Q&A: Technology for online classes

Answer: With online enrollments growing an average of almost 20 percent per year over the past six years, colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up with the many new technology products.

Depending on your choice of course and school, you'll probably still be writing papers, but peer editing them online with a classmate who may be a teen from the next town, or stationed on a destroyer in the Gulf of Aden, or logging on after an all-night nursing shift in the E.R. Key to fast, high-quality interaction with fellow students is the broadband technology that powers course management systems like Blackboard.

Many colleges and universities offering online courses have been training their top instructors in new ways of teaching, using technology advances to help you master content faster and easier. Often, you'll get theory combined with real-world problems and tasks.

You may be assigned a virtual fetal pig dissection in biology, set up a whole-class conference call using Skype with a plant manager in Brazil to discuss production problems, take part in an online robot-building team with students from other schools, or use Facebook and Twitter with classmates to build a marketing plan for the product your small group has designed.

You'll probably "attend" an online webinar, and get your math tutoring from your college resource center via Elluminate, an interactive, synchronous (same time) session where you can speak--or key in--responses to questions. Print a transcript of the whole session 10 minutes after logoff. Take your randomized, online quiz from home in your pjs, if you like. Within seconds after you've hit submit, you'll see your score; the system will tell you onscreen what to study harder for--next time.

Do your homework before you register for an online course. Pick your school and subject, read the course catalog description carefully, and contact the student help desk. Ask the minimum hardware and software the school will expect you to have on Day 1. Request a link to a course syllabus, to anticipate technology challenges.

Jan BoneJan teaches online courses for Harper College and traditional courses for Roosevelt University, and has been teaching in higher education for 20 years. She's also written seven books in a career series for young adults, and numerous articles about banking, workplace safety, and manufacturing processes. Jan has the MBA in marketing and the Master of Arts in Training and Development (MATD) degree with a concentration in e-learning. Her bachelor's degree is from Cornell University.