Friday, April 30, 2010

Online Classes: My Thoughts

The future of education seems to be leaning heavily towards online and distance education nowadays. I am a current college student (four years down, one to go), and have been taking online courses since the Fall of 2007. Six semesters down, and I think I am qualified to give an honest opinion on how the system works.

I started taking online classes because one accounting class I signed up for was canceled, but I really wanted to take it, and a higher level course was offered online. Being from a small town with a community college, to continue my degree, I had to either transfer to a bigger city, or I had to start taking online courses. I got engaged that fall, and my husband and I did not want to leave our area. The decision was made, and I continued my degree from the comfort of my home.

I have had some great experiences, and some downright horrible ones by not choosing to attend class in a physical location. Every professor runs each class differently. I’ve taken two classes from the same professor in the same semester, and they were completely different.

It’s a good setup if you aren’t a traditional student, but it is not perfect. I was an A student all through my school years, and even into college, until taking these classes. I am lucky to get an A now. These classes are more difficult, grading can be more harsh, and you often miss out on classroom learning. Part of my issue could be that I am a student living on my own with a household to take care of, along with a part time job, not to mention taking a full course load each semester.
Below are some of my comments, both good and bad on a myriad of topics.

The school I attend uses its own online website server to run the classes. It is secure, and fairly easy to use. Teachers can post announcements to the front page to be seen as soon as the page is opened. From this screen, the user can access assignments, the grade book, a forum and/or discussion board, and other tools the instructor makes available. It is fairly bug free and loads quickly. Most of the time, the service is available and not down.

Another system many universities use is called Blackboard. I really do not like it, and there are many websites out there detailing reasons why. I find it much more confusing and clunky compared to the one described above. But, some professors prefer to use it. The system also goes down quite a bit more often, ensuring your classes and homework cannot be accessed. Needless to say, I prefer the other system.

Because these classes are less hands on than others, some subjects have special needs. I took an economics class, and I felt jilted when the professor had us sign up and pay for a website that we basically did the entire class on! As it turned out, it was extremely helpful. It helped me really understand the graphs and curves of economics by interactively playing with them each week. That being said, some professors will require money to be shelled out for other systems and supplies. It’s a necessary evil.

Discussion Board
One of the main tools used by many professors is the discussion board and/or forum. DB’s and forums are pretty much the same thing, but they work differently on the University system. I prefer the DB. Depending on the professor’s method of teaching, the DB can be a small part, or a very large part of the class. Some require posts on three topics a week, responding to classmate’s posts on several different days. One class I took required three post topics, and two response posts a day for at least three days. That is nine posts a week! And these need to be substantial posts, usually adding to the discussion somehow. On the other end of the spectrum, some professors just have a question and answer board available for students to ask questions. Other classes might just have a simple question each week, or every few weeks. There are some classes that do not utilize this tool at all.

I find the discussion boards to be tedious and irritating to answer each week. However, I have found that they are incredibly helpful to understanding the course material. They require you to dig into the text and other materials to answer the question. Other students can provide great insight. Sometimes it feels like a physical classroom setting, exchanging ideas and even arguing with other students. As a side benefit, this does provide an opportunity for students to get to know each other a bit.

Homework can be anything and everything. I have had accounting ledgers and journals, to huge papers. I’ve done presentations (with audio and everything) and all sorts of other things. Most assignments are turned in online or via email. Online assignments have a link to use to turn them in, and a due date is listed. Most assignments disappear after the due date is passed, so it’s important to get them done on time! Sometimes you get feedback on your homework, reasons why the grade was the way it was, and ways to improve.

Each website has a grade book. Most of the time, the grade book has sections (quizzes, DB, etc) and until there is something in each section, a grade will not be calculated. I find this incredibly aggravating at times. Sometimes, each big paper is divided up into its own section, so you have to wait until the last paper is in and graded before having a true idea on what your grade is.

Grading is…one of my sore points. I understand that professors are busy, and have more than one class, usually, with any number of students. But a lot of times, homework, and especially papers, are not graded for weeks at a time. Maybe I expect that because I am given a deadline on getting work in, a professor should reciprocate and get it back to me in a timely manner as well. Usually does not happen, unfortunately. I have had two professors so far who were awful about the gradebook. One updated it like two or three times the whole semester. But that one was just awful in communicating in general. The second one, never updated the gradebook the entire semester. Finally did two weeks before classes were done. This is unacceptable, since the last day to drop any class was a week and a half before. It is also unacceptable to go an entire semester, minus two weeks without having any indicator of what one’s status is in the class, especially after inquiring about it.

Exams can take any number of forms. Most are online, and open book. There is a lot of multiple choice, some essays, some fill in the blanks, etc. Typical exam fare. The ones I dislike, are the proctored ones. This requires going into the local campus and setting up one or more appointments to take exams throughout the semester, without books, and often no notes.

Most classes do not have meetings. This is open to one’s point of view whether good or bad. I prefer no classes, just because I can’t stand to sit still for over an hour staring at my computer screen, listening to my professor and not being able to do anything else. Some classes are required, meaning you receive a grade for participating. Others are optional. Some meet every week, or twice a week, or every two weeks. All classes are recorded for viewing later. The other option is prerecorded videos from a physical class. This is better than nothing, but I have a really hard time with this, as stated above.

There are different ways of accomplishing the meetings. One way is a video conference, with a film crew filming the professor, while he talks to the camera. He can write on the white board, or a computer screen, to illustrate points. One class I attended used this method, and then required participation in the form of an instant messenger program in the website. It was also possible to call in on a 800 number to talk to the professor, and have the other class members hear it. Kinda weird, and strange, but it worked pretty well.

The other way is to use Elluminate Live. I am not really sure what I think of Elive. It is a system that allows the professor to talk, and you can hook up your microphone and talk as well. You can “raise your hand” to ask a question or provide an answer. You can upload images, or write on a white screen to illustrate your points. It is a useful program, for the most part.

Class Size
Class size ranges from five to fifty, usually. Definitely depends on the level of the class. I just finished a class that started with probably seven people, and ended with me and one other person! That definitely ruined the discussions! Unfortunately (or fortunately!), class size does not really seem to make much difference that I have seen on how quickly work is graded, or questions answered.

Some students live in the city where the classes originate from, and are able to go to professors in person for meetings. Many students, however, are spread all across the state and often across the country. This can be extremely challenging when working in groups.

Ahh groups. I hate groups. Part of my annoyance with them probably stems from preferring to work alone in general. I was not fond of groups in physical settings either.
Sometimes you get to choose your own groups, but many times, professors pick them for you. The same problems that plague groups and teams in person can be worse online. People do not pull their weight, or even do their work at all. In many of my online groups, it has been impossible to get in contact with some members.

My main gripe with groups is that many students taking online classes are not traditional students. They have full time jobs, and often growing families. They are not attending traditional classes for a reason. They are the people doing their homework late at night, or on their lunch break. It is hard to arrange meeting times with more than one person for a group project!! It is especially challenging when some members are unresponsive, like not answering the phone or emails. The other problem is that most students are scattered in different locations, so a physical meeting is impossible.

I understand why professors provide these projects. There is a lot of teamwork required in the workplace, and nowadays, a lot of it is occurring online, via Skype or instant messenger. Professors want their students to develop skills to work effectively in groups now, so they can be more successful in their jobs. BUT. People who are working and teleconferencing with each other are getting PAID for their work. They are expected to attend meetings, to work hard, or risk losing their jobs. College students, no matter how old or mature they are, do not always make this work. There is a lack of effort, a lack of communication in online group projects. Many students work hard, for the grade and the satisfaction, but a lot of students do not, plain and simple.

Most class weeks end on Sunday or Monday. I found this incredibly aggravating at the beginning, but as semesters have flown by, I appreciate having a weekend like this, where all classes end around the same time. It forces me to prioritize and work on homework all week, instead of getting something done the night before.
That being said, online classes are not self paced, but usually have deadlines each week. You have to be disciplined enough to work without a lot of prodding. Most professors will remind you of the big projects coming, but not the week to week things. They are not very merciful on late assignments!

Communication with professor
Communication with professors is pretty low-key. The discussion board is available, as is the phone. They often setup “office hours” to be available for questions. I usually stick to email. That way the professor has a permanent record of our conversation, and so do I. Some do not respond right away, unless it is urgent. Most are good about replying quickly, though.

I am almost finished with my degree. I definitely wanted to quit many, many times, due to the difficulties of online classes. But they can be doable, and may even be perfect for some people.

I hope this is helpful and gives some insight into how online classes really work. Feel free to ask questions if something is not clear or I did not cover it.