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A Quickstart Guide to Learning in an Online Environment

Courses at UNL may be moving to a remote environment, but you will still have the opportunity to learn the same material. Many students have never taken courses online and find the prospect of a sudden shift to be overwhelming. This guide is designed to help you through this process. At UNL, every person matters, which means that there are lots of support structures in place to help ensure your success. Thoroughly reading this guide will be a great first step towards finishing this semester the best you possibly can.

How to approach your new learning environment

  • Be patient. This is a new experience and it might feel overwhelming. Try thinking of it as an opportunity to explore a new way of learning. Give it your best effort and wait a couple weeks before deciding how you feel about online learning. In reality, you already spend a large amount of your time online, and you are constantly learning new things while doing it! This may not be an optimal situation, but we guarantee you can be successful learning in this new environment
  • Be forgiving. Your instructors may be making the transition to remote learning for the first time as well, so it may take some time for things to get settled. If you can’t get a piece of technology to work right away, recognize that your instructor may also be learning how to use it.
  • Pay attention to your feelings. It’s okay to feel anxious, afraid, depressed, or overwhelmed. It’s also okay to feel perfectly normal. Everyone is going to experience this a little differently. The key is noticing how you’re feeling and taking action to reduce stress and anxiety when it becomes problematic.
  • Use your resources. Lots of the resources you used on campus are still available online. Your advisers, the Writing Center, CAPS, the HuskerTECH Help Center, CAST, etc. can still be reached by email, phone, or Zoom. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need something!

Before you get started, here are a few things to think about as you prepare to be an online student:

  1. How will you stay organized?
  2. How will you communicate with your instructor?
  3. How will you need to adjust your study behavior?
  4. How will you maintain internet access?
  5. Do you have a device with appropriate video and audio capabilities?
  6. Do you know how to use all of the essential features in Canvas?
  7. Do you know how to attend a virtual Zoom meeting?
  8. How will you take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally?
  9. Do you know where to go to get help?


If your course moves online, the most important change is going to be the way that you communicate with your instructor. It is essential that you are familiar with the following modes of communication, as they are the most likely ways your instructor will contact you. Check your syllabus or ask your instructor to see what form of communication they would prefer you to use.

Get Organized

  • Course meeting times. Think about how your course has changed now that you will be learning online. Try to make a list of those changes for each course you are enrolled in. Be sure to answer the following questions for each of your courses:
    • Will any of your courses continue to meet synchronously?
      • If yes, when are the meetings and how do you access them?
    • When are your instructors hosting office hours? How are you expected to contact them during this time? (IE, email, Zoom, or other meeting platforms?)
    • How are you supposed to ask questions outside of scheduled meeting times? Is there a discussion board for them?
  • Assignment schedule. Think about how your assignment schedule has changed for the rest of the semester. Note any deadlines for exams or major assignments that may have shifted. Be sure to answer the following questions:
    • Is there a specific day of the week and time that assignments are due for each class each week? If so, be sure to note this on your calendar.
    • Have exam and project deadlines moved? Does that mean you need to re-think your preparation schedule?
    • Do you have appropriate contact information for group projects? As soon as possible, create a schedule for when and how you will meet with your group regularly.
  • Exams. Due to the shift in course format for the rest of the semester, there is a good chance that some aspects of your exams have changed. Pay attention to information from your instructor regarding the timing and format of your previously scheduled exams.
    • Have the format of your exams changed? If so, do you need to prepare differently?
    • Exams that were scheduled at the testing center may have moved to open-book exams or been replaced with projects. Note that even if an exam has become ‘open-book’, you will still need to study hard in preparation since the exam is likely to be more difficult than it otherwise would have been.
    • Your exams may now require you to download Respondus proctoring software. If this is the case, be sure to get everything ready far in advance. Download the Respondus LockDown Browser and Monitor Quick Start Guide for Students (PDF)
    • If it is not clear what the expectations for your exams will be, reach out to your instructor for clarification. The sooner that you understand what you need to do, the better prepared you will be when you take your exams.
  • CAST. The Center for Academic Success & Transition has lots of resources on their website. Note that in-person and online tutoring are still available.

Studying & Completing Assignments

Maintaining personal study habits and sticking to a regular schedule can be more difficult online than for an in-person course. Deadlines tend to be more spread out, so you are required to be more self-motivated and you need to be more organized to ensure you complete all assignments on time.

  • Update your disability accommodations. Your learning environment has just changed substantially, which means that the accommodations you put in place at the beginning of the semester may no longer be adequate. If there are additional measures that would help you be successful for the rest of the semester, reach out to the Services for Students with Disabilities Office by phone or email to find out what options you have available.
  • Keep to a schedule. Set aside specific time every day to complete your coursework. This may be difficult, as you might have more family or work obligations that you didn’t have previously. Work with your family and your employer to ensure that you have sufficient time each day to complete what you need to do. Also, make sure that you have a consistent study space that is free from distractions. Consider using an online calendar like Outlook or Google to set up your schedule for each day to keep you on track and share with anyone that may need it.
  • Avoid multitasking. When your course is online, it can be especially tempting to have multiple browser tabs open to flip between social media, news sites, and your coursework. There is a ton of research showing why this is a bad idea: the work ends up taking longer, you make more mistakes as your brain is forced to switch between tasks, and you remember less of the material because your brain doesn’t know what it’s supposed to focus on. When it is time to do coursework, close all other browser tabs, put away your phone, and get ready to focus. You can build in breaks to check your devices, but be sure to schedule them deliberately and avoid looking at other things in between those breaks.
  • Take notes. Even though the video lectures are there to re-watch at your convenience, you should treat them like an in-person lecture and take lots of notes. This helps keep you engaged with the material so you can actually remember what you’re hearing about.
  • Use study buddies. Studying in groups can be useful for keeping yourself on track with course material as well as helping you cope with the isolation you may be experiencing in your new online environment. Just because you can no longer meet in-person doesn’t mean you can’t still work with your peers. Use Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype, or another video chat platform to get together for regular study sessions.
  • Start assignments early. Since so many services are now only available remotely, getting help might take a little extra time. This makes getting started on your assignments early extra important: the sooner you start, the sooner you can ask for any help you need.
  • Reach Out. If you don’t understand something or feel like you’re starting to fall behind, contact your instructor right away. When learning remotely, it is easy to fall behind and often difficult to catch up. Getting help right away can stop a minor issue from becoming a major problem.

Internet & Device Access

In order to complete your course work online, you will need regular internet access as well as a device to play video and audio information provided by your instructor.

  • Ensure you have access to a computer or a mobile device that can access the internet. Minimally, you will need to be able to access Canvas and read documents that are in Word, PPT, and PDF formats.
  • If you decide to leave campus, be sure your new location will have access to adequate internet for you to access course content. Be aware that while public places like libraries, restaurants, and coffee shops generally have free wifi, it is important to ensure your own safety before using public spaces. Always follow best practices from the local health authorities.
    • If you have trouble accessing video content due to lack of high-speed internet connection, contact your instructor for alternative ways of accessing course content. For example, they can provide you with a recorded video of any Zoom meetings so you can watch them later when you have better internet access or get you a transcript of any video or audio content which will be easier for you to download.
    • If you use a public computer, it is a good idea to disinfect the keyboard and mouse before using
    • This article has some good tips if you need to use public computers or wifi

Using Canvas

Canvas will be the primary method that your instructors use to deliver course content. Below are some important things that you may be asked to do in Canvas.

  • Logging in
  • Navigation
  • Submitting an assignment
  • Posting to a discussion board
  • Taking a quiz or exam
    • The format and expectations for your exam may be different than was originally stated in the syllabus. Be sure to pay attention to all updates from your instructor regarding exam expectations.
    • Academic honesty is essential to the existence and integrity of an academic institution. The responsibility for maintaining that integrity is shared by all members of the academic community. As such, you may be required to have a proctor when taking your exams online. Be sure to closely read and follow all instructions on how to take your online exams.

Attending a Virtual Zoom Meeting

Although your class will not be meeting in person, your instructor may ask that you meet virtually at your assigned class time using Zoom. Zoom is a videoconferencing platform that allows you to interact in real-time using video and/or audio. You can attend a Zoom meeting using your computer, tablet, or phone. If lack of high-speed internet is a potential problem, we highly recommend using your phone to call into Zoom meetings. As a student, you also have the ability to host your own Zoom meetings, so this can be a great way of meeting virtually with other students to study or work on group assignments. Access to Zoom is free for all university students, faculty, and staff.

Record a Presentation

Screencasts are a great way to give a presentation or even show your instructor what you're working on while explaining your thought process - just like you would if you were showing something to them in person.  To help you make screencasts, UNL has given all students access to YuJa which is easy to use and has extensive help on its website. To get a share link to send to your instructor or submit to Canvas, follow these instructions.

Take Care of Yourself

Over the coming weeks, your coursework will be an important aspect of your life, but you also need to ensure that you are meeting your other needs that may have suddenly become more demanding. The transition to online learning is likely to be difficult for a number of reasons. You may be feeling lost and isolated because you no longer see your classmates regularly. You may be asked to help educate young siblings or family members that can also no longer attend their school. And you are likely, at one time or another, to have a family member that becomes ill because of the situation that we are facing. The following are ideas and resources to help you mentally and physically through this difficult period.

  • While the counseling center is closed for in-person visits, CAPS is still available via Zoom or phone. Don’t hesitate to reach out!
  • Reach out to Big Red Resilience. While you can no longer visit in-person, they are still available via email.
  • Be sure to stay in contact with friends and family. You can use your student Zoom account to video chat at any time. There are also lots of other free video chat options out there like Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime.
  • Stay active. As long as you feel healthy and haven’t been quarantined, it’s okay to go outside for a walk or a run. There are also lots of free YouTube exercise videos. If you feel stressed, try practicing yoga or meditation.
  • Spend some time on a hobby (as long as that hobby doesn’t involve gathering in groups). Draw, listen to music, watch some TV, do a science experiment, cook, work on your car, knit, work on a coloring book… the list is really almost endless. Take some time to do something that you enjoy doing so that you can give your mind a break from schoolwork and all the stressors of the current situation.

Remember: Things will go back to normal! While this has upended most of what you had planned for the next few weeks or months, keep thinking about the bright future that lies ahead. You can make it through this, and once you do, you’ll be ready for any challenges that life throws at you later!

Getting Help

There are many resources that you can use to get help with any technology problems that you may encounter.