Let’s Talk Online Learning

The advancements in technology have afforded us many modern conveniences. I can’t imagine living without email or texts on my “Smart” phone, Netflix, and my Nook e-Reader. This forward march of technology has also opened doors to new procedures in health care, processes in manufacturing and access to shopping, and COLLEGE!

The option of having the college classroom brought to your home is nothing new. In the late 1980s I took classes from what is now Penn States’ World Campus, and on my transcript today are 3 credits each in Sociology, and Music Theory and Appreciation. I received the textbooks, a 3-ring binder with chapters of lessons and instructions on how to complete the assignments, submit them, contact the instructor and testing (which was required to be proctored – something as an educator I agree with, HEARTILY!)

Today the same basic structure exists, but instead of the 3-ring binder, you log into a learning management system and access your virtual 3-ring binder.

For busy adults with family responsibilities and jobs, the online option has allowed many to complete degrees that would have otherwise remained unattainable due to traditional higher education’s insistence on the 3 credit class occurring in 3, 50-minute increments on Monday, Wednesday and Friday between the hours of 8am and 3pm which is “not gonna happen” for most of us who are juggling kids, spouse, house and job.

Before you run out and sign up, though; consider this. In a traditional classroom it requires very little effort to listen to the instructor/lecture, as well as classmate comments and discussions. Even the least engaged individual can bumble into the classroom and take away some snippets of knowledge. If you have any intelligence whatsoever, you can glean a lot of information from the active class without doing much but sitting there and remaining semi-conscious. In an ONLINE class, however, even if there is a recorded or LIVE lecture, something is lost in the bandwidth, and you – the individual student – is responsible for going out and getting more of the information that you need. This is further necessitated by the fact that most 3 credit online classes are NOT giving you 3, 50-minute lecture a week for 15 weeks. This shifts the onus of responsibility for the information acquisition from the instructor to the student in a way that is very different from the traditional classroom.

The expectation that you show up to class is also missing, so instead of having a carved out period of time where other people are expecting you to show up, you have your life, and YOU have to figure out where to sit down and dedicate 3 hours a week to the study of Medical Terminology, for example. Competing for this time with the Medical Terminology textbook and flash cards are things like grocery shopping, kids’ homework, laundry, sports games (kids), favorite TV shows, Facebook (or other online activities), time with spouse, dishes, dusting/vacuuming, holidays, and more.

In more than 4 years of teaching online Medical Terminology for a community college, I have seen many, many students sign up with the best intentions only to disappear from sight, and regardless of my attempts to contact, encourage, cajole or coach, they are M.I.A. and I suspect, have fallen victim to their own schedules. It is this experience, along with observations in traditional higher education programs with the occasional online class, and total online programs in non-traditional institutions that causes me to classify ONLINE learning as “harder than traditional higher education”, though this may not have anything to do with the rigor of the curriculum, or the subject. The challenge is in managing ourselves and often this is harder than we could ever imagine.

If you’re someone who is highly self-disciplined, and motivated to earn your degree and have a lot of support at home; online learning is a probably a good option for you. If you are easily distracted from necessary tasks by things like a good movie on TV, Facebook chatting or activities with your friends, online learning may not be for you. It’s important that you do a thorough self-assessment, because at the end of the day, if you have signed up and attended even a class or 2, you are going to have to pay back the money you borrowed, whether you complete the class or not.

Know thyself! and be smart about online learning!

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