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International Students and Online Learning

virtual classroom
advice for students
By Selene Angier
Last updated on February 9, 2022

During the global pandemic, online learning transitioned from being a convenient option to a necessary function at US universities and colleges. If you are among the many international students taking online courses, check out our tips to make the most of your experience.

A male international student sits in front of a laptop for his online class

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the international student experience changed dramatically. Many students outside the US had to transition to international online learning instead of traveling to the States and attending classes on campus. While online classes enabled many international students to continue their studies without disruption, this new experience brought unique challenges.

As the pandemic continued, international students and online learning continued, as many students actively chose to earn their degrees through an online program

But what is it really like for international students and online courses? If you have decided to take the route of online classes for international students, read on to learn more about studying online.

What to Expect as an International Student Learning Online

If you have decided to pursue your degree online, you might be unsure of what to expect from your program. You may have questions about cost, the time frame of your degree, what your experience of international online learning will be like, and more. 

Here are a few tips to better understand the experience of virtual learning and be successful in your international online learning journey.

Cost

Depending on the university, the tuition costs for international students and online learning are significantly lower if the program is exclusively offered online. If you opt for all-online courses, you will also avoid additional costs associated with room, board, and transportation while studying remotely in your home country. Remember, costs vary from program to program, so research all pricing options before making your final decision. You can also speak to other international students taking online courses to get their first-hand experiences. 

Almost all online degree programs require a technology fee, either on a per-credit-hour or per-term basis. 

Timeframe

The time it takes to complete an online degree varies from person to person. According to Top Degrees Online, the average time to complete an online bachelor’s degree is 52 months (or approximately four years), which is not significantly different from a traditional degree. 

Some programs offer accelerated pacing, which can speed up the time it takes for international students and online courses. Additionally, it is worth considering that the flexibility of an online degree can give you time to pursue other interests or even be employed while you’re fully enrolled. 

Class and Program Structure

While the coursework for international online learning programs is the same as traditional programs, the structure can be very different. 

Most programs are structured so that international students taking online courses can work at their own pace. They are structured around these elements:

  • Instruction 

  • Assignment 

  • Student interaction 

When it comes to online classes, international students may notice a difference in interactions between students and teachers, compared to traditional instruction. Limited online interactions do not mean you won’t get the opportunity to bond with your fellow students. Group projects and private chat rooms give you access to your classmates and lecturers as well. International students and online learning can be challenging without the help of these online interactions. 

Online classes tend to be more flexible: Students may be able to access all lectures and notes, at all times, without a schedule. Typically, you can access your assignments either through email or online course management systems like Canvas or Blackboard.

Your assignments are usually submitted to your instructor by email or uploaded directly to the course management system. 

Cultural Differences 

As an international student studying in the US, you may experience cultural differences or even culture shock when you are getting used to your new life. This is completely normal. For international students taking online courses, your experience in class may depend on your personality and preferences. For example, if you are more comfortable online, you may find yourself speaking more, but if you prefer a traditional classroom setting, you may find it more of a challenge to engage with your instructor and classmates. 

Learning English can also be more challenging through online classes, as you may have fewer direct conversations with your professor and peers, but you may be able to access a wider variety of English programs and/or supplemental materials. This may have positive effects — if you are more confident with your written English, for example, you may be able to communicate more effectively compared to speaking in class. 

When it comes to specific cultural differences for international students and online learning, many are the same as an in-classroom experience. Classroom culture in the US encourages individual thinking, asking questions, active discussion, and even debating, all of which are also part of the online learning environment.

In addition to cultural differences, fundamental computer skills are also required for international students and online learning, especially for in-class participation and completing your assignments.

The Necessary Computer Skills and Digital Literacy

While you do need to have an average understanding of computers and digital literacy to participate effectively in your classes, these can be easy to learn – and you can always get help from your university’s support staff.

Start by reviewing the following basic skills to get started on your online courses:

Hardware and Software 

Most universities provide a list of tech specifications that students should have access to before they enroll in the program. Guidelines will include technical requirements for hardware devices, such as memory and operating systems (e.g., Windows, OS, Linux), and a list of applications needed for your assignments. 

In addition to your guidelines, you should also be familiar with basic hardware maintenance to stay on track during your online courses, including:  

  • Installing software

  • Updating software 

  • Running virus scans

  • Saving and retrieving files 

Learning to use popular software like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel is essential, as many of your program’s assignments and coursework may require these platforms. Be sure to check with your program director for more specific guidance on the hardware and software you need for your courses. 

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Your school will provide a login and password to access your online course material through an LMS. The LMS is the central hub for all your courses and it organizes your assignments, presentations, and discussions into modules, often on a weekly basis.

The LMS also acts as a communication platform with your instructors and classmates. Each system differs, but it will likely include the following:

  • Posting responses to discussions

  • Uploading assignment submissions 

  • Downloading your syllabus and other course documents

  • Sending and receiving emails 

  • Viewing prerecorded lectures and presentations

You may also use the LMS to stay updated on virtual events such as student orientation programs, course demonstrations, and sample tutorials (often providing hands-on experience with the interface and any relevant new features and updates). 

How to Google Effectively 

Knowing how to use the Internet – researching and finding information online for your assignments, or just for your own knowledge – is a large part of studying at a US university. It is important to know how to search for, find, and evaluate information sources to use in your coursework.

There are a few basic skills you should have:

  • Conducting an effective search with a search engine (Google, Bing) using advanced search commands

  • Evaluating web searches for authority, purpose, and expert content 

  • Understanding copyrights, licenses, and plagiarism 

Do not worry if you make mistakes. It takes practice to develop these skills, and your instructors and fellow students can offer guidance as you learn together.

It can be challenging to get used to life as a US university student while also learning about your university’s online systems, so set aside some time to familiarize yourself with your school’s respective platforms. Create a list of questions and message your professor or a teaching assistant early in the semester to address your concerns. Your instructors can help you troubleshoot some of these issues and connect you with other school resources like the technical help desk and the online library. 

Remember, the computer skills and web literacy skills you gain as an online student will also benefit you in your career. 

Asynchronous vs Synchronous Learning 

Asynchronous learning is online learning that is done at your own pace, with pre-recorded lectures and/or pre-determined materials, which allows you to learn at your own pace, often within a recommended or required time frame. The strongest benefit to asynchronous learning flexibility. Because you can study at the time that is best for you, it’s ideal if you are working while studying or if you have a busy personal life. For example, the online hybrid Juris Doctor program available at the University of Dayton uses online asynchronous sessions consisting of recordings, independent readings, and more.

Synchronous learning is an online class that tries to replicate in-person classes as much as possible: It is taught live, in real time, with an instructor. Classes that use synchronous learning usually offer regularly scheduled virtual classes that you attend along with your classmates. Synchronous learning gives you many opportunities to interact with your professors and classmates, such as through group presentations and/or discussions. The University of the Pacific’s master of science in business analytics offers synchronous learning, combining on-campus instruction with online classes to give students the best of both worlds.

Many universities have found that combining both types of learning benefits students and professors and creates an educational experience that is both thorough and flexible. Surveyed students and professors often report that online classes can be just as effective as on-campus classes. 

With international students taking online classes through synchronous learning, they’ll get a real-time class experience with plenty of engagement between teacher and student, as well as student-to-student interactions across great distances. Synchronous online learning enables students to experience a valuable and unique learning environment, even if they are in multiple locations (and even in different countries).

English skills, cultural awareness, and effective communication can take place with group conversations in synchronous online learning classes. Real-time group work and lectures can also deepen your understanding of the subject matter as you exchange ideas and information with your professor and other students. 

Understanding Academic Content 

Understanding the lessons and materials presented in an online course can take some getting used to, especially if it is in a very different format from how you usually learn. 

Depending on your program’s approach to online learning, your classroom experience may involve live-streamed classes or digital classrooms that you can actively participate in (similar to an in-person classroom). Some programs may use pre-recorded classes but hold discussions on a message board, giving you a chance to discuss the topic with your classmates and instructor. 

In addition to various online platforms, there are also different book formats to consider! Certain students may prefer physical books to e-books, which may have a learning curve for those who haven’t used them before. E-books may have unique advantages, such as allowing you to easily look up a specific section or body of text. 

Your assignments may not be impacted by the shift to online learning, as even on-campus classes tend to require digital submissions. Always ask for feedback after assignments and tests. Have one-on-one meetings with your lecturers to understand where you can improve and how much work is required to get the results you want, so you can adapt your schedule to balance your course workload.

Understanding the Shift in Workload 

How you manage your online course assignments depends largely on how disciplined you are. As international students taking online courses, you may attend your classes from home or a library, so it is important to minimize distractions, wherever you choose to study. The good news is that your assignments are very similar to on-campus classes, such as research papers and proctored exams. 

You may also be required to take part in group projects where students communicate virtually. This is a great opportunity to bond and make friends with your fellow students. 

The time zone you currently live in also makes a significant impact in how you manage your workload. If you are taking part in an online course from your home country, you may find your class times are at odd hours for your local time zone, sometimes as far as 12 hours apart! This is an important factor to consider when you are setting up your schedule, as you will want to understand when you need to be present and alert in class, when assignment deadlines apply, discussion board activity hours, and holidays in the US (or other dates/times when class activities may be on hiatus or your instructor and American peers won’t be easily available).

Handling your workload for online classes is new to most international students and online learning experiences, but it can be made easier by improving how you communicate with your professors and peers.

Forms of Communication 

With less in-person contact in online courses, it is important for you to maintain written communication with classmates, school, and staff when needed. This brings your learning experience closer to the typical campus student life and can make your transition to campus and in-person learning easier.

Your digital communication skills, as well as whether you are outgoing or shy, will determine whether you find it easy or challenging to communicate with your professor and peers online. Choosing the right method can make a big difference in effective communication.

Emails or the School’s Online Education Portal

One of the most common ways to connect with faculty is through emails or the school’s LMS. These are also the most formal means of communication with online faculty and are designed to be reliable and verifiable.

Videoconferencing

If you feel you can benefit from a more direct conversation, you may also have the option to reach out to your professors through video calls. Your instructors may provide virtual office hours during specific time periods, which are the best times you can speak with them. You can also consider this form of communication for group assignments or when preparing for a presentation.

Discussion Boards

Depending on your program, you and your peers may have access to an online discussion board for specific classes where you can discuss course content, ask questions, and more. These are great ways to communicate, share ideas, and get answers to your questions. 

Interactive Exercises

Taking part in interactive exercises is yet another way to bond with your lecturers and fellow students. Activities and interactive exercises such as quizzes, breakout rooms, and polls can effectively review what was covered in online lectures, while giving you a more engaging experience compared to reading material.

Remember that getting to know other students in your program can be very valuable. Studying with friends and discussing your syllabus and/or assignments can give you a better understanding of the course material and offer a much more well-rounded university experience. 

Tips for Success as an International Student in the Online Classroom 

If you have already decided to pursue your education in the US through online classes, here are a few tips you can keep in mind to make sure you find success. 

Tip #1: Expect a Period of Adjustment

Distance learning is a new experience for most college students. Many students are used to sitting at a desk, taking notes, and chatting with their classmates next to them. This semester will be different and may be temporary if you are planning to head to the US at a later date to continue on campus. Allow for a period of adjustment as you get familiar with your courses, professors, and new environment. 

“Give yourself the time and space needed to understand the platform, each professors’ style, and virtual classroom setup,” says Lindsey Garbenis, director of admissions at UDayton Global, Shorelight’s international student program at the University of Dayton

Tip #2: Engage During Class 

Be proactive and participate, says Robyn Stewart, associate academic director of the International Accelerator at American University. “In higher education in the United States, we value student participation. In fact, we often assign a grade for participation in class. Professors want to hear from students. We want to know what questions you have, what you think about the ideas we put out for discussion, and what you can contribute to moving the subject forward.” 

She recommends that you ask questions, raise your hand, and volunteer for e-board assignments, much like in a regular classroom. 

Tip #3: Read the Syllabus on Day One

“The most important document in any class is the syllabus. It’s like a roadmap to success in the class,” suggests Stewart, who is also an adjunct instructor at American. 

On the syllabus, professors will detail your course’s reading assignments, quizzes, essays, and exams, along with due dates and grading weights. Add all due dates to your calendar (see tip 6), then “set aside time for studying, attending professors’ office hours, meeting with groups, and uploading your work, [maybe even] a day early,” says Stewart. 

Tip #4: Connect with Your Classmates Offline, Too 

Whether it’s making lifelong friends, finding career connections, or having a study buddy, socializing in the classroom is a major part of your college experience — and, yes, it will be a little different in a digital classroom. 

“When you are studying in person on campus, you do this naturally by just saying hello to the person sitting next to you in the dining hall, or asking to borrow a pen from the student in front of you,” says Stewart. “Online, you will not have these chance encounters to meet your new best friend or the future founder of the next big company — you need to create them.”

Stewart highly recommends attending study groups, conversation clubs, review sessions, and any other opportunity: “Sign up for everything. When you see an email inviting you to the first meeting of the new English conversation club, say yes. When you get a message from a professor asking if you’d like to attend a review session for class, say yes. When Student Services invites you to meet for virtual coffee, your answer is yes. By saying yes to every opportunity, you will create more opportunities to become an important member of the community of students.”

Are you an international student looking to keep your degree on track? Explore American Collegiate Live options for studying in your home country.  

Tip #5: Take Advantage of Office Hours 

Getting to know your professor can be more of a challenge in a virtual classroom. You may have questions you forgot to ask in class, or you could be struggling with an assignment or reading. That’s where office hours come in. 

“This is the place to say hello, let us know how the class is going for you, and ask any lingering questions,” says Stewart. She adds that every professor offers blocks of time on Zoom (or a similar videoconference tool) each week. “When you get involved in your classes, and get to know your professors, you will have a much more exciting learning experience.” Attending office hours can also be a way to find a mentor or ask for letters of recommendation.

Additionally, when you attend office hours, there is a strong possibility of getting better grades: researchers at the Journal of Political Science Education found a positive correlation between office hour attendance and GPA

Tip #6: Develop Your Time Management Skills With a Detailed Schedule

Creating a lot of plans means you may end up with a full calendar, which can be a good thing but also requires organization. Stewart’s advice is to master your time management skills by starting with a schedule. “I like using colored pens and an old-fashioned paper calendar,” she says. “Project deadlines or exams are written in blue, study time is in green, and mealtime is in black. Then you can start filling in social events. Keep all the information you need in one place: where, when, and what time.” Adapt the structure and techniques however you like — the point is to have a system that works for you. 

Tip #7: Don’t Procrastinate

This tip is just as valid on campus as it is for online classes! “Don’t wait until the last minute, especially when you are submitting assignments online,” says Stewart. “I can tell you with certainty that the internet will crash when you have a deadline just minutes away and you are trying to upload your paper. Last minute never works!”

Tip #8: Avoid Screen Fatigue

Like many of us working from home, Lindsey Garbenis from UDayton Global struggles with this, too. “It’s really challenging when screens have become our school, our social life, and our entertainment as well.” Take a few minutes away from your screen each hour, or schedule extended study breaks a few times a day. “Go outside, get some exercise, cook a meal, or engage in some other physical activity each day,” Garbenis suggests. “The time spent away from the screen will allow you to rest your eyes.”

Tip #9: Set Up a Productive Work Space

“Make some space in your home or room that is calming and quiet for you to focus and be productive,” recommends Garbenis. “If you share your home/room, then you will want to be able to step away from the noise and distractions when it is time to be present in class or work on assignments. It is important to be comfortable, but not too comfortable! If you study/learn in a place you normally sleep or relax, you may easily fall asleep or be too relaxed to be productive.” 

Instructors like Stewart are working and teaching from home now, too. Her advice? “A comfortable chair and good lighting, a place to put my coffee mug, and something nice to look at on the wall,” she advises. “I’ve also had to set up some boundaries for my work time. For example, I’ve worked out hand signals to let my family know when I cannot be interrupted — if I’m in the middle of something important I can give the signal and know that they understand.”

Tip #10: Ask for Help and Communicate Early and Often

Whether it is your professor, teaching assistants, the help desk, or fellow classmates, Garbenis says emphatically: “Always feel comfortable reaching out for help, that is what the faculty and staff are here for!” Feeling lost or disconnected in a virtual learning environment is common. “Take the initiative and speak up when you need the extra help or support,” she says.

Can’t access your classroom? Password trouble? Video not loading? “Every student should have the email address for the help desk close by at all times,” says Stewart. “I have seen students miss a deadline because they got locked out of their account and they couldn’t reset the password.” 

About to miss a deadline? Did a personal matter come up? “Keep your professors up to date on your situation,” adds Stewart. “I want to know if my students are facing issues in advance of an important due date, not afterward! It can be difficult to reach out to the professors to ask for help sometimes, but keep us informed.”

Your university is home to many international students and online learning can be made easier by reaching out to your peers for advice and support. Through sharing experiences, you may find a completely new way to approach online education that can transform your education experience. 

The faculty and your Shorelight advisor are also ready to help — if you need any assistance, such as academic support or finding campus transition programs, reach out to your help desk or advisors for information! 

Our advisors are here to help, too. Have questions about American Collegiate Live or digital learning programs with other Shorelight universities? Talk to an advisor >