Online education has been around for some time now, yet it continues to face the same skepticism it always has. People question whether students learning from a distance can get the same quality education as those in traditional, face-to-face courses, unaware of how much e-learning has evolved over the years.
Today, online programs are available at many of the top schools in the nation, and are nearly identical to their classroom counterparts in terms of quality and content. Online students often take the same courses as on-campus students, complete the same assignments, and interact with teachers and classmates in much the same way. With the help of virtual classrooms, streaming video, and web conferencing, online courses have become a viable option for students who cannot regularly attend campus classes. Both formats offer their own advantages and disadvantages to students depending on their particular situation and learning style.
For more on how online courses stack up against campus-based classes, we asked faculty members from Goucher College in Baltimore about their first-hand experiences with distance education. Their answers highlight just how far e-learning has come since its inception, as well as the many benefits of an online degree.
As a teacher or faculty member, what are the biggest advantages of online class, and how do you work with students to overcome the biggest challenges inherent in distance learning?
Thomas Walker, PhD, Director and Faculty Member, Master of Arts in Environmental Studies:
Online instruction offers some key advantages over face-to-face classroom teaching, along with several challenges. One of the advantages is that students have more and longer response time in interaction with each other. Although not all students will take advantage of the time, nor perhaps see it as an advantage at all, some students use the time to be better prepared and more thoughtful, and it is evident in more careful writing. In some cases, for instance, we know that students do occasionally work with editors or ask friends and family members to edit their writing. That same advantage applies to faculty. What may be lost in spontaneity is made up in thoughtfulness and the ability sometimes to do a little research or fact check before posting a response.
Another advantage to online learning is the possibility for students to draw upon local resources where they live for their coursework. They may have greater familiarity with the community and its issues as well as opportunity for engagement and first-hand observation. In a class I taught on community organization, I encouraged students to study an issue in their community. One student was able to attend community meetings and rallies that would have been unavailable to her had she either chosen another project or not been in situ.
As for challenges to online learning, there are many for our faculty. Probably the biggest one is the ability to see the advantages. Many of our faculty come to online teaching with more conventional, classroom teaching experience and do not take full advantage or explore the differences and possibilities with the online platforms and technology. Indeed, the technology itself can be daunting and challenging. Simply learning the essentials can be demanding and time consuming. The other challenge for faculty is often building enough content into the class before the class starts. In some instances material gets uploaded just in time, or faculty will opt for a more synchronous style of teaching for the presentation of content, effectively underutilizing the online platform.
Ramona Baker, Director and Faculty Member, Master of Arts in Arts Administration Program:
In the Master of Arts in Arts Administration (MAAA) program, we work to overcome the biggest challenges inherent in distance learning by making certain that everyone (students and faculty) has spent time together face-to-face before they are in an online class together. We believe that this has been enormously beneficial to all. It has allowed us to have fewer misinterpretations or misunderstanding that can occur when you don't know the person behind the voice or the post.
Linda Bruce, MA, Director of Distance Learning, Welch Center for Graduate and Professional Studies:
Technology Orientation is an online mini-course I teach -- a "welcome to distance learning" class for new students that helps them prepare to succeed in graduate studies at Goucher. Each time the course runs, I ask students to post reflections in our discussion board about embarking on their e-learning program. What most excites you?, I ask. Do you have any concerns? What advantages will this experience bring to your life? I enjoy reading their responses, and I like giving feedback, too, which can help allay trepidations about potential challenges ahead, and can also strengthen the sense of community. Sometimes I provide insights gleaned from my own journey as a distance learner in an online master's program, when I experienced first-hand some of many advantages and challenges of learning at a distance. Ultimately, I hope the course convinces students that the technology systems supporting their studies will far more often be their friend than their foe. I also hope the course helps students gain confidence in Goucher's commitment to quality instruction. Student success and program quality must be intricately tied in distance learning, in some ways perhaps more so than with face-to-face instruction -- although rarely do we find "traditional" classes not somehow enhanced with technology.
Here is a sampling of comments from students about challenges they expect to face in studying online, and about rewards they look forward to reaping:
- As this is my first time doing something like this, I'm excited about how learning will work. After coming from four years of going to classrooms and learning in that fashion, I can't wait to try this new way. My only concerns will be the difficulties of online courses -- like the separation between students and teachers. But this program specifically will make my life better, I will be more prepared to do what I want to do in life and actually focus myself to the specific thing I want to undertake in my career. As for it being online, well, the advantage is that I can start or continue my life while also being a student…
- This is my first time for distance learning. Once I get some of the technical issues down pat, I'm sure it will be great. I'm all the way across the country in Seattle, so it's great to have the freedom that online learning will provide. Looking forward to it.
- I'm only a little concerned about the online class meetings with Webex being at times that won't interfere too much with work, especially due to the time difference. Which reminds me, I still have to test that pesky headset for viability. Cheers!
- Having a job, husband, children, and pets makes my attending anything but an online college close to impossible. Yet, obtaining my degree online seemed almost too good to be true. My biggest concerns when looking into online education were regarding the legitimacy & quality of the education. I've heard of people obtaining a "mail-order" degree, or losing lots of money in pursuit of an online degree to realize too late that they were taken advantage of. Based upon the limited interaction I've had with faculty and students, I feel confident in my choice in Goucher College, and I look forward to the limited residency that is just days away!!!
- It is incredibly refreshing to read that among the previous batch of entering students, the distance-learning model was a new, yet welcomed concept for them as well. The traditional on-campus experience certainly has its benefits at times. However, as years have passed since completing my undergraduate studies, I am looking forward to putting my education "into action" while simultaneously building my career. The advantage of having all of my peers doing the same, and from various locations/disciplines, is that my networking pool is rich and diverse. I am a little nervous about relying on technology, because it is not always my friend.
- What excites me most is knowing that my fellow peers are coming from all over the U.S. and the world, even teachers. They come with their own unique experiences and backgrounds that will not only add to this program, but add to my overall experience as well. I am concerned with my own time management and not being able to always see people face to face. Sometimes technology can be scary and when you send something in you hope that it truly makes it there because it's not palpable. I think this experience will help define my next steps in life as well as create a great network of peers that I am excited to get to know and learn from. Technology can be a challenge, but it's the future and how blessed are we to be able to conduct a graduate program from our very own homes, it's pretty neat to live in this day and age.
How different are the online and offline versions of a class? How do you incorporate or work around hands-on demonstrations?
Michael Shepard, PhD, Faculty Member, Master of Arts in Environmental Studies, and Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability:
I have taught classes in online, hybrid, limited residency and classroom-based formats. Each instructional modality has its advantages and opportunities. F2F courses have the obvious asset of direct contact with students to build community, trust and construct your class presence. In my fully online courses I accomplish these same goals using lecture capture, live meetings, text based discussion and newer tools like VoiceThread. In the online environment this process takes a little longer, but can actually result in greater class cohesion in the long run. This may sound surprising, but you cannot be successful in my classes without very active and consistent participation. In a F2F course there is more room to be shy or an observer. My students are expected to make regular live presentations via WebEx on readings, projects and research. We also use wikis to construct multimedia projects and conduct peer evaluation. With creativity, there is no educational objective I cannot accomplish online. For my students that work, have families and live across the country, online education provides access to their future.
Thomas Walker, PhD, Director and Faculty Member, Master of Arts in Environmental Studies:
I have had the experience of converting classes both from online to residency format and from residency to online format. One of these classes -- Environment, Culture, and Community -- I taught in both formats. This class was actually quite similar in both formats. The topics remained roughly the same. In both we utilized student led discussions, films and videos, and many of the same assignments, but with fewer lectures and more seminar style discussion in the residency class. I believe the student-led presentations and discussions were more challenging for students in the residency format, requiring greater facilitation and impromptu discussion.
In the other class -- Community Organizing -- there were much greater differences between residency and online formats. In its residency format, this class made good use of workshops and hands-on activities, using considerable class time and resulting in a more practical or applied course. In the online version, students learned more about the history and theory of organizing in very different contexts, including labor and environmental justice. The work-shopping component of the online class was covered far more expediently and students gained some hands-on experience by identifying and working with an issue and/or an organization in their home community or a community of their choice. Developing community engagement opportunities takes some advance work and students taking this class may not be in a position or ready for community engagement, so while this class offers some real-world experience, it lacks the concise modeling and pedagogical role playing of the workshops in the residency. Developing more effective and transparent community engagement is a goal for all our classes, online or face to face.
What online programs have enjoyed the best student outcomes?
Richard Wagner, AIA, Director and Faculty Member, Master of Arts in Historic Preservation:
While we tend to think of online programs as a 21st century phenomena, they are only the latest version of distance education stretching all the way back to the Chautauquas of the mid-nineteenth century. Originally the distance between faculty and student was bridged by pen, ink, paper and the postal service. In the 1920s, over the air radio universities connected students and faculty together, with faculty lecturing to large numbers of students at set times, and the students completing and mailing in assignments and quizzes. In the 1950s, television universities, with the added advantage of students being able to view faculty, and particularly in science classes, experiments, became the latest means to connect learners to instructors over great distances. Online internet programs has moved the interaction between faculty and students closer to the classroom experience by providing two way synchronous communication, as well as asynchronous learning. To answer the question of which online programs enjoy the best student outcome, one need only look at the research into distance learning from the late 19th century to date which concludes that the mature, goal directed student performs the best at a distance.