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Replicating an academic environment in your home requires some renegotiating of physical and mental space. Do you ever wonder why you’re more productive in certain areas, like a library, or why it’s harder to get work done in spaces where you typically watch television, play video games, or sleep?

The environment that we learn in matters. We know, for example, that our minds associate certain places with certain tasks. Before you engage in online learning, it’s important to know that you can increase the likelihood of your success and ensure you get the most out of virtual education by shaping the space you’re learning in.

Follow these tips and you’ll be able to squeeze out as much value from online learning as possible.

1. Set up a comfortable place dedicated to work

Some online programs can be lengthy. If you’re asked to attend live sessions for an extended period of time, you’ll want to ensure that your working space is comfortable. If your chair, desk, or any other aspect of your environment is a distraction, you may miss important parts of the lesson. Also, minor irritants like a chair being too hard or a desk being too low only amplify over time.

It’s also ideal to have a dedicated workspace so that you’re not frantically setting up and taking down your workstation on a regular basis. If you have to spend valuable time setting up everyday, then it will increase the likelihood that you just sit on a bed or a couch to work, which is not ideal.

2. Speak with others around you

When working at home, it’s important to establish hard boundaries with the people you live with. In a normal circumstance, it’s reasonable for roommates or family members to spontaneously start a conversation with you. For example,

“Hey, do you know if it’s going to rain today?”

“I made some dinner, come and eat with us.”

These are innocent questions and statements, but when you’re in the middle of an intellectual process (thinking, learning, etc.), then they can completely derail productivity.

This is why you should speak with everyone living around you and let them know that when you are in work mode, non-emergency issues and conversations should be saved for later. Your workspace ought to be respected because it is a foundation of your success.

On another note, if you are in a live lecture setting and there are people walking around in your webcam’s view, then it can be very distracting to other learners and the course director.

For everyone’s sake, but especially yours, establish boundaries with those living around you.

3. Make sure your headphones and mic are working – Headphones are ideal

Academic or learning environments like schools, lecture halls, and libraries are fully immersive, which can be difficult to replicate at home.

This is where the value of your hardware is important. One of the best ways to tune out external noise and distractions is to use headphones. This simple suggestion will do wonders to limit noise bleed and ensure you’re catching all of the value that your instructor and/or course has to offer.

You may also be called on to contribute to a class discussion or you may want to pose a question. Ensuring that your mic works before you are called on will ensure that you can take advantage of speaking opportunities without disruption.

4. Have water and snacks close by

This tip is self-explanatory, but you may grow frustrated if you forget to do it.

It’s perfectly appropriate for you to have water (or whatever you choose to hydrate yourself) close to you when you log in to an online session, similar to how you would during an in-person class. Small snacks are OK, too. Just remember to mute your mic so that any distracting crunching or chewing noises do not echo in the ears of your peers and instructor.

It’s probably best not to have a big meal in the middle of a lesson, but if it’s absolutely necessary, consider turning your webcam off for a moment or keeping your food outside the view of your peers. Eating on camera can be quite distracting for others.

Keeping beverages and/or snacks close by will also prevent you from having to take an unnecessary break in the middle of your class to run to the kitchen!

5. Keep your notes close by

Your instructor or course content may require you to consult previous notes you have taken for the class. Ideally, you should have notes close by or opened on your computer to avoid disruptive breaks in your attention span.

If, for example, you’re asked to recall a concept or discussion from another class, it’s disruptive to have to go searching for a binder or a USB where your notes are contained.

Having your notes on-hand will ensure that you’re ready to engage with your lesson and classmates.

6. Do you have a second monitor?

Having a second monitor can be a tremendous help to navigate online learning, particularly during live lectures.

Given that computer screens come in all shapes and sizes, some students may have a more frustrating time with clicking back and forth between video feeds, notes, and other necessary programs.

A second monitor allows you to have multiple windows open so that you can efficiently take notes on one monitor without having to minimize your lecturers or classmates on your other screen.

This is a much more effective way to take full advantage of online learning platforms and ensure that you don’t miss any valuable points conveyed.

7. Consider your internet signal

Sometimes, our desire to participate in online programming is beholden to the technology and tools we use.

While video meetings and streaming have come a long way, frustration can rise when you’re in the middle of learning something important and you start to see a buffering symbol or your instructors … words … start … to … get … … … choppy.

When you’re setting up a workspace for online learning, consider the strength of your internet signal. If your WIFI isn’t great, consider a wired connection to your router. While wires are more cumbersome, they tend to be fast and reliable.

8. Schedule work blocks and take breaks

This tip is centered for those participating in self-directed online learning (where you complete a course at your own pace).

Scheduling work blocks is a great way to ensure that you’re moving through course content and getting assignments done. If you’re not expected to attend a class at a predetermined time, ask yourself these important questions: what time of day am I most productive? How long can I work for before needing a break? How many days a week can I commit to scheduled work blocks?

When constructing a schedule, be mindful of your ability to sustain it. For example, scheduling a work block from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM is not realistic. I would recommend starting with 1 to 4-hour commitments per day (depending on your desired outcomes).

If productivity is a concern for you, try the Pomodoro Technique, which is a timed work session of 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks in-between (I know several people who wrote dissertations using this method – it works!). There are some websites out there that will time your work in accordance with the Pomodoro Technique (e.g. https://www.marinaratimer.com/) or time your work while simultaneously blocking distracting websites (for more on this, see #9).

Also, don’t forget to schedule breaks! Breaks are a necessary part of keeping your mind healthy and allowing it to get rejuvenated for your next work stint.

9. Block distracting apps and sites

Constant pings while you’re trying to work or give something sustained attention is a huge distraction.

To prevent the outside world from creeping into your productivity, consider using an app and/or website blocker. There are many out there to choose from, including Freedom, Y-Productive, Focus, Zero Willpower, and many, many more. Keep in mind that some of these services have a cost, but there are free versions too.

In addition to app blockers, also be mindful of how you interact with your phone and/or other electronic gadgets. If this is a major source of disruption for you, then hit the silent button and let your contacts know that you’ll respond to messages once you’re able to (this related to #2 and shaping the expectations of people around you). You can even set an automatic response that people will receive to help manage expectations. For instance, you may want to consider setting up an automatic e-mail or text response that says something like “Thank you for the message! I am doing online classes each day from 9:00am-11:00am. I will respond to all messages after this time.”

10. If frustrations arise, speak to the instructor

If there is anything preventing you from getting the most out of your online learning experience, it is perfectly appropriate for you to speak with the instructor about how to overcome the challenges you face. Given the physical distance that exists between you and your instructor, it’s probably impossible for course directors to notice things that would be obvious in a traditional classroom (e.g. a confused look on a student’s face). In online learning environments, it is not safe to assume that someone else is having a similar issue and that they will bring it up to your professor/teacher.

Remember, instructors want you to get the most out of your learning experience, so never be afraid to advocate for yourself!

Final note: the digital divide

The 10 tips above assume that all students have access to quiet workspaces, sufficient internet packages, and up-to-date electronic devices. I know that this is not a safe assumption. While internet has become a necessity in our world, many people still rely on public spaces like libraries and businesses for a WIFI connection and/or to access electronic devices.

Depending on where you live, there might be governmental or corporate programs that offer internet packages at more affordable rates. At the very least, you can inquire about student discounts, which tend to be more budget friendly.  

I hope these tips provide some insights that help your online learning experience go smoothly!