How to prepare for and make the most of your online degree

Studying for a postgraduate degree is a big commitment and something that you need to plan for if you are going to get the most from your program. Online programs are ideal for many people who want to gain a postgraduate qualification as they offer greater flexibility, but the style of learning is quite different from a classroom-based course. If you have previously studied for an undergraduate degree on campus, you may find that you need to take some time to get used to remote learning. Before you embark on an online course, it is worth planning how your remote studying will work so that you can get the most from your program.

Choosing the right online degree

There has been a growing demand for online learning programs in recent years, boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With many degree courses available, you can be selective and choose a course that best matches your requirements for your professional development goals.

Curriculum

Take the time to review the curriculum in detail before you commit to a program. Although programs from different schools may have similar titles, the course content can vary. To ensure that you will be covering the areas you are interested in, review and compare the programs carefully.

If a university offers both on-campus and online versions of a program, you will usually find that there is very little difference in the course content. In many cases, it is just the method of delivery that changes. This means that online degree courses are viewed just as highly as their on-campus counterparts by prospective employers, and you will not be at any disadvantage if you apply for a new role. In fact, completing an online course will often be seen as evidence of your self-discipline and commitment.

The Telfer Executive Master of Health Administration (MHA) at the Telfer School of Management is unique, being the only online degree of its kind available in Canada. This postgraduate qualification is targeted at those seeking to move into or advance in managerial roles in healthcare. The online master’s health administration program is completed in two years, across six semesters, and there are three start terms per year.

Combining business management and healthcare, the program prepares students for a career in senior healthcare roles, developing a range of skills, including innovation, leadership, and analytical skills. Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing industries in Canada. Growth is projected to continue through the decade, so it is an ideal time to develop your career in healthcare, with plenty of opportunities for progression and specialization. There is currently a shortage of staff in many roles in the healthcare sector, and some roles have immigration approval.

Accreditation

Choosing a degree program from a school with accreditation gives you an assurance of the quality of the education you are receiving. The Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa is accredited by three leading business school agencies:

  • Association of Master of Business Administration (AMBA)
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
  • EFMD Quality Improvement System (EQUIS)

Only two schools in Canada and the top 1% of business schools in the world have been awarded this triple accreditation.

Visit the school

Even if you are going to be studying online, a visit to the university campus will give you an insight into the quality of education you can expect, as well as an overview of the resources you will be able to access. You may also get an opportunity to speak to some of the course tutors. If you are able to travel to the campus of any schools you have shortlisted, it may help you to make your final decision.

Student support 

Find out what support is available from the school for students studying remotely. If you contact the enrolment advisers, they will be able to answer any questions you have about the curriculum and walk you through the registration process. Many online programs run a virtual orientation day for students. This will be time well spent, so make sure that you join and get acquainted with your faculty and your new virtual classmates.

You should be able to access the academic resources you need in digital format. Pastoral care and student advice services should also be accessible no matter where you live. This may include support for placements or financial advice for funding your studies, guidance on scholarships, etc. Advice on financing your studies will be available to both domestic and international students.

Teaching format

There are two main learning formats for online degrees. With some online degrees, you will need to attend live online classes at set times, also referred to as synchronous learning. Other online degrees allow you to study at times to suit you, with pre-recorded lessons that you can work through in your own time. Some programs offer a blend of these two formats. Check the times of live classes to establish whether they are held at times when you can be available.

You will also find that some degrees adopt a hybrid structure, with lessons predominantly online but some on campus. For example, a hybrid program may have a residency for one or two weeks, where you have the chance to meet your peers and faculty in person and participate in group learning sessions.

It’s important to choose the format that best suits you. If other commitments will prevent you from joining live online classes regularly, opt for a program that comprises mainly asynchronous sessions. If you choose a course with hybrid learning, schedule these in your diary and make any necessary arrangements to make sure that you can attend any in-person elements, as these will usually be a mandatory part of the program.

Setting up your remote learning space

Provided that you have reliable internet access and a computer, you can work on your online degree almost anywhere. However, for regular studies, it is usually helpful to have a dedicated study space. This helps you to be as organized and efficient as possible with your learning as you can have books and other materials ready to use. A designated space can also be helpful if you live in a household with other people so that they can see that you are studying and will be less likely to disturb you. Another option is to complete some of your studies in your workplace if it is quiet out of hours.

Your home workspace needs to be comfortable and uncluttered – otherwise, you may be reluctant to use it. Keep papers and books stored neatly and make sure that your chair gives you the support you need and that you have a desk at the right height for comfort. Supplement natural light with a good desk lamp as required.

Wherever you study, do your best to eliminate distractions. Unless you absolutely need your phone on – for example, if you are on call for work – it is best to switch off your phone during your study periods. Most alerts are not urgent, but they are very distracting and you could easily end up spending precious minutes of your study time on things that could be done later, or not at all.

Creating time 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for creating more time to allow for your studies, so if you already have a full schedule, you need to work out how you are going to adapt it to fit in your study time. The reality is that you will have to sacrifice some other activity from your schedule in order to find the time for studying. If you are struggling to find any spare time in your schedule, keep a detailed – and honest – diary for a week, recording precisely how you spend your time. You may be surprised to find how many hours a week are disappearing on TV and social media. Most people can find some opportunity for reclaiming time from another activity.

Block out your study time in your planner and treat it with the same respect you would a work meeting. Any qualification needs a serious level of commitment, and you need to demonstrate to others around you, and to yourself, that you value your study time and that it is not the first thing to give way when things get busy. It is important to set and stick to your boundaries from the start so that everyone is clear on how things are going to be for the duration of your degree program.

Once you have your program details, you can create a detailed schedule for your studies and assignments, and make it a priority to adhere to it. You should also have been given a recommended weekly time commitment for the program, and you can build this into your schedule. If you do find yourself falling behind with your coursework and submitting assignments, get in touch with your tutor, who will be able to advise you on the best way forward.

Get a head-start

You should receive a reading list from the faculty several weeks before beginning your program. If you have time, read through as many texts as possible before the start of your first semester. It will be reassuring to you to know that you are ahead of schedule, and it builds in some contingency for when additional demands on your time, whether from work or your personal life, would otherwise set you back. Before it starts, get a better idea of what your course entails by checking out any videos, podcasts or other resources about your program that you can access from the school’s website.

Your learning preference

Tailor your materials and studies to your preferred learning style. If you are a visual learner, create charts and diagram-rich notes to help you absorb information more effectively. If you find it easier to learn or revise with audio materials, record key facts, concepts, theories, and so on to listen to when you have spare time, such as when running or when traveling. Look into what other resources are already available to support your learning in your favorite format.

Reward your achievements

It is good to remind yourself from time to time that you are taking on a big commitment in studying for your degree. It is hard work, and some days will seem more challenging than others. The end objective of gaining your qualification can seem like a distant dream at times, so set yourself intermediate goals to stay motivated, and reward yourself for achieving them. You can even set yourself a measurable goal for each study period. This helps to keep you focused on the immediate task and makes your progress more obvious.

If you find it hard to be accountable just to yourself, ask someone else to help with this. Give them your planned schedule and ask them to follow up with you for a report on your progress at suitable intervals. This can be a partner, a colleague or a fellow student from your course. The important thing is that it is someone who will be happy to check in on your progress regularly and remind you of your goals.

Networking forums

Developing a network remotely may take a little more effort than when you are on campus, where socializing happens more spontaneously. However, it is worth putting in the effort to make connections with your fellow students. Many universities offering online programs have digital forums set up to promote networking among students and tutors. This online support can be helpful both for your academic work and for more general peer support. You might think that you are alone in struggling with a particular topic, but if you speak to your fellow students about it, you may find that you can get support from them, or you may find that it is an issue that others are also having difficulty with. If the latter is the case, you will be able to seek advice from tutors.

Many faculties encourage collaborative working for online students so that they get a more interactive learning experience, exchanging ideas and giving one another feedback. Participate in online discussion boards, post comments, and make the effort to stay actively involved so that you don’t feel like you are studying in isolation.

Getting to know your peers through academic and social forums will enhance your overall learning experience. The contacts you make will expand your professional network and may be helpful at other stages in your career. You may also find that you make lifelong friendships through your studies.

You may find that there is a university intranet where news, details of events and urgent announcements are posted. This can also be a good source of pre-owned resources such as course books.

Etiquette for online classes and calls

Most people have become familiar with using Skype, Zoom and similar tools for video calls during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether for work or socializing, but here’s a quick reminder of how to get the best from these platforms:

  • Find a quiet place for your call, with a suitable background. Avoid dialing in to a call while walking around outside – it’s distracting for others on the call, and you are not likely to be concentrating fully.
  • Check that your device is set up for the call in plenty of time, and make sure that you have any meeting IDs and passcodes to hand.
  • Make sure that your display name is correct.
  • Unless you are using your cellphone for the call, switch it to silent mode, or switch it off completely.
  • Switch off your microphone when you are not speaking.
  • Make sure that you have definitely left the meeting at the end of the call.

Personal wellbeing

Studying for any degree is hard work, but an online degree can be more demanding in some ways, as the coursework can easily drift into time scheduled for other activities such as family time or leisure time. It is very important to take time out for self-care. Exercise helps to de-stress and clear your mind, so don’t skip your regular walks or gym sessions.

Take frequent breaks to refresh. Everyone has a point at which their concentration starts to wane. For many people, this is around 45 to 60 minutes, and studying beyond this may become less and less productive.

Look after your diet. It’s all too easy to turn to unhealthy snacks when you are busy studying, but a nutritious diet will be far better for you, aiding concentration and preventing post-sugar slumps when it can be hard to focus.

Make sure that you get enough sleep. It’s easy to find yourself burning the candle at both ends when you have deadlines to meet, but you won’t do yourself any favors if you lose out on sleep over a sustained period. If you find that you are more effective when studying at night, try to avoid too many early-morning starts so that you can catch up on your sleep hours. If early-morning studies work better for you, make sure that you get to bed at a reasonable time in the evening.

Taking the time to prepare for your online degree takes the stress out of starting on your new program of study. You will be able to dive right in and enjoy the learning experience, confident that you have everything lined up and ready to go.

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