First, I feel the need to attempt to dispel the idealization of online learning.
This is NOT what online learning looks like:
This is what online learning looks like:
These latter images, though they wouldn’t encourage students towards online coursework, would at least offer learners more authentic insight into what level of time management they’re in for with this kind of learning experience. (Anyway, who really takes a laptop to the beach?)
There are tons of sites on how to manage time, and several offer suggestions specifically for online classes. And of course, it’s pretty clear that if you manage your time well, you’ll be more successful at most things in life, but especially with online learning.
However, if that’s the case, then why do learners, even older adult learners, even professional learners who already have degrees, struggle with time management? If it is just a matter of knowing what to do and how to do it, then everyone should be posting his or her initial discussion posts by the deadline and completing modules in time.
But that’s not what happens.
I humbly suggest that adult online learners struggle with time management because they de-prioritize their online courses out of some sort of guilt. Something else comes along that they feel more obligated to do or more guilty about not doing. And the prioritization of things, by virtue of how obligated we feel to do them, is a huge part of time management.
At least half of the learners in an online class, (particularly those who are also working full-time) will start scrambling somewhere midcourse. They’ll submit things at the last minute or fall behind a module or so and have to double-time it to the end of the course. Of course, this hastiness impedes their learning. Oh, they’ll get it done, but with extreme stress and without the depth of learning that will really help them out.
The very thing that makes online learning so attractive—its inherent time flexibility—is also the one thing getting in the way for these learners. Flexibility, guilt, and an inability to prioritize well is a time-management disaster waiting to happen.
Further compounding the issue is that one of the primary strategies for successfully completing an online course is to set aside time to do it.
IF we had time to set aside, we would probably have taken the face-to-face course in the first place. Those of us taking online courses are (for the most part) working full-time and dealing with families. We don’t have the time to set aside time. If we had the time to set aside time, we’d set aside the time.
And thinking that we can work on the course late at night or on weekends doesn’t make it any easier. If anything, things get more complicated. Late at night, we’re tired. Weekends, we’re busy.
If anything, we actually tend to do better with the inflexibility of a scheduled class time (MWF 6pm-8pm). Potentially, we do better because we’re able to say, “I can’t (go to the store, go to dinner, etc.) because I have class.” Others understand that, and we are able to justify prioritizing the class. We don’t feel guilty about it. It’s as though the authority of the schedule makes the difference.
What’s trickier is telling people, “I can’t (go to the beach, pick you up at the airport, etc.) because I have to do some work in my online course, today.” That’s where part of the guilt comes in because we know we can always do our online course “any time.”
How can we say no?
To say that online learning requires time management skills is an understatement. Underneath, you must have a backbone of steel that's impervious to guilt and manipulation. You have to be your own authority. Only then can you prioritize and set aside the necessary time.
It ain’t easy.