Former cyber-school student has advice for online learning success

Megan Gent
November 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. ­­— Transitioning to remote learning this spring was a new concept for residential Penn State students. For many, leaving campus and navigating the world of online education was an adjustment — especially without any warning. But for Nathan Tack, it landed him in a familiar situation, and he’s poised and ready for classes to move back to a remote environment after Thanksgiving break.

Nathan Tack

Nathan Tack

IMAGE: Provided

A sophomore studying data sciences in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Tack attended the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School from second through 12th grades. After graduating high school, and as a resident State College, Pennsylvania, he knew attending Penn State was a great decision both financially and geographically. Now, having experienced traditional virtual classes and those in person, Tack has unique insight on the University’s transition to online learning.

“[The professors] definitely handled it better than I would have thought. I was coming from the cyber school, where the teachers have been taught specifically how to teach in a cyber school format,” Tack said. “But the [Penn State] professors all did it in their own way, which I thought was really nice.”

Being familiar with remote learning before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit gave Tack the ability to use what he learned from his time in grade school and apply it to his Penn State courses.

“One thing the cyber school taught me that I brought over when [Penn State] switched online was the importance of office hours,” he said. “Because in cyber school, it's really important to go to office hours as much as you can since you don't necessarily get to have that face-to-face [interaction] with the teacher.”

He added, “Most professors had great ways of adapting to make their office hours more accessible online.”

Along with simply attending these extra sessions, Tack pointed out that many changes were implemented to aid students educationally during this unusual time. In addition to extending office hours, many faculty members opened recitations for students to attend at a time that worked for them – especially for international students who live in different time zones.

“That was really, really cool to see that they were trying to accommodate students all over the world,” Tack said.

Tack witnessed students helping other students becoming even more valuable during this time as well.

“The use of the [learning assistants] was really good, the way [professors] adapted and used the LAs to kind of help monitor things,” he said. “We could put messages to the LAs, because some professors wanted to really just focus on getting through the PowerPoint slides, so we could ask questions to the LAs.”

Tack added, “If the LA could answer it, they would, otherwise they would get the professor's attention. They were important as gauges of class understanding.”

Expert advice

With all his virtual learning experience, Tack compiled some recommendations for Penn State if the remote learning period continues into the fall semester.

The first is the importance of frequent communication between teacher and student.

“Asking for student feedback is really important; that was a big part of grade school,” he said. “Some teachers would ask us just during class. They'd have check-in times where they'd ask if anybody had any questions, and then we’d take a five-minute break.”

To Tack, these five-minute breaks made all the difference, and he encourages Penn State faculty members to consider doing the same during the period of remote learning.

“It’s a time to say, ‘Alright, we're at the halfway point, I'm going to step away from the computer.’ The professor can step away too. That helped a lot in high school,” he said. "You have to be careful how much time you're spending around [computers] because you can definitely get tired staring at a screen for too long.”

Along with that, Tack invested in a stand-up desk and created an environment in his home that he uses strictly for schoolwork.

“I did try one year in grade-school doing school in my room,” he said. “It was by far my worst school year ever. My productivity just dropped like a rock in the air.”

Tack’s last piece of advice relates to the schoolwork-life balance.

“You're not going to get your schedule right the first time; I certainly didn't,” he said. “And it changes from week to week sometimes, so stay flexible.”

As to which type of learning he prefers, “that depends on the class.” Tack says it’s difficult to compare an online high school experience to that of a college one, considering he never attended an in-person high school or traditional online college.

“[Online learning] is a lot of self-exploration, self-discovery and trying things that don’t always work,” concluded Tack.

For additional tips and resources for remote learning, visit the University's Keep Learning page at keeplearning.psu.edu.

Last Updated November 19, 2020