Goals and Stay Accountable

Without goal setting, it’s easy to become lazy and apathetic about your online courses. Take a few minutes before beginning your course to really think about what you want to accomplish.

Start by considering your big picture, and why you are taking this course to begin with. Saikat has a great breakdown of how you can identify your big life goals How to Create a Vision Board and Meet Your Big Goals How to Create a Vision Board and Meet Your Big Goals You can call them as big rocks or big, hairy, audacious goals. Some call it a bucket list. Emptying that bucket calls for action. This is where a visual tool like Trello proves useful. Read More in the link below.

Then consider your goals for each course you take. Typically, effective academic goals follow the SMART goal-setting system:

  • S — Specific. Instead of saying that you “want to learn French,” be specific that you want to “complete Duolingo’s level 3 French program”
  • M — Measurable. Set a goal that allows you to track your progress and recognize when you have reached the end! With online learning, this will often be tracked by the website itself.
  • A — Attainable. Don’t set impossible goals for yourself! Be aware of what is going on in your life, your personality traits, and your past successes and difficulties with coursework. Then, set goals with your other commitments and responsibilities in mind.
  • R — Realistic. If you’ve never learned coding before, you shouldn’t expect yourself to finish an advanced-level course in a few days! Be honest with yourself about the level of difficulty where you need to start.
  • T — Time Limited. Give yourself deadlines for your goals. While this may increase the pressure a little bit, it also helps you to know if you’re staying on track. As well, deadlines can keep you motivated on those days when you’d rather be watching Netflix!

Once your goal is set, it’s very important that you keep yourself accountable. Set reminders in your phone, plan study time in your calendar, and break your coursework down into clear to-do list items. It’s hard to stay motivated for long-term projects How to Stay Motivated on Long-Term Projects and Not Give Up How to Stay Motivated on Long-Term Projects and Not Give Up If motivation was easy to cultivate, nobody would have any problems doing so! For those who lose motivation over long term projects, these tips may prove fruitful. Read More , but your learning will be worth it in the end!

5. Don’t Overwhelm Yourself

The internet offers us immediate access to more information than we could ever learn in our entire lives. Because of this, it’s very important that online learners resist the temptation to do everything immediately.

Remember that a full-time course load for most university students is five courses a semester. If you’re working or studying already, limit yourself to one or two courses at a time! This will help you to focus on your learning and avoid the stress that comes from stretching yourself too thin.

6. Study Smart

It’s easy to speed through online courses with glazed eyes and fifteen other browser tabs open. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t lead to good long-term learning.

Find some study strategies 5 Ways Tech Can Help You Foster Better Study Habits 5 Ways Tech Can Help You Foster Better Study Habits It's been a while since I've been in school, but I know a few friends who are still studying their way towards graduation. It amazes me how many tools currently exist out there to aid... Read More that work best for you, and embrace them. This may mean taking handwritten notes, or making flashcards online. It might be having a friend quiz you, or reading supplementary material on an interesting topic from class.

You also may want to reach out to people you know who are experts in the subject you are learning. Online courses are an incredible resource, but sometimes nothing can beat a one-on-one tutoring session! Even having someone who will answer a quick text clarifying a concept can be a huge help while learning online.

7. Reward Yourself for a Job Well Done

Look, whether it’s online or in a brick and mortar classroom, learning new skills is a lot of work! Be sure to recognize all the effort you are putting into your self-improvement by rewarding yourself regularly Points For Everything: How I Tried to Win At Life With Gamification Points For Everything: How I Tried to Win At Life With Gamification My brain is stupid. It thinks I can get done tomorrow what I need to do today, and that I can do this afternoon what I need to do this morning. It puts everything off.... Read More . Rewards can be as simple as a night off after handing in a tricky assignment, or as elaborate as taking a vacation after finally completing a full program.

You will also be able to see rewards in your everyday life. Suddenly, you’ll be the one people come to when they have difficulty with the program you’ve been learning about or you’ll be able to have conversations in your second language. Recognize these moments and appreciate them – they are the true pay off for all your hard work!

What Is Your Online Learning Experience?

I took four online classes while completing my degree, and loved the freedom that the online learning experience gave me! However, I really struggled with time management and often rushed to complete final assignments the day before a deadline.

What has your online learning experience been like? Which course sites did you use? How did you find the material? What would you do differently next time? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

Image Credit: Creativa Images via Shutterstock

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  1. Zoe Khan
    January 6, 2017 at 10:36 am

    First day/lesson was HARD - it seemed like such a foreign subject. And now that I am finished the course (Ocean Governance) I am really glad that I stuck with it - Highly recommended - Seems amazing that I wouldn't know it... I'm enjoying being able to remember what I learned. I'm looking into studying more short courses - it's rewarding to add to my general knowledge and feel the success of completion. Thanks to https://www.open2study.com for bringing such great material to us.

    • Briallyn Smith
      February 8, 2017 at 10:41 pm

      Hi Zoe, thanks so much for sharing your experiences! Ocean Governance sounds like a fascinating course, and it's really cool to hear about how you stuck with it and are expanding your general knowledge through open2study :)

  2. Tony
    January 5, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    I received my bachelor's and master's degree via University of Phoenix using their online school. What I discovered is that for the most part you have to be self motivated and want to learn the subject matter.

    Also, having a specific need for the subject matter is a good motivator. I.E. don't just take javascript so you can add it to your resume... learn it and create an app (even a simple one). This will help you remember what you have learned.

    • Briallyn Smith
      February 8, 2017 at 10:40 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Tony! And that's so great that you managed to get two full degrees online - you're definitely an expert at this :) I love your suggestion of finding a specific need for subject matter you're trying to learn.