And sweat the details
Then there are the practical concerns. If you are working toward a degree, make sure that either your online program offers the one you want or that credits will be transferable, stresses Brady. Also, if you're hoping to be reimbursed by an employer, make sure that the online program is one your company recognizes and that you fully understand the procedure for getting your money back. Many of these courses are as expensive as in-person college courses, and signing up for the wrong one could cost you hundreds.
Once you've enrolled, make a schedule and stick to it. Because of the remote nature of online teaching, it can be all too easy to push class duties aside. That's a common mistake, warn the experts. As New York–based online teacher and novelist Rochelle Jewel Shapiro says: "To get the most out of an online class, you have to slot out a regular time on your calendar for doing your coursework. Otherwise, you may get overwhelmed and end up dropping out."
Brady goes a step further and suggests alerting friends and family that you are taking a course — and taking it seriously. "Before you start the online course, hold a meeting: tell everyone that when you're in your study place, you're to be left alone short of an emergency," she says. "Tell them you need them to support you by allowing you this uninterrupted time."
Mastering an online class means conquering any lingering techno fears. "If you've never taken on online classes, you need to learn the online software," says novelist Christopher Meeks, who currently teaches for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. "You will be able to log onto this software before the first class date. Do so to familiarize yourself with how the software works. There will be easy-to-follow lessons. It's all rather simple, and you'll be an expert quickly." Meeks, who has taught at a variety of colleges, is also an online student. Although he had published several collections of short stories, his first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, was developed through an online writing class.
Even after you've mastered the software, things can go haywire in the wired world. "Know your tech-support person!" insists Caroline Leavitt, an award-winning teacher for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. "Things do go wrong on online courses and the tech support is your lifeline and best friend."
The human elements
People, as well as programs, can cause problems online. In fact, it pays to be aware that when working remotely some kind of compensation has to be made for the missing element of human interaction. "Students should create a 'presence' in the course early on" through introductory e-mails or discussion posts, advises Shairs, and keep in touch throughout the course. "If you're behind," he says, "let the instructor know you have not fallen off the Earth and are still exerting some effort to get the work done."
If you do need help, make sure you ask for it. "Online teachers can't see by your face or body language that you are confused or bored or even irritated, so make sure if you are having a problem that you e-mail the teacher and let him or her know," says Leavitt, whose ninth novel, Breathe, comes out in 2010. "If we teachers don't know, we cannot fix or address the problem."