A Learners Thoughts and Actions
By Vicky Greene, M.A.
Online classes provide a means for many people to continue their studies when it may be otherwise impossible. People with families, unpredictable or varied work schedules, or simply those living a great distance from educational institutions providing courses of interest or courses necessary to complete a degree program are all given the opportunity to continue their education.
Online classes by their very nature provide the opportunity for people from diverse geographic, ethnic, and even socio-economic backgrounds to come together and share ideas. Students and professors alike gain a variety of perspectives by communicating and sharing within such diverse groups. As I worked through my online courses it was clear that the professors and students all shared a common thread, teaching and learning. This commonality of interest is the glue of online courses. There is no real "bonding" in class as students chat with each other and become acquainted. The attempt of online courses to do this by posting "get to know me" paragraphs is a poor substitute for personal contact. This isolation and difficulty in forming personal bonds is a check in the negative column for online courses. The discussion boards and required postings necessarily means that participants must wait for responses from colleagues and professors. The energy and ideas generated from the traditional classroom conversation is not matched by discussion board communication. However, the discussion board format often results in well thought out and developed responses to postings because respondents have the opportunity to more carefully consider their answers and ideas. For students who are uncomfortable in a classroom discussion situation, this format provides a means to be more a part of the discussion.
I found my online degree to give me the opportunity to complete my degree program quickly. I didn't have the option of which courses to choose, I was locked into a sequence, but I was able to complete the program in 22 months. However, the continual nature of the courses was exhausting. The courses themselves included online video taped lectures from leaders in the education field. This is a positive element of some online courses. I wasn't receiving interpretations of information from experts and researchers, I was listening to them explain their theories, ideas, and suggestions.
I did find it constantly challenging to find the motivation to continue. Part of the difficulty was simply the challenge of working full time and completing a fast paced, demanding degree program. This would not be different for online or traditional coursework. However, traditionally some motivation is provided by relationships formed with professors and classmates as well as the specific set schedule of the class times. This motivation is lacking in the online courses. The primary motivation for me was just in knowing that I had to do it to reach my goal of permanent licensure, as well as an interest in learning more about teaching itself.
The unpredictability of technology was a source of frustration found in completing online courses. Slow responses in bringing up needed pages, losing connections and losing nearly completed work because of the disconnections was exasperating.
What personal characteristics helped me succeed with online learning?
With the absence of knowing I would be in class and seeing the professor and my classmates regularly, personal motivation from whatever the source was essential for online learning. With the pace of the courses, falling behind was not an option. Knowing I had to keep up, reaching for my goal of permanent certification, and truthfully, the financial commitment made were all components that were motivating for me.
Personal drive to better myself and provide more for my students also entered into my ability to successfully complete the online courses. However, that would have entered into the completion of any masters program I had chosen. Drive became perseverance as the pressures grew and I worked through the program alone in the computer room, often late at night or early in the morning on very little sleep.
Successful completion of online courses requires a strong work ethic. Participants must work diligently to grasp concepts without the support of the classroom setting. Yes, it was possible to email the professor or post a question for colleagues, but the time delay was often prohibitive. The feedback for products of hard work was a few comments and a grade on a paper. Again, the lack of personal contact was apparent. This personal contact and the motivation provided was something I was accustomed to because I completed my associates and bachelors degrees in settings where small classes and personal attention were prevalent.
One of the most important personal characteristics essential for online success is strong skill in written expression. To communicate solely through the written word without benefit of cues and information prevalent in conversation, including facial/bodily expression, leaves a great importance on writing. After 22 months of coursework, my online cohorts and professors only knew me through my writing. I admit that a couple of my online classmates didn't express themselves very well in writing, often leaving spelling/grammatical errors and unfinished thoughts. It would cross my mind, "and this person is a teacher?" when I was reading responses. My view of the person was based solely on that writing.
Equally important to online success is timely completion of the reading assignments. The discussion board postings may help some in clarifying concepts, but the interactive qualities of a classroom are absent. Also absent are the interpretations of the professor, received through lecture and class discussion. This must be anticipated.
It was very important that I had a true interest in bettering my teaching practice, in finding relevance in the content. I have heard students at traditional schools say, "the only reason I come to class is because I want to see my friends, or I need the professor to explain this to me, or I like the discussions". None of these apply to online courses. Interest in the subject matter is necessary to complete the course successfully.
What are my recommendations to others considering or presently taking online courses?
Ask questions about the course. Carefully consider your willingness to work with other students (if required) in an online environment. It can be difficult enough to get a group to pull together in a traditional setting. It can be very frustrating when an online group member isn't pulling his/her own weight. Be sure to understand the professor's policies regarding these types of requirements. Look at course requirements and consider if you will be able to complete them largely on your own. Remember that just because you don't have to go to class and you save that time each week, the time must be spent in completing the coursework. Online courses are not easy courses.
Stay on top of the course requirements. Don't waste time! Plan time to do the work and know the deadlines. These courses don't slow down to re-teach difficult concepts. Although the level of interaction between student and professor is not the same for online courses, be sure to contact the professor with questions and difficulties as needed. You have to do the contacting. No one is going to come to you and say, "you looked confused by what I said" or "you seemed distracted today."
Even though online classmates generally live great distances apart and are probably not forming personal bonds that may be formed in a classroom setting, it is still important to treat each other's thoughts and ideas with respect. It is OK and actually encouraged to challenge each other's ideas, but it must be done in the proper manner. The words you choose to write represent you and are the only way the other person has of knowing what you mean. An inappropriate comment may not be taken as "just kidding", especially because there is no benefit of facial expression or body language to clarify your intent. Complimenting online classmates takes the strictly business atmosphere to a more personal level.
Would You recommend an online program to others?
Online courses and programs are not for everyone! Strong interpersonal learners will have more difficulty with this format. Not meaning to stereotype, but some younger students and those students who know themselves not to be highly motivated with the ability to persevere, may want to avoid the online format for now. Online courses are different and students must be flexible enough to accept and overcome those differences. If a person only sees him/herself as a student who listens, takes notes, and completes a test, this will be an especially challenging experience. You must be a proactive learner.
For those people who become impatient with classroom distractions and sidebars, online learning offers a very focused, to the point learning experience. "Here is the material, here is the assignment, do it." Online video lectures allow replaying of material of your own choosing. Of course, you miss those spontaneous thoughts that may spark questions or understandings that occur in a traditional classroom setting.
Before signing up for an entire program online it is a good idea to try out one course. Research the general format and requirements of a program you might be interested in, then look for a course that mirrors that. Online classes may be the wave of the future, but they will never take the place (or shouldn't anyway) of the classroom experience. Students who choose them need to take on the added responsibility of self-motivation beyond what is normally required of students. Research and think carefully before you leap!
In the midst of all of the mandates and responsibilities of today's high schools, it would be advantageous to help students develop skills for taking online courses while still in high school. Some high schools offer online electives, but often only a few students take advantage of them. If every senior took a course that followed an online format, but provided the support of the classroom teacher for organization, time management, and motivation, then students would graduate with additional skills necessary to assist them if they chose online offerings. This idea should also be of interest to employers, because in the workplace there is an increasing need for employees who are able to independently learn and perform in their jobs. The skills necessary for online success are valuable as students head to work. Employers in the future may look for online experiences as a prerequisite to hiring.
As revealed in the above accounting of a comprehensive online experience, it is a very good idea to seriously consider whether-or-not you are up for this new learning environment before signing on. There are many benefits and advantages for online learners who are willing to embrace the uniqueness of this contemporary educational atmosphere. If it is right for you and your circumstances- You can do it!