Pursuing professional development is always a good investment in yourself and, these days, programs are more accessible than ever. From in-person to hybrid to fully online options, participants can choose what works best for them.

However, there can be key differences in the experience you end up having depending on the format. For example, a virtual setting can feel more isolating than an in-person one. To minimize those differences — and maximize your outcomes — there are several ways to set yourself up for success when taking an online program. 

Adrienne Phelps-Coco, executive director of Teaching and Learning at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, and Luis Poza-Garcia, director of course design for non-credit learning at Harvard DCE, offer insight on how to get the most out of an online program.

Preparation is Key

Before you even log onto Zoom, it’s important to have everything you need ready to go to ensure that you are taking advantage of the time you put in. 

Do the pre-work

Many professional development courses, including those offered by Harvard DCE Professional & Executive Development, will include pre-work for participants. This can include preliminary readings or downloading a specific software program you may need for in-class activities. 

Pre-work will help you to prepare for in-class discussions, active learning activities, roleplays, and other exercises. Make sure you complete this pre-work well in advance of the class start time so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.

Set up your workstation

As many programs take place over the course of several hours to a few days, your workstation should be optimized for you. Ensure that your internet connection is strong and secure, you are in a comfortable and quiet environment, and you have all the materials you need before class begins. 

It can also be helpful to have plenty of snacks, coffee, and water close at hand so you don’t have to continuously get up to retrieve more fuel.

Limit distractions

Let those in your life know ahead of time that you will be engaged in a professional development program. Block off the course in your calendar and communicate with your team at work so they know when to expect your absence. 

If you are attending the course at home, let those you live with know that you need this time to be uninterrupted. For example, set up childcare with your friends, family members, or a babysitter, and schedule expected deliveries for another day. 

Set your expectations

Knowing what you want to get out of the experience is one of the main ways you can encourage positive outcomes for yourself. 

“Thinking about, ‘How does this apply to my work?’ will help you as you come away from the class and be able to apply what you’re learning,” says Phelps-Coco. “This gives you something to build off of. It not only helps you to remember the material better, but also helps you to internalize what you’re learning and take it to the next level.”

Bring a positive and open mindset

You will likely be in a class with many people who are bringing a wide range of opinions, expertise, and experience to the program. Be mindful of this diversity and take advantage of the unique opportunity to learn from so many diverse perspectives.

As Poza-Garcia says, this classroom environment is a safe space where everyone should feel welcome. 

“People need to feel comfortable sharing ideas and being able to speak up and to not be afraid to make mistakes, or to ask silly questions, especially when we join a class,” he adds.

Optimize Your Online Learning Experience

After all that prep work, you should be ready to have a great online learning experience! Here are a few tips to make the most of your time.

Stay engaged

One of the most crucial parts of getting the most out of an online program is staying engaged. You are taking the time out of your busy schedule to commit to this program, so being ready to immerse yourself in the experience will start you off on the right foot.

Minimize multitasking

This is time you have invested in yourself — commit to it! Set your email to automatic response, silence your phone, and avoid the temptation to work on other tasks while in class. You will benefit so much more by paying attention and absorbing the material than occasionally tuning in between other activities. 

Be an active participant

Every participant in the course is attending for a reason and each person has something meaningful and valuable to contribute — including you. Especially in a virtual environment, it can be easy to just sit back. But to feel truly connected, ask questions, take notes, be active in the discussion, and get to know your classmates. 

“We really expect that you will learn as much from your classmates as you will learn from the instructor and this community really is important,” says Phelps-Coco. “Jump in, get to know your peers, really share your ideas, and know that that’s an important part of the learning process.”

Ultimately, you get out of the experience what you put in!

Keep Up the Momentum

Lifelong learning is all about maintaining and nurturing your passion for knowledge. After the class is over, connect with your fellow participants on LinkedIn or other social media so you can take advantage of the invaluable network the experience offers. Staying in touch with your classmates could lead to more opportunities and connections in the future!

“Everybody who’s there has something really valuable to contribute,” says Phelps-Coco. “There are likely going to be many people who can help you connect and solve problems together.” 

Reach out to your instructor as well — they have a wealth of experience beyond the classroom and are equally passionate about sharing it. Lifelong learning extends far beyond the classroom and taking a professional development course is just one way of getting involved.

“What we’re trying to do is to create a community that continues the lifelong learning idea, not just finished programs, and that’s it,” says Poza-Garcia. “No, that’s just the beginning.”