What Can You Learn from Your Online Professors?

Online ProfessorsOne of the items frequently included on lists of “tips for being a successful online student” is: Get to know your professors. But making these connections at a distance isn’t always easy. What is the benefit of a professional network that includes your instructors and how can you go about building it?

Making a professional connection with faculty members is one of the best ways to increase your return on investment (ROI) in an academic program. They can provide much more than content expertise during your coursework. Many have experience working in the field they are teaching, outside the walls of academia. The possibilities for what you can learn from them are seemingly endless.

What My Favorite Professors Taught Me

During last month’s Teacher Appreciation Week several groups asked for responses to this prompt via social media: “My favorite teacher taught me ___.” When I saw it, I immediately thought of that small group of professors I’ve encountered who had a lasting impact. And that impact was often a piece of advice shared outside of class, after the course ended or even after I graduated.

  • Prepare for multiple career paths. A professor in my doctoral program, Dr. Breit, advised me to be ready to work in as many areas of my field and related industries as possible. This was unusual advice for a PhD student, but on target for the economic times to come.
  • I could advance to the next level. As a master’s degree student, I was fortunate to have multiple courses with Dr. Prieto, who challenged me to think more clearly about my career goals and articulate what is was I wanted to do in the future. Through many email messages over the following years he provided guidance on selecting a doctoral program and wrote multiple letters of recommendation.
  • Practical experience is critical. Another graduate-level professor, Dr. Fountain, demonstrated that adjuncts can be amazing teachers. There’s a lot of debate about part-time faculty, and the course I took with Dr. Fountain was a long time ago, but he epitomized the benefits of having someone with current, professional experience in the field bring real-world examples and strategies into the classroom. While this may not be as relevant to all subject areas, it was appreciated in the business, education, and psychology programs I completed.
  • It’s not all about academics. Preparation for life after graduation comes from many directions. A member of the Military Science department, Command Sergeant Major Mitchell was just one of the people who influenced me as an undergraduate student. During an alumni event a few years ago I was repeatedly asked about the faculty members I remembered most, and they were the members of this department – I could name every one, but had trouble naming others, except for Mr. McNeill (see below).
  • Keep an open-mind – there are many options, choices, possibilities. Mr. McNeill, my freshman English Composition instructor, was the first to encourage my writing. His feedback was specific and constructive. Mr. McNeill extended my academic experience by offering me a work-study position that opened my eyes to a new world of library archives, and more authors and types of writing. Mr. McNeill also made calls and wrote letters on my behalf as I navigated vague career plans and employment opportunities during my senior year and beyond.

Take the Initiative

Looking back, even with the successful experiences described above, I regret not having more conversations with these instructors while I was a student. The communication gap can be even wider when you are studying online, without chance conversations that happen in the hallway or before class meetings. If you aren’t already getting to know your online instructors a little better, now is the time to start. Here are a few strategies you can use to initiate conversations and develop relationships via technology:

    • Drop in during virtual office hours. In one of the classes I teach, holding live office hours is required each week. My class can log in to a videoconferencing session, but other schools and instructors may offer text chat systems, Skype, and other ways to connect during scheduled times. Take advantage of this opportunity and log in, even just once, to ask questions about the course or introduce yourself.
    • Contact the instructor before the class starts. If you aren’t sure what the course will entail from the course catalog’s description (these can be brief and general) find out more about the class before you register. This is particularly helpful if you have questions about the syllabus, textbook or other course details that are available to you before the first day of the term. This is also a great way to introduce yourself and share something about your interest in the course and how it fits with your past experience and future career plans.
    • Ask about additional learning, career and networking opportunities. Many instructors – whether they are teaching part-time or full-time, as adjuncts or tenured professors – are involved in a host of other relevant activities. Are you interested in working on a research project or presenting at a conference? Do you want to get involved in your field’s professional association or publish an article? Even if you aren’t sure what might be available, talk with your instructors to brainstorm ideas.
    • Explore independent or directed study options. Some academic programs allow you to earn academic credit through independent study courses, in which you work directly with a faculty member. A topic of interest must be agreed upon, as well as a goal for the experience and a way to assess it. You might work on a research project, for example, or write a paper, build a project or give a presentation with the guidance of an instructor.

Keep In Touch

Some of my past online students, whom I have never met in person, have contacted me recently to find out more about:

  • Professional certification in project management: Is it worth it? How should she proceed with the application materials? I was able to provide a couple of resources and my perspective, as well as advice about how our course might fulfill the educational requirements for the certification.
  • How to address a stressful project situation at work: This student and I set up a time to talk on the phone about possible strategies for an upcoming meeting related to the content we had covered in class.
  • Where to find current, relevant resources: After accepting a new job offer that would mean transitioning into a new industry, this student was looking for recommendations about publications and professional associations.
  • Just to say “Hi.” A doctoral student wrote to update me on his research plans, continuing a discussion we started when he was enrolled in my class. He even sent me a postcard from Spain mentioning a European eLearning conference. From the instructor’s perspective, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Keep in Touch

There’s a lot to learn while you are in school. Be proactive in making the most of this time to interact with academic and professional leaders in your field of study. They can open the doors to ongoing advice, mentoring, professional networking and much more both in class and after graduation.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog