By Kelly Smith | STC Member
If you are just starting your career in technical communication, or have you reached a point where you can’t advance without additional education? Have you never had formal technical communication training, or just want a challenge? An online technical communication program might be right for you.
A Quick Overview
Online programs offer many benefits to the working professional, including:
- Offering the flexibility to study almost anywhere;
- Giving you the chance to expand your professional and personal networks beyond your region; and
- Allowing you to select the program best suited for you vs. the one closest to you.
Deciding on an online program, however, involves understanding and assessing certain factors.
Team projects and group work are commonly used to help students from different backgrounds learn from each other. This means you must generally do your own part of the assignment (correctly and on time) and also coordinate with peers in different time zones to collaborate on assignments and activities. Additionally, for group projects, every team member receives the same grade, regardless of who did the bulk of the work (if this seems problematic, you might ask about doing individual assignments; some instructors allow such an option if that’s your preference).
Participation generally counts in online classes. Attendance is normally part of your grade, as is how often and how well you participate in class discussions—whether in real time (live text, audio, or video chat) or time delayed (posting to a discussion board). This can be difficult if you’re shy in front of a camera or microphone, or hesitate to jump into a discussion. If such factors cause you a lot of anxiety, the instructor might allow you to participate via other mechanisms.
Online classes require good time management skills. When the classes take place online, it can be easy to forget that you have work to do in between. Can you manage your time well enough to do all the reading and homework assignments? Can you keep up with emails from classmates and professors? Do you have time throughout the week to work on assignments and participate in online discussion forums? It’s easy to fall behind, but your instructor wants you to succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Commitments and Choices
We all have outside commitments. Work, family, friends, and community all demand our time. Can you juggle classes on top of all that, or will something have to slip? Before you select an online program, talk to your family about such factors. Make sure they remember that your enrollment in an online program means you’ll need to dedicate time to homework and classes, even though you’re not leaving the house to attend in person. If your employer is paying for the classes, that employer might allow you to do assignments during work hours, which will help tremendously with balancing commitments.
A variety of programs are available, from certificates, undergrad courses, master’s courses, and even PhDs. Which one you take should be based on your own needs, or that of your employer. Some are geared toward practitioners who need to learn practical skills they can use right away in the workplace; others are designed more for academics and focus on expanding scholarly research in the field.
There are different methods for delivering education. Some online classes offer no real-time communication with the instructor or other students. Some might require you to attend some classes in person during a given term. Others take place entirely online using a blend of synchronous meetings and asynchronous assignments. The key is to select the type that best suits your situation and personality.
Do you have time? Taking even one class at a time is a big commitment. Some weeks you may have 80 pages of reading, an online meeting, an assignment to write, a peer review to perform, and online discussion questions to respond to. Make sure you’ll be able to dedicate the necessary amount of time to your classes. If you don’t know how much time it will take, speak to the academic advisor for the program before enrolling. They can usually give you an estimate.
Do you have the discipline to complete an online program? While certificates might be earned in a matter of weeks or months, university degrees can require years of work. Look ahead and try to determine if other planned events in your life may require your time. Can you work around them? Related to this, are you good at sticking with something until the end? If you start a program, will you finish it?
Are you good at self-direction? No one else can do your reading and assignments. No one else can participate in the online meetings for you. Your classmates and team members will rely on you during group work. Do you have the ability to stay focused and get your work done on time?
Do you have the necessary technology? Most online classes require a decent computer, a headset with a microphone, and a webcam. You will likely need software such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader, as well as other specialized applications for particular classes.
What learning management system (LMS) does the school use? This is not a question I would have thought to ask, but my classes started off using Blackboard, which is an older LMS. It’s one I’ve used before, and I disliked the archaic and confusing interface. Mid-way through my program, the university switched to Canvas, which is modern and much more intuitive. The kind of LMS used can make doing your classwork a breeze or a bother, so it’s worth asking the question and maybe getting a demo or reading some reviews. It could be the tie-breaker between two otherwise equal programs.
Consider your personal needs and interests. Is the program directly related to your current or desired job? What branch of technical communication are you in or want to be in? That will be the primary determining factor in the program you select. Do you want to advance your career, sharpen your skills, or develop new skills? Different classes can help achieve each of these goals.
While selecting a program, also try to assess the quality of the instructors. What is their experience? What are their qualifications? This information should be available on the university website and can help you determine the overall focus and quality of the program. Do they have academic backgrounds, or have they worked in industry? Which is more important to you?
All classes and programs cost money. Student loans are an option, or you can save up or pay out of pocket. But even better is having someone else pay the bill. Does your company offer tuition reimbursement? If so, find out how to qualify.
Some companies only offer this perk to full-time employees or employees who have been with the company a certain length of time. Most require a promise to remain employed for a set period of time afterward or you must pay them back. Are you okay with that? Most of these policies only cover tuition if you get a good grade (usually at least a B), and most put an annual cap on how much they will reimburse you for tuition costs. Is that grade achievable for you, and is the cap high enough to meet your needs?
If your company doesn’t have such a policy, you may have to convince them that paying your tuition will be a benefit to them in the long term. Try to explain what they will get out of it and how educating you will help the company. Explain why they should invest in you.
As an adult learner, you have a lot of control over what classes you take, and how you participate in them. If you have special needs or require accommodation, even for something minor like turning in a project a day late, don’t be afraid to ask. Most instructors understand that working full-time and going to school is difficult, and life intervenes. Most will give you quite a bit of leeway if you need it. They want you to succeed. Carefully thinking about the benefits, challenges, and considerations of online classes can help you do that. Good luck!
KELLY SMITH (KellyMJSmith@gmail.com) has been a Gold Member of STC since 2015. She works as Senior Technical Writer on the Business Continuity Corporate Systems Team at Dart Container Corporation in Mason, MI. She is currently earning her MS in Technical Communication Management at Mercer University School of Engineering and will graduate in 2019. Kelly has published two books: Open Your Heart with Quilting, and How to Build, Maintain, and Use a Composting System.