So You Want to Take Online Courses?

So You Want to Take Online Courses?

Over the past few years I have moved about one half of my pedagogy online. Unlike an in-class experience where I feel like I know what I am doing I am constantly doubting myself about my online teaching. I think I do a pretty good job in-class, but translating that into a good experience for students online is more difficult. In fact, that is the biggest “problem” that faculty who teach online tend to have: how do they translate the in-class experience into a similar experience online?

This is a particular problem because online learning is not necessarily immediate. There isn’t immediate feedback on lectures, discussion forums, or even assignments. Even with all of the technology that is available it isn’t the most interactive experience and that is one of the reasons why students say they love it the most: its convenient. So I want to share some things that I have learned in teaching online over the past few years. Now these are my experiences from the perspective of the professor. How the student feels is different, but I am sure a lot of my colleagues have similar expectations/problems.

My Revelations About Online Learning

Now I should say that I primarily teach online for extra money. If I could figure out how to do all of my courses totally in the classroom I would. Part of that is my own problem/learning curve with technology. The second problem is that I thrive and LOVE the classroom experience. I just think there is something you can’t replace when having an interactive environment among your peers. So some of these revelations are also about some of the reasons that students say they take online courses.

First, online courses are convenient. Well, this has some truth to it. Students can access a lot of the content at any time of the day. I mean I put all of the content and the like up before the semester begins. Then I try to create more interaction through discussion forums and the like. However, students still have deadlines. It isn’t that they can just do the assignments whenever they want. And I don’t think some student intellectually get that. They think that since they can access information they should be able to do assignments whenever. That isn’t how life works and it certainly isn’t how a classroom should work. So be careful for those of you who take classes online. Classes can be convenient, but not necessarily just on your timeline.

Second, online courses are easier. When I hear that students take these courses because they are easier I just smile. Generally, students who take courses online have a LOT more work to do. The reason for that is because you can do certain things at your convenient professors have an obligation to make sure you are doing the work. So we add different quizzes, assignments, readings, etc. You often have LESS freedom in your assignments with an in-class experience vs. online (or at least in my classes and talking with colleagues). Students often complain that they didn’t realize that this would be harder. The fact that they would think it is easier is actually kind of disturbing. You are in college GET OVER IT!

Students don’t pay attention. One of the things that I wish I could give every student anytime they ask a question is to READ THE SYLLABUS! For my classes all of basic answers to the courses (e.g. due dates, assignments, readings, etc) are located in the syllabus. I can’t tell you how many students don’t read the syllabus out of laziness and how tired I am of asking these questions. Moreover, I find that the reason why students often fail online courses is because they fail to meet the deadlines. Even though I warn them that they need to be online at least 2-3 times per week (more during the summer) most do not heed my advice. And then those students don’t do the assignments because they forget, put work ahead of school, or fun ahead of everything else. I often have students who just disappear and then at the end of the term come asking for help. Almost always I say no. It is too late and they get an F. Then they get mad at me for not doing their work.

Creating an interactive environment is hard. I know how to teach. I have been doing it for 20 years. I also have a TON to learn. I am not very good at things like the flipped classroom or creating an interactive discussion online. I often resort back to what I know and that is the Socratic method of teaching. Asking questions? Creating arguments. Offering debate. This is what I love. This is where I find the greatest joy happen when students engage in those interactions. I find those kind of interactions are often stale in an online environment. Maybe it will be different someday. But I never am satisfied with how an online course goes during the semester. I love the give and take of a conversation and that is really hard to sustain online.

The quality of the work isn’t necessarily that different. Despite my not liking online courses I do not find that there is a total drop off in student performance in the classes I teach. Now I should say that most of the courses I teach online are lower level courses. My courses designed for a more in-depth discussion and writing are at junior and senior level and I have NO desire to make those online courses. I don’t know how I would translate that into a good experience for students. In particular, the classes I teach often involve current events, talking about different experiences on the fly or in the news. I don’t know why but I have a perception that the work product of students online for upper division courses might suffer.

Online learning is not always compatible with teaching. I know that a lot of my colleagues will disagree, but teaching isn’t always putting out information, consuming it, and spitting out an answer. Teaching comes in those moments when I interact with students and we raise the awareness (of both parties) for questions they might have. The questions I get for online learning are about the rules the assignment, when it is due, etc. It is more about process instead of knowledge and learning. And that is probably another reason why I am not a fan of online teaching.

Online courses are often cheaper at universities. I know that you see a lot of ads for for-profit universities (e.g. University of Phoenix, Strayer, Walden, and others). They advertise how inexpensive they can be. However, I find that students, if they attend a public university, will find that the tuition and fees they pay at that university is often competitive and CHEAPER than going to these for-profit and even non-profit online universities. The problem is that often public universities have some in-class components so that means that students have to come to campus which isn’t convenient for some people. That is fine, but that doesn’t mean that these totally online universities are cheaper. Plus, interacting with faculty and advisers is often worse than at the university, but I am biased.

Ultimately, all of these MOOCs and other online learning environments are ok, but I don’t think that involves good learning, argumentation, and the like. These classes are not necessarily cheaper, more convenient, or easier. I hope we don’t lose the university model. Yes, it needs to change somewhat, but it has served society for over 1000 years let’s fixed what’s broken and build on something we do better than the rest of the world.

2 thoughts on “So You Want to Take Online Courses?

  1. Great reflections Jason. “Easier” ~ completely agree. More difficult for the student and I tend to think it is more difficult for the instructor as well . . . at least in my experience. The ‘always on’ dynamic can become tiring.

    Have you experimented with ‘flipped’ classrooms? I’ve been converting alot of my content to create a flipped classroom environment ~ whereas students gather the lecture content prior to the class meeting time . . .

  2. I have experimented a little bit. In some respects, I don’t get the process because a lot of my work focuses on them doing the readings ahead of time and talking about that so inherently it should be flipped. I do a lot of other things like scaffolding assignments, but flipped stuff also means I need to do a deep dive into my pedagogical skills and I haven’t done that reflection yet.

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