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Tips on Effective Communication for Online Students

One of the most difficult skills for online students to perfect is communication in the virtual classroom. From emails to instructors to discussion posts and final papers, the online student communicates almost entirely in the written word.  For those weighing a few options for advancing their education, this can be an intimidating realization. Whether you’re already an online student or are pondering the possibility of becoming one, help yourself form a few great habits by browsing the tips below.

Be Professional

This may seem like a no-brainer, but making sure there are no errors, using a proper greeting and closing, and maintaining a professional tone in all communications will help you stand above your classmates. Also, remember to proofread your submissions, no matter how insignificant the assignment, discussion post, or email might be. Your instructors will appreciate the respect given, and your classmates will admire your attention to detail. Want an added bonus? Your professional habits in the classroom are sure to carry over to the workplace!

Stick to the Academics

If you’re required to participate in threaded discussions or you’re communicating via email with your instructor, remember you’re in a classroom, not a chat room. Just because you found a little extra courage by hiding in the protective technology bubble doesn’t mean anyone wants to read details of your latest family argument, how your best friend totally stabbed you in the back, or the fact that your 2-year-old is getting an F- in potty training. In other words – stick to the academics. Your audience – no matter who that may be – will appreciate it!

Avoid the Frantic “HELP!” Emails

Having trouble with an assignment that’s due in 3 days and not sure what to do? Don’t stress out on the details for the first 2 days, and then frantically email your instructor five hours before the submission deadline. As soon as you find yourself questioning your ability to complete the assignment, reach out for help! This helps you avoid the stress while giving your instructor ample time to give you the help you need to complete the assignment successfully.


You’ve taken the time to craft the perfect discussion post or email, so do yourself a favor and save it somewhere! Try creating a folder on your computer or on a flash drive for every class you take – then use it. Emailing your instructor? Copy yourself and file any response you receive in your class folder. Receive some particularly awesome (or scathing) feedback on a paper? Save it. As you move along in your academic journey, you may find the advice, feedback and general support you received from your instructors helpful in future courses.

Accreditation 101: Regional vs. National

The U.S. Department of Education states that “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” That sounds great, but how do you know which accreditation – regional or national – is best? Honestly, it’s not a question of which accreditation is best, but which accreditation best suits your needs.

Whether you’re looking for a traditional ground campus experience or searching for the right online program to give you the flexibility you need for your busy schedule, understanding accreditation and how it can impact your future is a must. Take a few minutes to expand your knowledge and become well-prepared for the great college search.

What is accreditation?

Let’s start with the basics. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to accredit is “to recognize [an educational institution] as maintaining standards that qualify the graduates for admission to higher or more specialized institutions or for professional practice.” Applying for accreditation from any organization is completely voluntary, which means that by choosing an accredited school, you’re choosing a school whose curriculum has been evaluated by peers in academia to ensure a quality learning experience.

In the United States, there are two kinds of institutional accreditation – regional and national.

What is regional accreditation?

Regional accreditation is granted to each institution by one of six organizations that focus mainly on academia and research-related areas of study.  Each organization focuses on a specific region in the United States, hence the name regional accreditation.

What is national accreditation?

National accreditation is granted by independent organizations that focus largely on career-oriented areas of study. Each organization focuses on accrediting schools that align with their organizational goals, no matter where they may be, rather than focusing on a geographical location.

Which is best for me?

For those still struggling to make sure they’re taking the right path, take a moment to really evaluate your future goals. As you do so, keep the following advice in mind.

  • If you’re planning on transferring credits to another school or pursuing further education in the future, your best bet is to stick with a regionally accredited institution.
  • If you’re looking for a trade-specific skill set that will serve as your last degree or as an addition to a degree you’ve already completed, a nationally accredited institution might be right for you.

Trends in Adult and Workforce Education

“It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class.” – President Obama, 2013

In the President’s 2013 State of the Union address, he called on Congress to reform the Higher Education Act to make education more attainable and affordable. In today’s increasingly competitive economy, adult workers need to differentiate themselves and stay current in their fields. To do this, they need options for continuing their education and gaining additional experience.

Here are some current trends for continued learning for working adults:

Employer-Sponsored Training & Tuition Reimbursement Programs

Many companies are offering their employees specialized training and are even paying for them to go back to school. Some employers offer tuition assistance vouchers or have partnerships with colleges and universities to provide discounted tuition rates. In a recent article for, Northcentral University‘s Dr. Lee Smith, dean of the School of Business and Technology Management details the importance of providing employees with professional development opportunities.

“Supporting professional development initiatives during tough economic times makes more sense for most companies than not doing so,” says Lee. “To stay ahead of the game, it is incumbent on these organizations to ensure that their key employees are trained in areas that will advance company performance.”

Certification Programs

Certification programs are increasing in popularity among workers who’ve earned a college degree but want more specialized training in a given occupation. Skills can be developed at both the occupational and industry level. Individuals seeking certifications can look to traditional post-secondary education at colleges and universities or find certification opportunities through industry and professional associations.


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a hot topic in education today. Individuals with Internet access can take courses online for free at some of the nation’s top universities. While most MOOCS do not offer credit for course completion, there are circumstances that allow for a certificate of completion. If you want to enroll in a MOOC, be sure to check whether or not a certificate option exists, and whether or not they charge a fee.

Adult Internships & Volunteering

Adult internships and volunteering are on the rise. Short-term work and volunteer assignments can help adults gain experience and skills in areas they may be lacking or to get their foot in the door at a certain company or industry. Often, internships are unpaid, but they are a great way to determine whether or not you’ll enjoy a particular occupation or industry and can be great resume boosters as well.

Webinars and Conferences

Other options for continuing workforce education are webinars and conferences. Webinars are seminars or lecture presentations conducted over the Internet, often sponsored by one or more companies looking to gain visibility and demonstrate thought leadership in an industry or occupation. They are a convenient way to keep up with industry trends since all you need to do is register, and you can listen from anywhere you have Internet access. On the other hand, conferences are carried out in person and can also be more costly (webinars are generally free), especially if travel and overnight accommodations are required.

NCU’s Dr. Renee Aitken Earns Effective Practice Title for Sloan-C Presentation

Dr. Renee Aitken

Dr. Renee Aitken

Dr. Renee Aitken didn’t always want to be a teacher.  In fact, her initial interest in the profession (she thought about being a K-12 teacher after a brief stint of medical technologist training) was stymied when she couldn’t get into the program at Ohio State University.  Instead, she graduated with a BA in English and went to work for AT&T as a technical writer.

Twenty-four years later, Aitken had done just about everything at AT&T (now Lucent), including, instructional design, training, project management, travelling all over, and  taking advantage of AT&T’s great tuition reimbursement program to continue her education and fuel her passion for learning. Going back to school also marked her first experience with distance education.

“First I went back to Ohio State and got an MA in Organizational Communication,” she recalls. “Then in 1993, I was accepted into a special AT&T program with the University of Colorado at Boulder where I earned a MS in Telecommunications Engineering and Management through a distance education program. At the time, distance education was the equivalent of watching a video of the lecture and sending in our assignments via snail mail. When distance learning started to become more popular, I was selected to go back to school and get a PhD in Education (Adult and Higher Education) from Capella University.”

If that’s not impressive enough, the real beauty of Aitken’s wealth of knowledge and experience is the fact that she loves to share it!

“My career in higher education began as an adjunct online course designer at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, while I was still at Lucent. When Lucent made me a retirement offer I couldn’t refuse, I got into education full-time.”

It was during her time at Franklin that she was first introduced to the Sloan Consortium.

“I co-presented with one of the other instructional designers at Franklin University and was hooked on the forward-thinking, well-documented presentations from the SLOAN-C,” remarks Aitken.

Aitken’s latest achievement with the SLOAN-C comes courtesy of her third presentation with the organization. Her presentation–Using Knowles to Support ALL Online Learnerswas accepted and added to the SLOAN-C website last year as an Effective Practice.

“My presentation was focused on considering how faculty members view students,” she explains. “There are definitions of traditional and non -traditional learners and most distance learning institutions insist their programs are geared towards non-traditional learners. However, my experience has indicated students are coming to distance learning from a variety of perspectives. From my work with Northcentral University, I have learned a student’s age and socio-economic background does not hinder their learning if faculty take the time and effort to support the student. The One-to-One teaching model at NCU helps facilitate this, and the Applied Experiential Learning process provides even the youngest of our students with the opportunity to “do” as they learn rather than just write papers.”

Effective practices, like Aitken’s presentation, are submitted by members of the SLOAN-C community for consideration and are peer reviewed to ensure quality. The five pillars of quality are: access, learning effectiveness, faculty satisfaction, student satisfaction and scale (cost effectiveness).

Aitken’s paper was accepted as an effective practice for learning effectiveness. She believes that using Knowles Characteristics of Adult Learners when it comes to course development and teaching ensures that students are served equally, and that by making learning part of life through experiences, students are more effective in applying their education to real life, which in turn, makes Aitken’s job more enjoyable, rewarding and effective.

“I like the way distance learning is structured and assures every student has the same opportunity to learn following the same syllabus,” she comments. “I love that teaching online means I don’t know much about my students and my students come without any preconceived notions about their abilities on my part. I also like the way Learning Management and Assessment Systems can help collect data to assure students are learning and meeting outcomes.”

Of course, course development and teaching are only part of the equation when it comes to student success. The students themselves must take responsibility for their learning in an online education environment. With all of her experience, Aitken believes the most critical factor of student success in an online program is time management.

“Online learners must invest in time management and make sure they schedule time for class every day,” she comments. “I was a single working mother with two teenagers when I started my PhD and I completed it in less than five years by working one hour every weekday night and four hours every Sunday.”

While not in school any longer, Aitken still considers herself a student.

“I believe the quote attributed to Tom Clancy, ‘Life is about learning; when you stop learning; you die.’”

On that front, when she’s not at home walking her dog, feeding her five cats (“Don’t let your daughters adopt kittens unless you want cats!”), or sitting behind the glass at an Ohio State University hockey game (she has season tickets), Aitken loves to read (she still manages to read 2-3 books a week), write, think, and travel.

For this lifelong learner and passionate teacher, life is one of the greatest classrooms of all.

Honoring the Silent Ranks on Military Spouse Appreciation Day

We know there has been a lot of appreciation floating around the nation lately (teachers, nurses), but today is just as important: Military Spouse Appreciation Day!

This day holds special meaning because military spouses play such a huge role in supporting our dedicated men and women in the Armed Forces. They often have little control over things like their location and/or must take on additional responsibilities within the household, which could mean putting their own education and career dreams on hold. They do it willingly, supporting their spouses wherever their military life takes them. It’s an admirable quality, and one we here at Northcentral University admire so much.

Today, we thank YOU for your service.

If you’ve never read the poem The Silent Ranks (some people say the author is unknown, some say it was written by Shiela Gault), we’ve posted it below. It’s a great testament to military spouses and the role they play in the armed forces. Please substitute husband/wife, he/she, his/her, and man/woman as appropriate for your spouse (be advised it won’t rhyme quite the same)!

The Silent Ranks

I wear no uniforms, no blues or army greens.
But, I am in the military, in the ranks rarely seen.
I have no rank upon my shoulders. Salutes I do not give.
But the military world is the place where I live.
I’m not in the chain of command, orders I do not get.
But my husband is the one who does, this I can not forget.
I’m not the one who fires the weapon, who puts my life on the line.
But my job is just as tough. I’m the one that’s left behind.
My husband is a patriot, a brave and prideful man.
And the call to serve his country not all can understand.
Behind the lines I see the things needed to keep this country free.
My husband makes the sacrifice, but so do our kids and me.
I love the man I married. Soldiering is his life.
But I stand among the silent ranks known as the Military Wife.

Happening Now: Trends in K-12 Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment at post-secondary, degree-granting institutions in the United States hit 21 million students in 2010. Millions of students, from hundreds of cities, thousands of school districts, and countless different schools all with one common goal: the desire to better themselves with higher education.

Right now, you’re wondering what this has to do with K-12 education, and the answer is simple – everything. The foundation for a successful educational career is laid in the halls and classrooms of every K-12 school across the country. In order for that foundation to be as strong as possible, standardization of the years of education spent in preparation for success in higher education – and life in general – is a must.

With this in mind, we took the time to gain insight in to the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core Standards Initiative from course designer, successful author, and Northcentral University faculty member, Dr. Casey Reason.

Q: What is the Common Core Standards Initiative?
A: Put simply, the Common Core Standards is a national standard for math and language arts performance that allows every state to work in a way that allows every student to be competitive. The goal of this initiative is to bring into alignment the curriculum expectations for the United States.

Q: What makes this superior to previous efforts for standardization in K-12 education across the United States?
A: In the past, we resisted offering a sense of clarity about exactly what educators were supposed to be teaching and how. The Common Core Standards are far more explicit and even go so far as to describe how to get to the articulated standards. This is unprecedented.

Q: Northcentral University’s School of Education has focused its efforts on properly preparing teachers for success in the classroom. In your opinion, how will Common Core Standards impact teacher education?
A: The Common Core Standards will improve our ability to prepare teachers. These standards give us the ability to give teachers the specific tools they need to be successful in the classroom. In addition, Common Core Standards level the playing field between schools, districts and states, giving us the consistency that will make preparing teachers much easier.

Q: What changes, if any, can parents expect?
A: The biggest change for parents will be overcoming the notion that their children are being taught in a manner which is not consistent with the way they were taught as children. Schools who are implementing the Common Core Standards Initiative have to work overtime to let parents know that the approach will be different. Some schools, for example, are asking parents to take classes in the Common Core Standards Initiative so that they are of greater assistance in helping with homework. It will undoubtedly result in some bumpy transitions along the way, but I truly believe that this is progress and we will be better off for it.

Sidestepping Time Traps: A Time Management Tip for Making the Most of Your Time

It can be tough to avoid a trap…especially when you don’t see it coming. That’s pretty much why they call it a trap, huh?

At Northcentral University, we are committed to providing our students with the tools and support they need to successfully complete their degree program, accomplish their educational goals, and help them avoid the trap of not finishing what they’ve started.

For example, we utilize a One-to-One teaching model that partners our students with highly credentialed faculty who provide personal feedback and support. There are no physical residency requirements, meaning students don’t have to relocate or otherwise uproot their lives to earn their degree. We also incorporate an applied experiential learning approach to help students successfully develop and incorporate their skills into their professional lives after and even during their programs. We even offer a foundational course where students can learn how to manage their time and personal and professional responsibilities while in school.

Not to mention the fact that Northcentral has sought and obtained the most respected form of U.S. higher education accreditation –regional accreditation—from the Higher Learning Commission to help ensure the quality of our degree programs.

With that in mind, we feel like it is our responsibility to tell you about a little trap that you may be falling into over and over again without even knowing it.

We’re talking about time traps. Mark Woods of Attack Your Day! Before It Attacks You! defines time traps as, “patterns of using time that provide no positive return.”

Think you don’t have any time traps? Think again. Have you ever watched the news for more than half an hour? Do you really think you need to hear about banning Big Gulps, a bad car accident, and the robbery at the gas station across town, three times in one night?  How about reading through the hundreds and hundreds of subject lines in your junk email to see if there is anything funny, interesting or just plain ridiculous? Do you really think that is a good use of your time?

Those are just a couple of examples, and while they may be a tad farfetched for many of you, there are plenty of other time traps that tempt us on a regular basis. Woods suggests conducting a little self-observation in order to determine which, if any, time traps you regularly fall into. Once you’ve discovered and acknowledged your time traps, then you can prepare to avoid them.

Check out the video from Mark Woods below to learn how you can avoid getting caught in time traps so you can Attack Your Day! and make the most of your time.

Control Your Time Debt: Time Management Tools for Online Students

Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.      –Harvey Mackay, business author

Merriam-Webster defines debt as, “something owed.” Debt is most commonly associated with money. We’ve got national debt, international debt, student loan debt, credit card debt; the list goes on and on. But the thing that’s owed doesn’t have to be money. It can be anything. It can even be time.

So what is time debt? Time management expert Mark Woods of Attack Your Day! Before it Attacks You, explains time debt as future time that one promises to another person or activity.

We all take on time debt every week. When you look at your calendar, you see the little bits of time that are marked for people and activities. A Starbucks meeting here, your nephew’s birthday party there, the neighborhood block party next week, and your friend’s daughter’s baby shower at the end of the month. Each time you promise someone else a chunk of your time, you are entering into time debt.

Of course, spending time with family and friends is an important part of life. The key is prioritizing your time.

You’ve probably found yourself in situations where you had to choose between doing something that you wanted to do, and doing something that you knew you had to do. Being an online graduate student is a major time commitment, especially when you have work and family obligations too. Part of that commitment is being careful not to promise away too much of your time so when you look at the week ahead, you don’t feel stressed and overwhelmed. And while you might face more of these types of situations while you’re in school, the temporary sacrifices you make as a student are going to help make it possible for you to achieve your educational and professional goals.

If you commonly find yourself with an overbooked schedule, feel stressed when you think about everything you have to do, or tend to overcommit when it comes to activities and events that often keep you from more important things, it’s time to learn how to Attack Your Day and avoid the time debt collectors who always seem to come calling at the most inconvenient times.

Check out the video below to learn more about avoiding Time Debt from Mark Woods of Attack Your Day!

Lighten Up, with E-Textbooks

Two great advantages of an online education are convenience and flexibility; the online student can study wherever they are and whenever they have the time with the click of a mouse via their Learner Portal. The online-degree seeker needs materials that suit this strategy, which for some means finding an alternative to a traditional textbook that weighs nearly the same as a red clay brick. E-textbooks allow students to carry hundreds of pounds worth of resources easily and conveniently, via their laptops, tablets and e-readers, allowing them to pursue their online advanced degree with absolute ease.

Although e-textbooks may not have the signature smell of decaying glue, or come equipped with a standard backache, they do provide the same information as traditional textbooks with a few added advantages. Apple recently announced they had joined forces with the nation’s leading publishers to create an application that allows e-textbooks to feature video, integration with academic databases, interactive problem sets and embedded note-taking capabilities.

While not all textbooks come in digital form, many are available to download at prices less than their paper partners. Students can then read these via an e-reader like the Nook or Kindle, a tablet like the iPad or on their computer. Supplemental research materials for papers and projects can also be found in digital formats, with Northcentral University reference librarians like Christine Gearhart on hand to assist students in determining which resource is right for them.

“There are pros and cons to both,” Gearhart explains. “Many students continue to prefer the traditional paper books, so that they can literally highlight important facts. Others like the electronic textbooks, which feature hyperlinking, graphics and video. It just depends on the student and how they learn best.”  Visit the Northcentral University Library for all library resources including databases, e-books or the Interlibrary Loan Program.   

Your diploma does not need to come with a prescription from a chiropractor. To learn more about e-textbooks, check out some of these articles:

Digital, Print Textbooks to Compete for College Audience

FCC Calls for U.S. Students to Have E-Textbooks in Five Years     

Students Weigh Benefits of E-Textbooks



We recently chatted with Melanie E. Shaw, Ph.D., Faculty Mentor at Northcentral University, to discuss education, teaching – and all points in between.

“Mel” is a military spouse, and she jokes that she has the second best job in the world – her husband is a jazz drummer in the Air force! The couple has a daughter currently studying at Georgia State University in Atlanta, as well as younger daughter who is a freshman in High School in Illinois.

“My kids have seen me as a lifelong learner, and I’m proud to say that they’re both amazing academics in their own right,” beams Shaw.

Dr. Melanie Shaw

Dr. Melanie Shaw

Shaw has traveled a circuitous route to her present role at Northcentral, spending 13 years attaining her Bachelor’s Degree, while savoring life with a sense of wanderlust in the military; transforming herself from performance artist, to nursing school student, to healthcare administrator, and eventually enrolling at Northcentral while living in Germany to earn her Ph.D. in Education.

Online education was truly a panacea for me,” notes Shaw. At the time, her father, who held a Ph.D. from Princeton, one of the most renowned universities in the world, even noted: “Online education is the wave of the future, in fact, I just had a friend who graduated while studying online at Yale!”

Shaw completed her Ph.D. in 2006 – the second person to complete the Doctoral program in Education at NCU – and the rest is history. Mel believes that she became a faculty mentor that very evening: Her chair was in Utah, her dissertation committee was in Florida and she was in Germany – and her life has NEVER been the same.

Today, Shaw interacts daily with the staff, faculty and students of NCU and she firmly believes that Northcentral is one of the premier online institutions in the world.


Congratulations on your latest honor! (


Blush, blush – Ahhhhh, shucks!


What do you see as some current and upcoming trends in online education?


I think that we’re all life-long learners. We should all want to go to the next place intellectually, and the bright spot in this current economic downturn is that it forces us to reevaluate who we are and what we want to do. In crisis, we reflect on the trajectory of our life. It’s a chance to listen to that “little voice” inside to see if you’re really doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

The great thing about online education is that you DON’T have to stop what you’re currently doing. If you’re willing to dedicate time to advancing your education, you can continue to be a parent or a teacher or a bartender and get to the next place without leaving where you are currently. (Mel notes that her brother recently had to uproot his entire family in order to study at a bricks-and-mortar institution in Florida)

10 years ago, I think there was a stigma associated with online learning, but now, it’s an important modality. Going to school online is a great option – we are all pioneers in this amazing field (students, faculty, and staff) – and I am personally highly sought after. We’re making an impact on how education is delivered here at NCU.


What do you see as the critical needs and expectations of people studying to become a teacher?


The pedagogical and andragogical practices of teaching are really the same online – great educators translate across all mediums. You need a PASSION for knowledge – you need to fall in love with the subject you teach and discover the beauty and magic that lies within. You also need to be DISCIPLINED to educate students. Great teachers really create a vision of where you want to go. They create a path, which was probably already inside of you, of where you need to be in order to become successful. Finally, you need a PERSONALITY that wants to make people listen. Online engagement means being available and providing quick and substantive feedback to overcome that sense of isolation that online learners sometimes experience.


Would the world change dramatically if teachers were paid like rock stars???

(Laughs) My brother that I mentioned who is currently in Florida is studying organizational behavior and he notices that people complain more than they compliment! I really don’t think that external factors like money make for great accomplishments. It really has to be a sense of call that can’t be quieted. You need to follow an authentic path – no matter what the reward.

As a teacher, it’s really about the exchange of ideas or the “A-Ha” moment when a student calls you two years after graduating to thank you for changing their life!!! It’s when a student asks you a question you can’t answer – and you have to research and dig to stretch your own mind. It’s joy from within.


What are you most proud of as it relates to your work at NCU?

I think that it is being a part of NCU as it finds its own identity – we went through our growing pains – and now, we have a sense of our vision and commitment to excellence.


Okay, to paraphrase David Letterman, let’s end with your “Top 10 Signs that You May be an Exceptional Educator!”

10) Flexibility

9) Passion

8) Commitment

7) Intellect

6) Motivation

5) Inquiring Mind

4) Desire to further the knowledge in the field

3) Visionary

2) Understanding of the foundations of education

1) And the number one sign that you may be an EXCEPTIONAL EDUCATOR: You have the ability to do it differently than anyone has done it before!


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