Online college students face many unique challenges, but building a reliable support network can help keep you on track to achieving your academic goals.

The Importance of Support Networks in Online Education


  • Online students face distinct challenges with time management and course engagement.
  • Students can overcome obstacles by creating and maintaining support networks.
  • Internal guidance and resources come from peers, instructors, and other school staff.
  • External assistance and motivation come from friends, family, coworkers, and mentors.

Online students don't need to deal with packed parking lots and confusing classroom locations, but they do face many distinct challenges related to academic success. These obstacles may include an unreliable internet connection and issues with digital literacy and learning how to use a school's remote learning platform.

For individuals transitioning to distance education for the first time ⁠— the case for many due to the COVID-19 pandemic — personal motivation and time management can inhibit learning. This guide will help you overcome the biggest hurdles for online students by teaching you how to build a robust support network of friends, family, classmates, instructors, and mentors.

A man in an unbuttoned collard shirt with the sleeves rolled up takes notes as he follows along a professor's lecture on his laptop computer.

The 4 Biggest Pressures of Online Education

Time

Many distance learners work full-time jobs and/or take care of their families while pursuing their college degrees. Though an asynchronous learning format can help you juggle various responsibilities, this flexibility can also promote procrastination.

Manage your time effectively by identifying time-wasters (website-blocking tools like StayFocusd and Freedom are particularly useful) and creating daily to-do lists that break down large tasks into easily digestible steps.

Finances

Affordability is one of the major perks of distance education, but online students still need to find ways to pay for tuition and textbooks. Financial obstacles are especially troublesome for students who switched to remote learning due to quarantine measures because in many cases their university did not reimburse them for the difference in services and resources.

School Challenges

In lieu of live discussions, online students usually learn by watching pre-recorded lectures and engaging with their classmates and instructors through message boards. The inability to ask questions and the lack of immediate feedback might make you doubt your ability to understand the material and synthesize what you've learned.

Additionally, many professors are teaching remotely for the first time, so their instructions and expectations may be unclear.

Life Commitments

Like everyone else, online students need to pay bills and maintain relationships with friends, family, and significant others. When determining your daily schedule, it's important to prioritize your education above other commitments, even in the face of an uncertain future.

By earning a college degree, you'll gain the skills to provide for yourself and your family, and to help the people in your community.

Internal vs. External Support Networks

There are two main types of support networks online students can and should maintain: internal and external.

Internally, you'll turn to people you know in a professional and academic capacity, such as your peers, professors, and departmental advisor. By contrast, an external support network consists of those you know on a more personal level, such as your family, friends, and mentor(s).

Internal Support

Your internal support network comprises those who are directly involved in your education. With your peers, for example, you'll discuss course materials and complete group projects. The relationship you build with your classmates will not only impact the grade you receive but will also help you determine whom you can turn to when applying to graduate school or searching for a job.

Aside from your peers, your internal support network should include your professors, who will provide classroom instruction and guide you toward internship, research, and other professional opportunities.

Colleges and universities understand that distance learners need special resources. Your school most likely provides tutors and academic advisors who have been specially trained to support online students.


External Support

An external support network consists of loved ones and any others outside your classroom or university. Family members and significant others are often the best sources of moral support; they know you intimately and can help reaffirm your capabilities by putting challenges into perspective.

Because your friends probably have the same concerns and frustrations you do, they are usually willing to lend an ear when you need to vent. They can also offer a wealth of practical solutions, pointing you to a useful app or a short-term gig.

When building your external support network, don't forget about your colleagues and mentors, especially those who've already graduated from college and established a career.

A female college student happily chats with her professor mentor, who cheerily refers to a textbook that reads SCIENCE on the cover.

How to Build Your Internal Support Network

  • Engage With Your Peers

    Without face-to-face conversations, online students must find other ways to engage with their classmates.

    Fortunately, distance education emphasizes collaboration, with instructors often assigning an array of group assignments and projects. Take these opportunities seriously and actively participate in chat room discussions, asking questions when you need clarification and leaving your peers detailed, individualized feedback.

    In the wake of COVID-19 quarantine measures, many want a safe way to socialize. If your school's remote learning platform lacks a video conferencing tool, ask your classmates to get together through programs like Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Meet. Once you feel comfortable with one another, consider creating a group text to encourage regular communication.

  • Keep an Open Dialogue With Instructors

    A student's relationship with faculty impacts not only their success in individual classes but also their willingness to take risks in the long run. You can begin to build a collaborative relationship with your instructors by introducing yourself at the beginning of the term. When communicating through email, be sure to check for spelling and grammatical errors and content clarity.

    Popular learning platforms, like Canvas and Blackboard, allow you to chat with your professors in real time, post questions about specific assignments, and attend virtual office hours.

    Ultimately, the key to fostering open dialogue with your instructor is to convey genuine empathy and curiosity. By showing that you care about their time and your education, you gain them as a long-term mentor who is willing to offer professional guidance and write recommendation letters.

  • Take Advantage of School Resources

    The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly 7 million students were enrolled in online classes in 2018. To cater to the distinct needs of this population, higher education institutions typically offer a variety of free resources, from personalized academic advising to around-the-clock IT support.

    Colleges also often deliver online tutoring through software like Smarthinking to help students write essays and study for subject-specific exams.

    Online students can access many conventional resources that campus-based students enjoy, such as mental health counseling, disability accommodations, and library databases for research. Through your school's career services center, you can search for internships, learn how to craft effective resumes and cover letters, and participate in a mock interview.

  • Determine What You Need to Succeed

    It's critical for you to continually assess the obstacles impeding your academic success. By identifying these challenges, you can figure out what resources you need to overcome them. In addition to maintaining a daily schedule or to-do list, you should organize the challenges you face by writing them down.

    You might also find it helpful to address challenges with your peers and professors. Often your classmates can offer solutions that you might've previously overlooked. Your professor may be able to remove an obstacle altogether by extending a deadline or altering an assignment.

How to Develop Your External Support Network

  • Discuss Your Experiences and Goals

    While your external network might not be able to help you write an essay or pass a test, these people can provide the emotional support you need to achieve academic success. Enlist their help by telling them your goals and updating them on your progress. By being transparent, you invite your friends and family to join you on your academic journey.

    Your loved ones can also hold you accountable for fulfilling your goals. According to research at Dominican University, 76% of participants who sent weekly progress reports to friends achieved established goals by the end of the four-week study. By contrast, students who kept their objectives private reported only a 43% success rate.

  • Ask for Advice

    Your external support network can't offer assistance if they don't know what's going on in your academic and personal life. Keep the communication channels open and ask for advice whenever a significant obstacle emerges. Even if they can't help you out directly, your friends, family, and mentors have their own networks they can reach out to on your behalf.

    External support also comes in handy when you need to navigate life challenges. Your coworkers can stand in when you need to leave work early to attend a live lecture or take a proctored exam, while your friends and family can help with daily tasks, like grocery shopping and meal preparation, so you can study and unwind.

The Benefits of Support Networks for Online Students

Regardless of what and how you're studying, a college education poses significant challenges you don't need to face alone.

Online learning platforms connect students across the globe, allowing you and your peers to help one another with assignments and collaborate on projects. Likewise, your instructors are indispensable sources of guidance, helping you understand course content and find professional development opportunities.

Your success also depends on the support you receive outside of school. Enlist friends and family to motivate you to overcome obstacles and hold you accountable for achieving your goals. Your loved ones can even ease the burden by helping you with mundane tasks, giving you more time to dedicate to your education.