Friday, May 12, 2006

Thoughts about Online Education

With three online classes completed, I'm starting to form some definite opinions about online education. Interestingly enough, the three classes that I have taken have varied drastically in terms of format, professor, discussion, assignments and most importantly quality. I have to admit that in addition to taking these classes and completing the coursework, I am also watching (and experiencing) the classes from a distance while trying to take in the entire experience. I watch everything that my classmates and professors do, read everything and pay particular attention to everyone's participation.

What is very interesting about the three classes that I have taken is that they have all been very different. From my perspective, one of the classes was great, one was good and one was very unsatisfying. In all honesty, the biggest factor in how I rate the quality of these classes is directly related to the professor and his/her participation in the class and the quality of his/her feedback. For me, I think the professor participation in an online class can make or break the entire experience. There is very little about a class with a posted syllabus, posted assignments, minimal discussion and limited professor interaction to inspire me to really learn the material - despite how relevant the course readings and posted lectures may or may not be. In the best class that I have taken so far, most material presented was material with which I was already familiar. Despite this fact, the professor chose provocative readings that allowed the students to have rich and fruitful discussions. The professor also participated in these discussions - although was careful not to dominate. The professor created assignments that challenged students to work at their own levels. We were able to choose from a variety of assignments for our final project - depending on our own individual skill set. Despite being very familar with most concepts presented in the class, I felt challenged by the class and came away from the class feeling as if my time had been well spent (and as if my money had been wisely spent).

In the other two classes, the professors were much less active in the learning process. One professor stated in an email that the discussions would be entirely left up to the students in the class. The professor felt as if their participation might inhibit the discussions. While the professor kept in touch through general emails, I wished there had been greater interaction. While I understand the belief that a faculty member might inhibit or dominate a discussion, we as students are in the class to learn from the professor. I honestly think that the professor should have valuable insights - and I for one think it is important that they share this information. What is interesting to me, is that the course material for this class was incredible. I really learned a great deal of important information in this class. However, I do think that if the professor had been more involved, I would have been more invested in the actual class. When a professor is more distant, it is easier to slack off and allow oneself to become disassociated.

In my least favorite course, there was almost no participation - and very little feedback from the professor. The course material was excellent. The text book was fabulous and the assignments were structured to teach students how to use important resources. However, there were virtually no discussion questions which meant there was very little interaction amongst the students. Additionally, there was virtually no feedback on assignments other than a posted grade. The professor simply assigned a grade. This is in stark contrast to the professor who taught my favorite class. This professor would put the text of our assignments in an email with comments throughout them. I found this to be extremely helpful. Unfortunately, in this last class, I often felt as if I was working on my own.

I think that in an online environment, professor participation and frequent and detailed feedback are essential. Online classes are different and they cannot be effectively taught in the same manner as a traditional one. Without face to face interaction, professors need to find different ways to engage the students. I only felt truly engaged in one of the three classes that I have taken. This is how I learn best and how I want to learn. I do not want to sleep walk through my MLS program. I am here to learn. I want to spend my time doing valuable work which contributes to my overall education. The issue of feedback is also critical. Feedback is the only way to gauage how one is doing in the class. In one class, the assignments were not graded in a timely manner. Our first assignment grades were delivered on the same day that the second assignment was due. This made me very nervous about how I was doing. I deliberately did not want to turn in the second assignment until I had the first's grade. As it turned out, there was no feedback - simply a grade. This did not make me want to work harder on my subsequent assignments.

Overall, I am thoroughly enjoying the experience of my online education (I am enjoying some classes more than other). I am looking forward to my next class - with yet another professor. It will be, I'm sure, a very different experience.

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