This past winter break I took my first online class. Taking the Internet-based class brought up questions about the values of personal discussions, evaluation methods and the future of Internet-based education. I’ve come away skeptical about the merits of online education.
Before taking an online class, I doubted that posts on virtual discussion boards could rival the value of personal, real-life interactions in learning. Having now taken a class, my doubts are confirmed. Throughout the class, I wanted to engage in lively discussions and analyses of the readings with the professor and other students. The cold virtual discussion board of posts and replies, hosted on the Blackboard site, didn’t quite cut it.
If you are the type of student who spends your time in class checking email, perusing Facebook or Reddit or aimlessly exploring the depths of the World Wide Web, then online classes are perfect for you. They would save you the distress of having to get dressed, schlep to class and feign interest in what either the professor or your peers have to say. Or if you are more of a solitary learner and would rather tackle the material on your own, then online classes might be a good fit too.
If, on the other hand, you’re the type of student who finds discussions about readings helpful or elucidating, then you’ll likely find online classes frustrating. You recognize that professors don’t arbitrarily include attendance as part of your grade, but that actually sitting in a classroom with other humans is beneficial. Nothing can compensate, for instance, for the opportunity to ask a professor to clarify an assignment or reading in the moment.
Lastly, if you’re like me, there are few things you’d rather invest your time in than engaging in lively discussions with knowledgeable professors and other dedicated students about issues you actually care about. For the student who aspires to participate in a community of learners and not a mediated discussion board of comments and replies, online classes promise to stifle.
There are still some advantages to online classes. For one thing, the merit of online education depends greatly on the nature of the class material. Certain subjects, such as science or math, call for more individual work in the first place. The diminished participatory discussion will hence be less pronounced. For classes like these, students may find the opportunity to internalize the material at their own pace comforting.
Other classes are less conducive to the online experience. English or philosophy classes, for instance, are thoroughly dependent on shared discussions and analyses. The class I took was an English class, which would have been much more fulfilling if I’d had the chance to engage the text alongside other readers.
Considering the role and future of online classes in a broader scale is also important. Online education, unsurprisingly, is a trend which is rapidly growing. This fast-growing industry is shaped differently than typical “distance learning” Binghamton classes. Online Binghamton classes usually consist of no more than 30 students. Even typically large lecture hall classes like Micro and Macroeconomics, in their online versions, have only 60 “seats.”
In contrast, tens of thousands of students enroll in massive open online courses — known as MOOCs — through websites like Coursera and Udacity. These servers offer courses in a diverse array of subjects from top-tier professors. You could enroll, for free, in programming languages with a professor from Washington University or precalculus taught by a professor from UC Irvine.
This trend holds remarkable promise. Think of the democratization of knowledge. Anyone with access to the Internet can study almost anything they want. You don’t need to be a hyper-intellectual to appreciate the significance of this new age of education.
Researchers are still trying to figure out how to measure the success of these online education ventures. About 10 percent of the people who enroll in these courses complete them. That’s pretty bleak.
The figures seem to show that people sign up for these classes more as a hobby than a serious attempt to master a subject. This approach lends itself to a lighthearted approach to the course. My concern is that the same lightheartedness manifests itself when students sign up for online Binghamton classes, too. The nature of taking a class on the Internet lends itself to an informal posture.
There are, students will claim, other reasons to take an online class. Online classes, particularly those offered during the winter and summer terms, are quick and easy ways of getting requirements out of the way. I don’t think that speaks to the educational merit of online classes. Perhaps it will one day, but for now, the medium has yet to catch up with the content.