Learning is an experience that can have a profound impact on your future. I think that many of us can look back on a time when a lesson impressed upon us the desire to dig deeper into a subject. Maybe that experience was the one that inspired your career today.

I got into network engineering because of a college class on computer networking. I remember sitting in that classroom, devouring every word my professor said. His affinity for the subject was palpable, my attention fully captured by his contagious enthusiasm and depth of knowledge. The direct access to his expertise, combined with the class structure, had set the stage for my learning to soar. After graduation, I went on to earn my CCNA and eventually join the Cisco IT network operations team.

My learning experience had a significant impact on my career. As I look back on that class, I’m reminded that every chance we have to learn is also the chance to discover a new passion. However, learning looks a lot different now than it did back then. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of learning from primarily face-to-face, interactive learning environments, to now normalize distance and virtual learning. But how can an experience like mine be replicated when the education landscape has drastically changed?

These steps for virtual learning success can help you have that same experience, even if you’re not “in” the classroom.

Step #1: Clearly define your virtual learning goals

Before enrolling in an online course, understand what you hope to gain. First, define the knowledge and skills you want to build and why they are essential: when you complete this online class, what will it enable you to accomplish? Taking the time to ponder these questions internally can help you stay motivated. Skip this step, and you could lose sight of the big picture — especially if you’re taking a self-paced virtual course. One of the best ways to stay disciplined is to stay motivated.

If you’re preparing for a Cisco certification exam, map your learning milestones to the certification blueprint. First, download the exam topics for your Cisco certification exam on the Cisco Learning Network. Next, build your study plan around the concepts and technologies you will need to know for the actual Cisco exam.

Step #2: Set your study schedule (and stick to it!)

Online learning owes its growing popularity to its flexibility. Virtual learning is your next best option when work and time constraints limit your ability to train during work hours. It also eliminates travel time going to the classroom, which adds up — especially in urban environments. However, even though on-demand e-learning allows you to train when it best fits your schedule, it’s up to you to define what that schedule looks like. At the end of the day, you know how you learn best. So, hold yourself accountable for making time to train and study. As for me, a routine helps me stay disciplined, so I set aside blocks of time for learning in advance.

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Step #3: Take notes during your online e-learning class

Take notes, whether by hand or on your computer. Remember, you shouldn’t just write down exactly what the instructor says. Instead, when taking notes, summarize a concept in your own words to help the message resonate. It’s an easy way to help you process and recall what you have learned. Since the course is virtual, you can always replay the content or view the slides later, but don’t let that be a substitute for fully engaged learning.

Step #4: Limit distractions

Stay focused during your virtual training to maximize your time investment — yes, even though you can access the replays and learning content on-demand. Treat your virtual learning course the same as you would a real classroom. That means no texting, checking the score of last night’s game, or browsing social media. If you aren’t giving the lesson your full attention, it will be harder to retain the information you should be absorbing.

There are various resources out there that can help you stay focused. Seemingly little things, like turning your device on “Do Not Disturb” mode, can go a long way. However, what’s most critical is finding the approach that works for you. Set aside time for learning and make an effort to limit your distractions as much as possible — whether they are internal diversions or external interruptions like incoming text messages. If my mind starts to wander, I make a quick note to myself of what I am thinking about so that I can revisit it later — when my learning time block is over.

Step #5: Network and connect with other learners

One of the side benefits of in-person learning is the ease of connecting with other students in your nearby vicinity. For example, you might laugh at the instructor’s jokes together and talk about work or your personal life between lectures and labs. Feeling socially connected is great, but there’s far more to gain from interacting with like-minded learners. By sharing and discussing what you are learning, you reinforce the concepts and open the door to networking opportunities. On the one hand, you’re becoming more familiar with the learning material, while on the other, you’re fostering connections that can help you down the road. Whether you encounter an obstacle on the job and seek guidance from a classmate or reach out to explore potential job opportunities, it’s a win-win.

Where to find your learning community

Building that kind of camaraderie takes a little more effort when you’re learning remotely. But remember, self-studying and independent learning don’t mean you have to go it alone. It is always worth going the extra mile to build those relationships. I recommend participating in the Cisco Learning Network Communities. Once you set up your free membership, you can comment on existing discussions or start your own thread. After you find your Community, you can share your learning and certification journey to garner support, just like in this post. You’ll find co-learners and experts centered around similar goals and working in similar fields who can help you stay on track.

Tune in now:

The Cisco Learning Network Podcast

Available on Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud.

Another community I’d recommend is the Art of Network Engineering Podcast discord, “It’s All About the Journey.” You’ll hear stories from different folks as they share the successes and struggles they encounter on their IT networking journeys. Try tuning in before your next virtual training class for extra inspiration to power your next learning goal.

Your virtual instructor wants to hear from you

There’s something special about being in a class with a dynamic instructor who loves their subject and can teach it well. But there’s something extra special about the student who steps forward to express their gratitude. As someone who has taught and created courses myself, I cannot emphasize how rewarding it feels when a student shows their appreciation. Especially with virtual learning, instructors often have no idea how they have helped students. Whenever I get a note or message on social media that mentions how materials I have created have helped others in their journey, it makes my day. So, pay it forward. Let the content creator know when they have helped you.

What do you think?

Learning looks different for everyone. So, while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide to virtual learning, the best approach is the one that you take seriously. As you prepare for your next online class, consider this list as a starting point to help you embrace the adventure of virtual learning. I encourage you to find the methods and practices that work best for you. Hybrid learning is here to stay. Now’s the perfect time to set clear expectations, stay disciplined, and create the structure you need to thrive.

What has virtual learning looked like for you? What has worked or hasn’t worked? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below — or tweet me via @renobelk on Twitter!

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Jason Belk

Lead Technical Advocate

Learning and Certifications