Being a successful online learner and effective remote worker

by Nuala McGuinn, Director of the Centre for Adult Learning & Professional Development, NUI Galway

The flexibility of “Anytime… Anywhere” learning has been a key-driver for busy parents and professionals to return to education. The opportunity to wrap learning around demanding schedules is a convenient way to upskill whilst remaining at work or at home, hence the rise in popularity of flexible learning.

In the face of a global pandemic workers globally were encouraged to work from home. What may have seemed impossible for some prior to Covid-19, is now an everyday norm – well almost a norm! Having moved from a busy office environment to my sitting room, surrounded by green fields, I have been struck by the similarity of skills that embody the effective remote worker and that of a successful online learner. While one may seem more challenging than the other, depending on the day or one’s personal motivation, the development of skills for remote working and online learning are connected.

  1. A place to work/study: in order to succeed, you must be organised and find a place where you can study or work. You must have access to a computer or laptop and broadband so that you can access your work files or the online learning portal. At NUI Galway all course materials are made available through Blackboard, our online learning platform through which all course communication with your module tutor and class members takes place. There may be some technical difficulties to overcome and you may have to learn how to navigate some new IT systems, but it is important to be persistent and solve any teething problems as they arise to give yourself every chance to be successful;
  2. Time management skills: the home environment can be distracting, but it’s important to develop good organisational habits from the beginning and identify what has to be done and when and perhaps learn to ignore the clutter – well, for a while anyway. At work, your projects will have deadlines which must be adhered to, so too do assignments in your online learning course. Getting a sense of the various deliverables throughout the term is essential particularly as some learners are taking a number of modules concurrently, each with a specific set of requirements. Assignment deadlines may end up being scheduled within a short timeframe of each other so it’s important to start early, plan ahead and build in some contingency plans in case life throws up something unexpected along the way!
  3. Written communication skills: whether learning online or working remotely, the main form of communication between co-workers and fellow students is through the written word. While the technologies that we use may vary (e.g. email, discussion groups, WhatsApps Groups or Office chat rooms), the emphasis on the written word is significant. Whether worker or learner, it important to become accustomed to writing for different purposes (i.e. formal or informal emails, chatroom dialogue, report writing, essay writing requiring referencing and citation for academic writing purposes). We must also be mindful of the tone of our written communication and the audience it is intended for. We must be respectful and conscious that all are not reading this information in “real-time”, and that meaning can shift over the passage of time.
  4. Working in teams: of course, communication can also take place in-person through various video conferencing platforms. At work, we have seen the rise in popularity of Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams and other platforms to facilitate synchronous communication and ensure that teams remain connected. Similarly in online learning, webinars are scheduled throughout the term where tutors and students connect to discuss certain topics or present projects. The protocols surrounding these online sessions are different to a face-to-face seminar and can lack the spontaneity that accompanies the immediate interactions and retorts that occur naturally among people in the same room. However, with the many tools and functionality available in the online learning environment students can raise their hands and ask questions, they can present materials alongside their module lecturer, opinions can be expressed through in-class polling tools or through opportunities to share the “mic”, while the facility to record the session ensures that no one is disadvantaged should they miss a webinar. Student feedback over the past few years indicates that feeling connected with one’s co-workers or classmates and the opportunity to meet others and ask questions – if only virtually, develops a sense of community and common purpose and helps mitigate any feelings of isolation that can occur through remote learning and working.

With the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus, we have decided to move all in-person seminars to a fully online teaching mode for Semester 1 of the academic year 2020/21 and plan to review our Semester 2 schedule over the coming months. This decision has been made to ensure the safety of students & staff and our desire to continue to provide upskilling and professional development opportunities for all. Having delivered courses to Adult Learners for over 20 years in blended learning and fully online teaching formats we are well positioned to meet the new and exciting venture in our history.

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