Almost as rapid as the spread of coronavirus came the abrupt mass migration of practically every facet of modern-day life to online platforms. As universities, schools, and workplaces across the world shut down, the transition to online modalities and telecommuting suddenly became a reality. A real-time mass experiment of online learning is currently taking place globally. There is no control experiment. There are no measures in place. There is no hypothesis or expected outcome. Nothing is certain and anything and everything is possible. So, for now, how do we make the most of the situation and continue to learn effectively?
I’m about to graduate from Minerva Schools at KGI, a global university where all learning takes place remotely. I’ve taken “online” classes for the past four years on my school’s virtual platform, Forum, and have found a variety of methods to help me stay focused, motivated, and willing to partake in distance learning. I also recently completed my senior Capstone project, which focuses on digital sociology, digital communities, and the Internet’s ability to change societal structures. I decided to write this “how-to” article to share some tips on how to navigate effective distance learning, based on my own experience as well as my thesis research. I’ve found existing articles to be too general — yes, putting on real pants is important — but here are some other specific tools and tips to alleviate common frustrations with online learning.
A bit of thoughtful preparation can go a long way…
- Familiarize yourself with your new schedule. Treat your classes as proper events on your calendar and use a specific color to separate classes and academic-related events from other activities.
- Prepare your setup. Before class starts, plug in your laptop or sit near an accessible plug point with your charger at hand. Moving around and fumbling during class is not only distracting for you but for your classmates too.
- Use a headset or earphones with a built-in microphone. This will lead to fewer disruptions — nothing is more annoying or disruptive to the class’ flow than the awkward, “Can you hear me?”
- Use an ethernet cable, if possible. Internet speed cannot be improved easily, but using an ethernet cable can enhance your connection and prevent lagging and other tech issues.
If you prefer to engage material visually or in a tactile manner, taking classes online might throw you off. Here are some ways to effectively take notes during online classes.
- Optimize your Google Docs for note-taking.
Step 1: Create a Google Drive with different folders, one folder for each class.
Step 2: Create a template for note-taking. Include easily editable details such as unit, class topic, etc. Creating a note-taking template before class will help you maintain focus during class rather than spending energy formatting your document.
Step 3: Make a copy of the template, one copy for each class you are taking.
Step 4: When class begins, split your screen and have the note-taking document pulled up to the side. Here is how to split your screen on Mac and PC computers.
Step 5: Take notes and come back to edit and reread them later!
Step 6: The next time you have that same class, reread your notes from the previous class a few minutes before the next class begins. It’s good to have a reminder of previously learned content. I find it helpful to use the same document for the entire course and compile my notes in reverse chronological order. This way, when I open the document to take notes for class, I can refresh my memory on what was taught a few days prior, which helps to prepare me to enter class. Building this practice into your routine will also encourage you to wake up more than two minutes before the class starts.
- Diversify your notes with mind maps and hand-written notes. Research has shown that handwritten notes can help you retain information but it can also be distracting when simultaneously taking classes online. It is also difficult to make edits and reformat handwritten notes. However, I have found it helpful to jot down the main points and tie ideas together using mind maps and sometimes even doodles.
- Experiment with Notion. This fantastic all-in-one workspace is absolutely fantastic. Notion is free for students and has some incredible templates for note-taking (amongst an array of other features). Here’s a link to Notion’s class-notes template.
In my experience, the most demotivating and frustrating part of online classes has been keeping track of all my open tabs and a multitude of windows. Here are some tools to help declutter your workspace.
- Organize your screen with OneTab. This Google Chrome add-on compiles all your tabs into one. When you click on the OneTab icon it converts all your tabs into a list. To access the tabs again, you can restore the entire list or individual tabs. You can also group and name your collection of tabs. This will speed up your laptop and assist your organization of readings, class notes, and even those news articles you have open in the background. Here’s a handy tutorial.
- Clear and reorganize your browser bookmarks tab. Bookmark your school’s online library, frequently visited online portals and digital hubs, and other useful links for quick access. At one point I had dictionary.com bookmarked, just in case a term was mentioned in class that I did not understand. This saves time and keeps you focused when you’re working.
It’s natural to not be able to concentrate 100% of the time—I have lost count how many times my eyes have wandered away from my screen to some distant land beyond the digital sphere. But there are ways you can improve your focus by limiting surrounding distractions.
- Take a planned eye-rest break. Look away from your screen, rest your eyes, and return. Hopefully, professors will start to include this in their lesson plan but if not, try to do it yourself. Don’t let your eyes wander aimlessly and remember to turn your attention back to the screen after a minute or so. Just remind yourself that it’s ok to look away once in a while. Screen-induced headaches are awful.
- Keep your hands busy. If you’re not taking notes, keep your hands busy with something repetitive and menial. You don’t want to be distracted from class, but you also don’t want to repeatedly reach for your phone when you get restless. Some fun recommendations for mindless fidgeting: playdough, a fidget spinner, fidget block, knitting needles, Rubik’s cube, and adult coloring books.
- Put your phone away. I cannot stress this one enough. Your mobile phone is an actual distraction machine! It might be tempting to scroll through Instagram or message your friends to comment on comedic things in class. For the sake of learning, put your phone away, ideally leave it in a different room.
- Close unnecessary tabs. In addition to consolidating your tabs using previously mentioned add-ons such as OneTab, you can also get website blockers to avoid distractions during class. I recommend StayFocusd, which allows you to set a specific amount of time for each website. Once your allotted time has been used, the website will be blocked for the remainder of the day. BlockSite is another alternative, which includes focus timers, a Pomodoro technique timer, and other features that are not as restrictive as StayFocusd.
- Create a standing desk. Place your laptop or desktop on books, boxes, or other sturdy materials. Standing during class will increase your blood flow, prevent you from dozing off, and improve your concentration.
While current global disruptions have forced us to make massive adjustments to the way we learn and there are many things we cannot control, my hope is that these tips will allow students to take some control over their studies for the remainder of the academic year and beyond. In a world where so much is unknown, one by one, small and manageable adjustments like these can go a very long way.