Make online learning work for you

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This feature first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

We've entered a new era of online learning. What can you do to maximize what you get out of your online experience?Here’s something you probably don’t say to yourself very often: “I have too much time.” The thought of adding one more entry to your list of things to keep track of is probably daunting to most people in the best of circumstances. Only, sometimes that one more thing can make everything better. And sometimes it’s the only thing there is — the new way forward.

Both notions are at least a little bit true of online learning in 2020. For many, it’s the new status quo, at least for a while. And for almost anyone, online learning can make things better. You can develop your understanding of IT concepts, or acquire new knowledge and skills. You can better position yourself to excel at a current job, or become better qualified to take a different (possibly better) job.

Not only that, but online learning might just be … better. Research suggests that online learning increases retention of information. It’s easier to hang on to what you learned from that AWS certification class. Your Cisco routing and switching training will stay with you longer, making it easier to apply that learning to a real-world scenario.

Best of all, online learning generally takes less time than traditional methods — and, as previously discussed, time is something we could all use more of. Of all the changes brought on by coronavirus craziness that could be here to stay, here’s one that might actually make things better. Who would have thought anything good would come out of this situation?

Even before COVID-19, the online learning technology sphere was already experiencing rapid growth and increasing adoption. Worldwide, investments in online training and education climbed to $18.7 billion in 2019, with the overall market value projected to reach $350 billion by 2025.

Whether it is online certifications, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or online learning software, there has been a significant surge in usage since COVID-19. With the ultimate end-state of the pandemic being unknown, it looks like 2020 will be a boom year for online education and training providers. The market is red hot right now and looks to do nothing but grow in the near future.

Online learning is good for you

Obviously, bandwidth matters. For those who do have access to the right technology, however, there is evidence that learning online can be more effective than traditional learning in a number of ways. Some research shows that, on average, students retain 25-to60 percent more material when learning online, compared to just 8-to-10 percent in a traditional classroom.

This bodes well for online instructors, and also for being able to sell what you yourself have learned, which we will touch on later. The increased retention is thought to be mostly due to students’ ability to learn faster online: E-learning requires 40- to-60 percent less time than traditional classroom learning because students can work at their own pace.

An online learner has the freedom to go back and read through — or watch or listen through — difficult concepts over again. An online learner can skip past things they already know, or accelerate through familiar concepts. You can tailor the learning experience to suit your strengths. I have one guy on my team who listens to and watches all e-learning videos at 2x speed. That’s what works for him.

Finding out what works for you is important to overall success in online learning. Every individual is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Because online learning is highly configurable and adaptable, however, you don’t have to worry about doing it the one right way. You can pick and choose and discover your own formula for success. That said, let’s discuss some broadly applicable tips for success:

Don’t wear yourself out

We've entered a new era of online learning. What can you do to maximize what you get out of your online experience?One of the most important things to bear in mind at the outset is this: Don’t get fatigue. Think about what you go through with online meetings. We all know (or have recently begun to learn) that meeting fatigue is real. In part, it’s because the online environment, in general, forces us to focus more intently on conversations in order to absorb information.

Ponder this: When you’re sitting in a conference room at work, you can rely on whispered side exchanges to catch you up if you get distracted, or ask a few quick, clarifying questions. During a video call, however, it’s impossible to do this gracefully, unless you use the private chat feature, or awkwardly try to find a moment to unmute and ask a colleague to repeat themselves.

The problem isn’t helped by the fact that video calls make it easier than ever to lose focus. You can listen to your boss drone on about numbers … or you can check your e-mail, or text a buddy. The problem, of course, is that we don’t end up doing much listening at all when we’re distracted.

Adding fuel to the fire is many of our work-from-home situations. We’re no longer just dialing into one or two virtual meetings. We’re also continuously finding polite new ways to ask our loved ones not to disturb us. I constantly ask my wife to take the cats or the baby. The back-and-forth can be really hard to juggle. For those who don’t have a private space to work, it can be especially challenging.

Meeting fatigue can apply just as readily to online learning. It stems from how we process information over video. On a video call the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never. Having to engage in a “constant gaze” makes us legitimately tired.

Don’t despair. There are things you can do to fight back that apply to both meetings and online learning. First, reduce on-screen distractions. Only have the one thing you are working on up on your screen. For your next video call, make it a phone call. This can work wonders to reset your focus.

Also, don’t be afraid to pause a lesson. Remember that, even with deadlines and homework assignments, online learning happens at your convenience, not the other way around. Without the visual breaks we need to refocus, our brains grow fatigued. Stop the lesson and take a quick 5-minute walk, or write an important e-mail. Pick up later right where you left off.

Pick your spot

We've entered a new era of online learning. What can you do to maximize what you get out of your online experience?Next up is a super simple tip and still one of the most important, whether or not there is a global pandemic: make some space for yourself. If you have an office, great. Even with an office, it’s worth asking yourself whether that space could be improved. Is there something in your office that hasn’t changed much? Something distracting that should be removed? A change could be delightful.

If you don’t have an office, then find your sweet spot. No, it is probably not the end of the bed. Go to the library, or sit outside (within reach of a reliable wi-fi signal, of course). Tell your team you are only available by phone for the rest of the day. Do something to nail down your physical space in the world, so that your head can be in the right place.

Steady as she goes

Here’s another easy tip: Pace is everything. You can’t learn coding overnight. Set a schedule and follow it. You could even take an online class on scheduling, but the one thing you don’t want to do is burn out — and that means not so much knowing when to slow down as never cranking up your rate of activity to unsustainable levels in the first place.

Part of pacing yourself is physical. You need to understand your body and your mind. Realize that breaks and downtime are part of a successful regimen. In order to get to the end of a marathon you have to keep a pace, not sprint through the first 3 miles, only to be wiped out at mile 10. In 2020, we are running an ultra-marathon and not a sprint.

Choose wisely

This will seem obvious, but an important part of online learning is to choose topics that interest you. Now, I know that in 2020 react.js is a cool thing to learn — but if your heart isn’t in it and AWS engineering is more your speed, than pick that. Wherever you can, stick to topics that interest you or you will become bored, lose interest, and quit whatever you intended to do.

Along the same lines, pick something offbeat or outside the norm once in a while to keep yourself interested. Maybe needlework sounds like a cool topic, or learning a foreign language. You don’t have to go super in-depth, but if you throw a weird class into your mix every once in awhile, you will grow your brain by pushing it out of its comfort zone. Quite often, this will give you a mental boost.

Teach what you learn

We've entered a new era of online learning. What can you do to maximize what you get out of your online experience?An excellent way to maximize your online learning experience is to train someone else, or at least discuss with someone else your newly learned knowledge. What better way to keep yourself sharp than to package and sell what you know? Try making an online class for your friends and loved ones, sell it on a site like Udemy, or send it out into the world free of charge.

Do something, in other words, that requires you to put into practice what you have learned. Lots of virtual training has a poor reputation because many learners think it’s boring, or at least not sufficiently engaging. You can change that with your spark or energy.

Some people may have only participated in lecture-style webcasts in the past, or they can’t imagine how they could meaningfully interact with others online. You can provide them with the opposite experience. When designed well, synchronous virtual training can provide meaningful learning opportunities for both participants and instructor at the same time.

Your potential success as a budding virtual trainer will depend upon a course design that engages participants, helps them learn a new skill, and creates a great learning experience. Don’t pass up this opportunity to make someone’s year by passing on what you know (or have newly learned).

Work in groups

You can also improve your online learning experience by broadening it. Participation in a group is a key element of learning for many. If you need a study group, then make one. Advertise at a local level, or get a bunch of your friends together. Do something that allows you to communicate, in your way, with a group of people who are learning about the same topic.

Take a break

As mentioned previously, don’t hesitate to make regular “brain breaks” part of your study routine. No one is judging you; don’t feel guilty about “slacking off.” If breaks are part of your plan, then they become just another element of the online learning process. If you need a break, take one.

A further note here is that you don’t have to limit yourself to stopping for just 15 minutes, or even a whole hour. If you have to take a week off, do that. Just remember to plan and schedule your next online learning session before you start your week break. You will thank yourself for doing it.

Spend wisely (or not at all)

We've entered a new era of online learning. What can you do to maximize what you get out of your online experience?Look for deals on price and overall offering. This is just good sense and certainly, for those on a budget, a core tenet of what you look for in online learning. If it doesn’t fit into your budget, then it might not happen. With a lot of companies tightening their budgets, it’s often left up to the individual to foot the bill for their own e-learning.

Maximize your intellectual gains by reading reviews and spending your money where it can do the most good. Also, bear in mind that there is a vast wealth of online learning opportunities out there that won’t cost you a dime. Universities, IT companies, and other entities frequently offer excellent online learning opportunities free of charge.

Set goals

Remember that you have to set a goal in order to be able to achieve one. This is probably the most overarching, all-encompassing tip that I have. If you have no idea where you are going, then how will you get there? Understanding where have you been and knowing where you want to go is the key to achievement.

It’s also important to not just “want a certification.” You have to be specific with goals, or your progress toward achieving them will be all over the map. It may be the project manager in me, but I favor “SMART” goals, which are specific (S) and measurable (M).

Most versions of SMART goal setting assign the remaining letters to achievable (A), relevant (R), and timebound (T). Those are all important but lean more toward the project management mentality. No matter what your personality, though, not setting a goal is a recipe for disaster.

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Nathan Kimpel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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