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Getting the Most from Online Classes
by Moira Allen

Return to Starting Your Writing Career · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A wonderful way to improve your writing skills is to take a class online. On the Internet, you can find courses to help you build skills in your current field, or to teach you how to write in a totally new field or genre. Online classes (also referred to as distance education) offer a number of benefits to the busy writer:

  • You don't have to live near a major city or university to have access to high-quality courses and reputable instructors.

  • You don't have to drive to a campus at night, park somewhere in the dark, walk through the rain, and sit in a too-small desk in an odd-smelling classroom for two or three hours, wishing you'd had the sense to pack a dinner like the one your neighbor is enjoying.

  • You don't have to fit an evening or weekend course into your already busy schedule.

  • You don't have to choose between family and school on evenings and weekends.

  • You can conduct every portion of the class at your own convenience.

  • You receive one-on-one feedback from the instructor.

  • You don't have to feel shy about asking a question in front of the rest of the class; it's just you and the prof.

Of course, there are disadvantages as well. Besides the fact that courses may vary widely in quality, there is no class participation. You can't sit with a group, interact with other writers, make friends and hear the questions and discussions raised by other class members (which may cover issues you wouldn't have thought of). Some people find it easier to learn in a group environment, and may find that convenience doesn't compensate for the loss of human dynamics.

Writing courses are available from a number of sources, including major universities, as well as private companies and writing sites. Costs vary equally widely; while a class at The Word Museum might cost $40 to $60, a course from UCLA might cost as much as $550. With such a range of prices, it's important to know what to look for while shopping for a class, and what to expect when you find one.

How Online Classes (Generally) Work

As little as two years before this was written, online courses were highly experimental. Colleges and instructors were still struggling to develop a template that would work for both instructor and student -- and ensure that the student received an appropriate level of instruction.

That template has now evolved into a fairly standard structure for online instruction. Most online courses include the following elements:

  • Lectures. Instead of speaking in front of a crowded room, online instructors "lecture" via a Website or e-mail. In other words, the lecture is basically a reading assignment. Lectures vary in length; some online samples are no more than a few paragraphs, while others are considerably more substantial.

  • Readings. An instructor may post materials on a Website for students to read, or, more typically, direct students to specific URLs for reading materials. Using URLs also helps instructors avoid copyright issues.

  • Discussion. Some courses attempt to bring the entire class together in a chat room for real-time discussions. Most, however, recognize that much of the benefit of an online course is the freedom from any preset schedule, so "discussion" is conducted via e-mail or a Website forum (which works much like a private newsgroup). Students and instructors "talk" back and forth, asking questions and making comments, but not in real-time.

  • Homework. A good writing course should ask you to write. One of the advantages of learning online is the ease with which you can submit your homework to the instructor, and have it evaluated and returned. Some instructors post homework assignments on the course Website, others deliver them by e-mail. Some courses also ask students to post or share their homework assignments for class critiquing.

  • Individual feedback. Your instructor will generally provide detailed comments on your homework assignments, and will also be available to answer your questions by e-mail (personally rather than through the group forum or list). If you raise a question that would benefit the rest of the class, the instructor may ask your permission to share the question and answer in the public discussion.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Class

1) Does the topic match my needs? If you're looking for a course on screenwriting, for example, don't just jump at the first screenwriting course you see. Review the course description and the syllabus for the course (which will usually be posted online). Remember that you're not limited by geography to the courses offered by your local college; you can pick and choose, finding the one that is right for you.

2) How advanced is the course? Make sure the course is matches your level of expertise. Is it described as beginning, intermediate or advanced -- and what do those terms actually mean? Are there prerequisites for the course, such as previous courses or a demonstrated level of writing ability? Is the course part of a series?

3) Who is the instructor? Have you ever heard of this person? What credentials are listed? How much experience has this instructor had in the actual subject area of the class? For example, if the instructor is offering a class on "Writing for Magazines," how many articles has s/he sold? An instructor who has sold 200 articles can probably share more market tips than one who has sold two, or even 20.

4) Who is the sponsoring organization? In some cases, this may be of little importance; many writing sites now offer hosting services for instructors, which enable any qualified writer to offer a class by using the site's resources. Still, it won't hurt to ask around in newsgroups or mailing lists to find out whether anyone has had an especially positive (or negative) experience with any particular organization.

5) What are the requirements of the class? How long (and comprehensive) are the lectures? How much reading material will you be expected to review? Will you be expected to write? Since online education greatly facilitates personal feedback, it seems almost pointless to take a writing course that doesn't provide writing assignments. Again, review the syllabus carefully-and find out if you can review sample lectures or assignments from previous classes.

6) Does the class offer credit toward a degree program? Many colleges offer online courses as part of the requirements for an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). These courses are usually more expensive than ordinary writing classes (which are often the online equivalent of a continuing education course), but may offer more instruction and add specific education credentials to your resume.

7) Can I get my money back? Find out whether the sponsoring organization has a drop option that enables you to reclaim your tuition (or a prorated portion of your tuition) if you find that the course is not what you expected or that you can't participate for some reason.

Find Out More...

Learning the Craft, by Dawn Copeman

Writing-World.com's links to Writing Classes

Copyright © 1999 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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