How to Thrive Online: An Interview with Coleen Fraser

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes to nearly every aspect of our lives, including post-secondary education. As Cape Breton University students prepare to participate in an online learning experience this fall, uncertainty is unavoidable and nerves are to be expected. Many students are wondering what virtual studies will really look like. 

Thankfully, students like Coleen Fraser are here to help shed a little light on the situation. Long before the pandemic hit, Coleen Fraser chose to enrol in the Bachelor of Arts Community Studies Program at CBU because she could complete all of her studies online. Living in Stellarton, a three hour drive from CBU, Coleen knows a thing or two about the online-learning experience. She shared some of her best tips and tricks with us in this interview. 

What made you want to enrol in online-education at CBU?

I decided that CBU was the right school for me when I found out I could complete my whole degree online while working full time with the Province of Nova Scotia at the Department of Justice. I had a diploma from NSCC that I earned in 2010, so I applied to have my credits transferred over toward my degree at CBU. Since I was a mature student and didn’t know how everything worked, the CBU staff were all so amazing to lend a helping hand. 

I took classes part-time, taking two courses each term and studying at my own pace while working full time. It was very liberating and I always had something to keep me busy! Taking online courses was a little intimidating at first, but once I completed my first term I quite enjoyed the online learning environment.

What does online-learning look like at CBU?

For those of you who aren’t familiar, an online degree format looks like this: you choose your desired courses the same way you normally would, but everything will take place over our online platform called Moodle. This year, additional online platforms like Teams will be used in some courses as well. On Moodle, you will be able to access all of the courses you are enrolled in, view your syllabus and readings for the week, complete and upload assignments and even take tests and exams. 

In some classes, you will have live classroom sessions where you’ll tune in to your instructor’s lecture and participate in discussions. You’ll still complete group and individual assignments and chat with your classmates, the only difference is that you’re not in the same room. That’s what makes it so unique; I had group members from different provinces and countries and made virtual friendships that will last a lifetime! For courses that don’t include a live session, you’ll be able to view the reading material and assignments posted by the instructor and complete them on your own time to meet deadlines. When you enrol at CBU you’ll be given a university email, so you can easily access all of your school-related communication while keeping your personal email separate. 

What kind of interaction do you have with professors and other students when you’re taking online classes?

Interactions with classmates and professors take place through email, Moodle, or Teams. If I had a question, I would just send my professor an email asking for a deeper explanation of a particular topic and my professors would always get back to me as soon as they could. Despite being physically separated, I felt their support throughout my entire program because they were always just an email or phone call away. 

During live classroom sessions it’s nice to interact with classmates and professors because you can put a voice or a face to the names you’ve been seeing in the discussion boards. Online-learning allows students to participate in different kinds of virtual discussions so all voices can be heard. 

What technical equipment do you think students should have in order to have a comfortable online learning experience?

If possible, every student should have a computer, and in my opinion a laptop is best. That provides the ease of being able to take your online classroom anywhere you choose. On Saturday morning with your coffee on the deck, or after work in your bedroom or office, a laptop is portable and convenient. If you like to have physical copies of readings, I recommend investing in a good quality printer as well. 

What would you say are the main challenges and benefits to online learning?

The biggest challenges when it comes to the online learning experience are time management, prioritization and finding a balance between work and school life. Each day you have to pick away at a little bit of schoolwork in order to stay on top of readings and assignments. The benefits are that you are so much more in control of your “time” in the classroom. Being able to log into Moodle anytime from any place allows you to have more control of your learning environment. 

CBU’s online degree format made it possible for me to work full time while still achieving an amazing education. I love that it made me a more structured person because I’ve had to learn about prioritization and self-discipline which are great life skills. After completing my program, I feel like a much more organized person. 

How have you kept yourself motivated and on track throughout the program?

At first, it was difficult to motivate myself to sit at a desk and focus on my studies after finishing a long day at work. Keeping yourself motivated and on track is key while balancing the rest of life’s demands. For me, the best tool was a good day planner. You can write down all of your assignments, quizzes and due dates each week so you have an overview of what’s coming up. 

It’s important to prioritize your time effectively. Mapping out your weeks in advance and sticking to it is crucial. Tell yourself that each morning or evening (whatever works for you) you will dedicate a few hours to readings or assignments so things remain manageable. 

What’s your advice to incoming students who will be studying online for the first time?

My biggest advice comes back to investing in a good day planner. It’s also important to have a great workspace where you can focus. This space should be totally dedicated to your studies and have an atmosphere that helps you feel productive. At my desk I have a comfortable chair, ample lighting, a printer and more importantly lots of highlighters and post-it notes. Keeping quality notes throughout your classes will help you stay organized.

You’re just a few months away from graduating; if you had to do it all over again, would you still opt for online learning?

I would choose online learning again and again. I love the learning environment and being in control while working full time and completing my degree!

Are you ready to Thrive at CBU?