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Updated on Jan 27, 2010

Think a 5 PM login would suit your child’s busy lifestyle better than a traditional 8 AM lecture? Maybe your son or daughter has already taken the plunge and enrolled in an online class—certainly, the wide range of options and flexibility distance learning offers finds fans in parents and children alike. But make no mistake: online education diverges from the conventional model, and sometimes those same differences that seemed so attractive at the beginning can leave your child floundering. Before you let your kid swap the blackboard for the browser screen, make sure you’re prepped for success.

Clear a workspace

Several important factors will contribute to your child’s success in distance learning, and one of the most significant is having an appropriate workspace. As with any workspace, the area should be free from distractions, well lit and close to materials that your child will need to access quickly, such as textbooks, course software, etc. To help your child stay organized, consider adding a small cork board or white board to the workspace on which your child can post his or her printed course syllabus and a weekly or monthly calendar with class deadlines. It’s also a good idea for your child to post his or her login and/or password in the same location, as well as the phone number of the technology helpdesk for the college or school offering the class. If your kid does post or share a password with you, resist the temptation to “snoop” on your child’s class without his or her knowledge. Certainly, staying involved as a parent is important, but this sort of clandestine micromanaging hinders your child from developing academic responsibility—one of online education’s best lessons. Finally, help your child see that his or her computer is actually part of the workspace for an online class. Together you can make sure that documents and files will be easy to find by cleaning up unused items on the desktop and creating a course folder.

Set a schedule

Ironically, what makes online education so appealing in the first place is often what makes it difficult for kids to manage: flexibility. Because there is generally no set time frame for an online course, class can take place whenever—and as frequently—as your child chooses. For kids who have a hard time staying motivated, this kind of freedom can translate into inertia; on the other hand, children who are academically engaged to the point of anxiousness may want to spend every waking moment online. To strike the right balance, sit down with your kid and set some parameters early in the course for when and how frequently your child will be working on his or her coursework. Use the syllabus as a guideline; most instructors are clear about their expectations in terms of time commitment to the course. Consistency is key to setting up a routine. If it is possible for your child to check in every day at the same time, then help him or her to do so—but set limits. If your over-engaged child is hitting “refresh” on the browser every few minutes to see if any new homework assignments have popped up, it’s time to take a break.

Be resourceful

Remind your child that lack of face-to-face contact doesn’t mean that he or she has to work through the coursework alone. Most online instructors make themselves available through a number of different mediums—email, voice mail and office hours at a campus hub, for example. Another invaluable resource for your online student is the school library. Bookmark the library’s webpage on your browser and check out features that might be especially helpful for your child, like online tutorials or writing labs, real-time assistance from a librarian or times and locations for small group tutoring. Finally, encourage your child to make and keep peer contacts. Collaborating with a reliable “study buddy” online can go a long way toward helping your child foster the kind of peer partnership necessary to survive in a high-tech world.

Like any class, online or in-person, your child will get out of it what he or she puts into it. But taking care of things that seem small—like adjusting your child’s workspace, setting a schedule and identifying resources—can make or break a virtual classroom experience.

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