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Online Teaching vs Classrooms

As the second week of courses ends at my university, and I have prepared for the third, I finally have a bit of time for reflection.

First, let me state that the department in which I work is dedicated to delivering an online degree program that is equal in value and student experience to the on-campus degree. This task is not easy, since online courses by nature are different. From the delivery method itself to the nature of assessing students online, there are differences we cannot ignore, so we must adjust to ameliorate those imbalances.

Unfortunately, the university is running an ad campaign in local media that suggests online degrees are "convenient" for students. Nothing could be more misleading, in my opinion, than suggesting that an online degree is somehow more convenient or in any way "easy" compared to traditional studies. Online education requires more time, not less, and requires more self-discipline of students. The accelerated pace and the lack of classroom discussions also increase the probability that students will miss concepts or important information.

Online education is more work for educators and students. Don't let anyone try to say otherwise, I've repeatedly written here and elsewhere.

Online courses, in my opinion, should have at least a third fewer students than traditional courses. There should also be an opportunity for "live" text or video chats to help students bridge the traditional and online experiences.

The online program at our university is conducted in eight-week cycles. I dislike this intensely, pedagogically and logistically. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) When each week is two, students seldom read texts "deeply" and respond accordingly.

2) The "quick start" often leads online courses to be "behind" by two weeks, causing some assignments to be omitted.

3) Missing two online sessions is equal to missing four regular class sessions, a gap that cannot be bridged.

Moving so quickly risks a superficial course that doesn't leave a lasting impression on students. In the short-term, we might claim outcomes are equal, but what of long-term retention? What about the "convenience" when a working student misses a week online? That's far different from missing a single class meeting in a traditional course, especially if the traditional course meets more than once weekly.

I'm highly skeptical of claims that online and on-campus courses lead to "equal outcomes." How are we judging those outcomes? Grades? We know grades don't measure learning. Test results? Do those scores reflect long-term retention?

Online education is important and necessary for many students, especially non-traditional students. But, we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. How can we ensure that online is as demanding — and rewarding — as the traditional experience? I'm not sure there are easy answers. And, I believe too much of the research is superficial, as if that research has sought to support online education, instead of challenging its value.

Many of us believe in online education; our research might reflect and support that bias.

I read recently that the public is more skeptical, overall, of online courses and degrees than are college administrators. Maybe the public perceptions should guide us? If our graduates' coworkers and employers question online education, we have to prove that it is equal to traditional learning. Sadly, too many online programs have hurt perceptions of online courses.

More thoughts in a day or two. I plan to discuss my own efforts to align a course that is both online and on-campus.


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