Monday, February 15, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Online Education

Communications and Cyberspace talked a good deal about online education, and this topic has come up quite a bit on the class blog as well as class itself this past week. Online education, although still relatively in its infancy (compared to conventional learning especially), has gained momentum over the years as technology has progressed. There are definitely some merits of it - students can learn on their pace and at their own time, distance is irrelevant, and it can make up for disability. Those are some positives of the online educational experience. However, I feel as though there are some drawbacks to online education as well. I talked about some of these in a comment I left the other night, but I figured I might as well touch on them in the blog as well.

The first is that of discourse. That is, it is very limited online. Yes, there can be very long, in-depth discussions that can go on for a great deal of time. But that is also the biggest problem - time. A class discussion that can be very lively and informative could definitely be transferred to an online, threaded debate. However, unless a number of people are online at the same time, the discussion is far from occurring in real time. A student may have to wait hours or even days to get a response, unlike the immediacy of the discussion that could take place in class. When one also takes into account the possible infrequency of contribution, the process can stretch out even longer. Although anybody can post at any time and make it a very in-depth discussion, what would take place in minutes in a classroom could take days or even weeks online. I will use myself as an example for this. Because of my schedule, sometimes I can only get online in the morning and late at night, if at all (the fact that this blog is technically several hours late shows this). How good of a participant can I be in an online discussion if all of my responses come several hours after the majority of the class? If Margaret for example posts something in the afternoon, I may not be able to add my thoughts until several hours later. During this time she may have opened discussion with several other students and maybe even the professor, while I have missed out on the entire process. I may have found her original post to be very informative or thought-provoking, or better yet, downright wrong. But if the discussion has already progressed several stages or maybe even died, is it really worth replying to that post? I look at this like a post on an online forum that has already gotten hundreds of replies - why bother replying to the original if the topic has already been beaten to death? Granted, we are in a much smaller format and are in an academic setting, but the inability to respond immediately unless always connected or near a connection makes online learning a little less appealing to me. However, there is one benefit to this, and that is that the discussion is not limited to the few hours a week that the class meets, but the discussion itself is also spread out for quite some time.

Another downside to online education is the fact that one-on-one is severely limited. Sure, the professor is never more than an email away, but I would much rather talk to him or her in class itself - especially if the issue is particularly troublesome for me. If I am having trouble understand a concept, chances are I've already read and re-read the material over and over and still can't grasp it. At this time it would benefit me to actually have a discussion in person about this. However, if I am taking a class at the University of Phoenix, for example, meeting with my professor becomes pretty unrealistic. Sure, a phone call is a possibility, but what if I'm taking a math class? Trying to walk me through a complex problem would be annoying for both parties. Surely there will be (or maybe even is) technology that can make this easier that I am not aware of, but if I am truly having trouble understand something I would much rather work something out with the professor than exchange messages.

The idea of anytime learning may be useful for a number of students, and online education has proven to be effective for many people. However I don't feel as though I can be one of them. Online education requires somebody to be self-motivated, which I feel that I am not always. It's much easier to forget to check a website than it is to miss an entire lecture. Also, knowing exactly when and where to go makes things easier to plan and account for. I remember a woman in the video we saw in class said pretty much the same thing. I would much rather know that every Thursday night I have to be in Dickinson 1104 for my Crisis Communications class. I can plan my week around that and account for that when scheduling things. I would much rather learn that way than having the check a website periodically throughout the week. Granted I can schedule times to go online, but those times may not work with the flow of the class. If I can only go online early in the morning for example, what could I miss if the rest of the class doesn't go on until later in the afternoon?

Online education is not for everyone, and its proponents have said as much numerous times. Although I never considered myself to be a strong proponent of a structured, traditional environment (regardless of what capacity), the more I think of education as a whole, the more I seem to favor a traditional means. Blended classes such as this one can offer a nice solution - we still get face to face time and traditional lectures, and can have true discussions, but we can also turn things over to the internet and continue our "learning" throughout the week. But I still feel like something will be lost along the way. There is definitely work to be done in this area, and people do admit that online learning is still new - perhaps it just needs the technology to catch up to what it wants to do. But for now, I would much rather stick to education in a traditional sense.


  1. The first time I had an online course, I felt very nervous because I was used to meet in the classroom all the time. Whenever a new method of communication or any new medium enters society, it needs to take time to adapt to the change. I feel like the professor is talking to me in my own room when I take online courses. When responding to postings, you can't give your answer immediately. You have to read the entire posting first, then you may comment. It contrasts from listening to your classmates and verbally responding. However, we can keep contributing online even though we might not be in the physical classroom. Good point about having a face-to-face conversation with your professor if you don't understand the assignment or need help with something. You can always stop in with your professor during office hours, and you will get help there. It is true that postings may appear online at anytime and the user has to be aware whenever they might appear.

  2. Neil Postman did make some good points about online education being a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching and learning in a classroom, didn't he?