Online Instruction: Scourge or Boon?

by Lysa Salsbury

This past weekend, I was pondering out loud what to write about for my post this week. My partner-in-life, a professor at Washington State University, was spending a grueling couple of hours wading through students’ discussion posts for an online class he teaches. “Why don’t you write about [expletive] Blackboard!” he snarled through gritted teeth.

This got me thinking about the value of online learning to educators and students. As a graduate student, about a third of my classes were online, roughly the same percentage that my husband teaches every semester. As a full-time working mother completing my degree in the few hours left in each day once I’d set aside the demands of my first two roles, I loved the flexibility of being able to log in to Blackboard and complete my assignments at any time of the day or night. But I also really missed the relational aspect of face-to-face classes. Truth be told, the novel convenience of the “anytime, anywhere” classroom was often countered by the sheer time drain that reading all of my classmates’ posts, and commenting on them, entailed. I would frequently find myself still up in the wee hours, either completely engrossed in fast and furious debate on a hot topic with a handful of peers, or bleary-eyed and tearful with exhaustion, frantically trying to finish an assignment in time to post it by the 11:59 pm Sunday deadline.

Partnered with an educator and academic, I also see life on the Other Side of the Fence—the endless hours spent reading and grading, responding to posts, assessing students’ progress and competencies, ensuring that everyone’s participating and no-one’s falling behind or slacking off. Neither of these scenarios paints a particularly appealing picture of online learning, and yet the popularity of Internet-based courses continues to skyrocket. Online education programs account for almost a third of all post-secondary education enrollments, according to figures reported by the Sloan Consortium in the 2011 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. 31% of students now take at least one college course online.

Although most faculty members will have to teach an online course at some point during their career, more than two-thirds apparently feel that online teaching is inferior. Clearly, the lack of personal and social interaction between the teacher and the students, and between the students themselves, might be considered a disadvantage. But on the other hand, online discussion forums allow less forthcoming students, who might feel overwhelmed in a classroom situation, to have a voice, and to contribute more frequently than they would face-to-face. Technical problems, computer illiteracy, or a general lack of familiarity with technology and software can be an issue, particularly for older and returning students. And accessibility can definitely be a barrier for low-income students or those with disabilities. And yet, online learning also provides students with the opportunity to learn new technology and programs, as well as hone their typing skills.

Being successful in an online class requires discipline, motivation, time-management, and organization—skills which, if a student lacks, may make it hard for them to complete an online course. And yet, taking an online class may well help them to develop those very skills. Online learning undoubtedly allows for greater time flexibility for students and instructors, not to mention ease of scheduling for the institution—and yet, one of the things I resented most about my online classes was how many hundreds of hours I spent typing comments, opinions, and feedback that could have been verbally communicated in just a matter of minutes.

On the whole, I enjoyed my online classes. The highlight for me was definitely the “global village” feel of the student demographics. In a Program Planning and Assessment class I took, one student went on her honeymoon to Italy two weeks into the class, and for the next 10 days, all of her discussions were prefaced with tantalizing, envy-inducing descriptions of the incredible sights she was visiting and the mouthwatering food she was eating. Another classmate was a former astronaut with NASA whose professional and life experiences often made riveting reading. Another, a high school principal in an underprivileged urban neighborhood, contributed a perspective that was grounding and so very necessary in our conversations about the accessibility of education. Overall, the rich diversity of backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and personal goals for the course among my classmates was unparalleled, and made for fascinating discussions. Some nights, I could hardly wait to log on and see what folks were talking about. It was certainly one of the most fun classes I ever took.

However, as more and more educational institutions—including high schools—move increasingly towards maximizing distance learning opportunities, debate continues to rage on the efficacy and value of online versus face-to-face instruction.

What are your thoughts on this hotly-contested issue of education and technology?

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    I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the way to delve into the time commitment of online courses in this post. It is an area that isn’t often discussed and needs to be one of the defining factors of choosing to teach or learn online (I have done both). 

    I believe that online education can be done well and that it does provide a forum for communication that not many understand or encourage. Again that comes back to the time investment. If an instructor sets-up a course and walks away – that isn’t true online education. It’s more akin to a correspondence course. 

    My only “but” to your post refers to this ” Technical problems, computer illiteracy, or a general lack of familiarity with technology and software can be an issue, particularly for older and returning students. And accessibility can definitely be a barrier for low-income students or those with disabilities.” While I cannot refer to any hard research it is my experience that this common assumption isn’t completely true. Yes, older and returning students may struggle with technology, but so do low-income students and students in general. Traditional students may have grown-up with technology but that does not imply that they understand how to use it in an educational setting. 

    Thanks again for the great post!