Want to study online? Here's what I learned after a year of remote learning

After 12 months of online study, all I want to see is a live lecture.

What's the new normal for online education? Coursera's Leah Belsky has some ideas
17:45

Over the past year, I have completed 12 months of postgraduate study at a university on the west coast of Australia while I reside two timezones away on the country's east coast.

Completing an entire course remotely was a relative rare experience at the start of 2019, but with the emergence of coronavirus and the subsequent social isolation, that rarity has fast become the norm. 

Below are the things I wish I could tell myself at the start of 2019 to be better prepared. This is unique to my circumstances in returning to study 15 years after completing my bachelor degree, and so your mileage may very much vary.

Flexibility

The cyber course I completed was metaphorically packaged in wrapping that said it would take around 20 hours a week to complete. This wasn't a lie, and if anything, it was a low-ball estimate.

A key thing to remember in all of this, is it is 20 hours a week on top of whatever work, commuting, and family commitments you have already. It's easy to conjure a plan in your mind that you can knock off eight hours each on Saturday and Sunday, and two hours over three nights across the working week, but life does get in the way, and those lovely plans on paper can soon go awry.

I'm lucky in one sense that I am not a parent, and I take my hat off to the people who speak of late night studying once the kids are in bed while still working a 9 to 5 gig. I don't know where they found the time and energy for it all.

If you are lucky enough to work somewhere that allows time in lieu, and you are even thinking about studying, start accruing as much time as possible now.

You will end up having to take vacation leave to get your final assignment in on time, and you will also need to take time off when you can to ensure you remain in a decent headspace. Say goodbye to any social life you have left.

Warn those around you

One thing that was a massive help to me was having a partner that was totally on-board with the course and its time requirements. If you are told quite often that you spend too much time on the computer, and are not engaging or interacting with others, just wait until study enters the equation.

See also: Online education toolbox: Tips and resources for distance learning (free PDF)     

I was lucky that I only signed up to a 12-month course, not just so I could tell friends and colleagues that things would get a little crazy, but it would only be for one rotation around the sun. It still meant that I would forgo social events while my partner attended them, or I would only commit to something a couple of hours beforehand on the weekend due to how much study I had completed that day.

A year of that was doable; two years would have made the light a long way further down the tunnel and been a lot more daunting.

It's online, all of it

To this point, I have not addressed the actual content, because being able to find the time and being comfortable with your personal circumstances is table stakes.

But when I say I did remote study, it was purely remote online learning: The content, the assessments, the exams, all of it. There was no live interaction with a real human at any point.

Other courses have taped lectures, and some might add in some video conferencing, but not the course I did.

Content-wise, it was a collection of textbook readings, LinkedIn Learning sections, YouTube videos, and a lot of awfully written computer science papers. This was very inhuman but it allowed one thing that took me months to work out: Binging.

The course itself was broken up into a series of eight-week subjects, one after the other with no time in between. When a subject commenced, each week's content was able to be accessed on-demand, with the first week of a subject handed over to orientation tasks, such as making sure the correct software was installed and working properly.

It was sorely tempting once you completed a week's work, to give yourself a nice pat on the back and perhaps a Sunday off. This was wrong.

Once the veil lifted on the content, the best thing you could do was devour it like a drug-enhanced knowledge-sucking vacuum from the depths of Hell. There were a couple of reasons for this.

First, although the content provided guidelines on how long a week's content would take, it was rarely correct and frequently underestimated. Because for most weeks, work was around 10 or so tasks, and there was that fabled 20 hours work number to target; it seems the default was to tell students each task would take 120 minutes.

Read an entire 90-page chapter of a textbook? 120 minutes. Research a topic you know nothing about and compile a non-stupid forum post? 120 minutes. Watch a 15 minute TED talk? 45 minutes, or sometimes 10 minutes.

If you get in front of the content, you can take bogus estimations out of the equation so you don't end up thinking you've planned a week properly, but then end up staying awake up till 1am on Monday because you are only 63 pages into the aforementioned textbook chapter and aren't close to finishing the week.

Secondly, there were a number of instances in exams where content from future weeks provided the answer, or made it much easier to find out an answer.

Thirdly, particularly in subjects where there is a very large project to submit in the final week, you will often need to decide between completing the project to a proper level of competence, or engaging with the week's content. Personally, this choice wasn't hard and the project always won out because it was worth around 40% while completing a week's work was not counted towards my assessment.

A fair indication of how the student group was going with a project was to see how the interactions in forums dried up as the final weeks passed as everyone was head down trying to complete it.

Fourthly, if you are person that at times travels for work, the best way I found to fall behind was to go somewhere for a week. I just couldn't get myself into uni mode after a day at a conference. Rushing ahead in the content meant there was a nice buffer to fall back on when your study plans invariably fall through.

In Australia? Get off the NBN for exams

It's also worth spelling out how the exams were held, and their relation to connectivity.

Early subjects tended to be multiple choice that were quite easy and it was not out of the ordinary to complete a so-called one-hour exam in under 20 minutes. There were also some exams that required paragraph-style free answers, and then there was one of the final subjects which totally embraced the online form and had students scouring the net for relevant examples to questions and it was a hectic rush for an hour.

Once an exam commenced, you had to complete it in one sitting -- for fairly obvious academic reasons -- but this is where the problem with the NBN came in.

I am connected with a HFC/cable connection, and it is not uncommon for the connection to drop and the terminating device or modem to decide to fart about for 15 minutes or so before reconnecting.

In one of the early subjects, I had 10 minutes to go in an exam, and the connection dropped. It didn't reconnect properly for another 15 minutes. Fortunately, the exam counted for a mere couple of percent of the final mark, only the final question was unanswered, and the exam auto-submitted once time ran out, but I couldn't do a final check of my work.

But I learnt my lesson. From that point on, any exam I did was from a device that either had its own mobile connection, or was connected to a hotspotting mobile phone.

When these exams potentially make up 30% of your final mark, you cannot rely on the NBN to be reliable and not to screw you around.

Remember it's online and problems take at least a day to solve

Ploughing through content is all well and good, but what if you encounter a problem that you cannot solve or work your way around? In that case, you've just discovered one of the major drawbacks of the online world.

The round trip from finding something not quite right, asking about it, and getting a solution is more likely than not to take about two days. That's 2/7ths of your week if you are going week by week though content -- another reason why it is best to binge early and binge often.

This most extreme example I saw of online behaviour that would be much more difficult to replicate in the real world was a tutor disappearing -- two or so weeks into a subject, and it appeared like he never logged on again. Fortunately this subject was one where another tutor could pick up the slack, but it was complete shambles as students wondered for a week and a bit why we weren't getting any answers.

Some tutors will only troubleshoot when in the allocated week for content, so if you are flying ahead you might have to wait, but that's no big problem, just ask all your questions on Monday.

See also: Data science interest spikes with COVID-19: Here are the online courses to get you started

This all sounds terrible. Why would I do it?

With all the above said, you would be forgiven for thinking anyone wanting to combine work and study would be a glutton for punishment. And while that's true, it's not the full story.

After swearing at the screen about having to watch yet another YouTube or LinkedIn Learning video, and wondering what lecturers of online courses actually do at this institution, I do have some sympathy for the setup. There's no way I could binge content as an undergrad that attended lectures, and go through the most of the content of an entire subject in 14 days.

That doesn't stop me thinking there should be an aspect of live or recorded interaction, but it is what it is.

The benefits of the university structure over self-learning is that it forces you to keep doing stuff.

By about the six-month mark, if it was only left to my self-motivation to keep going, I wouldn't have finished. It's that simple. You need discipline to eek out a degree, but deadlines do wondrous things to thoughts of stopping and heading down the pub with mates -- eventually. Additionally, going through a university is much more recognised in the market than completing a ton of online short courses.

It was also nice getting to use tools of the trade in anger and knowing there was a channel to ask for help if you failed, rather than scouring the internet for a solution to my obscure problem of the moment.

There is also the palpable sense of achievement from getting good marks for an assessment you spent a lot of time on, or alternatively squeezing something you aren't sure about past the markers. And nothing beats the feeling when your testamur hits your email.

The key element to everything in this is passion. It's passion for the topic that gets you thought the boring bits, passion that brings you back to the knowledge well after bombing an exam, passion that made you sign up for this torment in the first place.

I've gone through a year of it, and am happy I did, but I am not rushing back for the second year of a masters just yet. I want to reconnect to the real world again before I hide away for another year.

That was the plan before coronavirus had other ideas, and I actually think studying while in isolation would be a nice diversion from the afternoon wine habit that has developed instead.

If you're contemplating taking up some study, there is honestly no better time to get into it, and with many more people having to use these ways of studying than before, the problems I encountered with the platforms themselves should be ironed out.

The content will always be a work in progress, but what I wouldn't have given for just a single recorded lecture. Maybe I'll get that next time.

ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER:

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.