Take Two #71: Do Online Classes Work?

By Kyra-lin Hom

Already inspired to write on the questionable effectiveness of online classes by a recent Seattle Times article, I suddenly found myself with a much more personal connection to the issue this week. By now I should be done with my first ever online class. I should be riding that week of post-finals high before the drudgery that is every new quarter's 'Week 1.' But I'm not. Instead, I made a mistake I have never, ever done before. I missed a Final Exam. I mean completely missed it. I mistook the date by an entire seven days. So rather than being pleasantly relaxed, I am now cresting on a wave of self-directed anger and panic, anxiously awaiting the gavel that will either be my professor's mercy or not.

Here's how it happened. My class covers two units a week. Each unit has a reading, a powerpoint presentation, at least one video and at least one assignment. All that is required of us is to submit our assignments on time. That means accessing the class website twice a week to turn in our assignments and that's it. We have no set online class time. There are no active discussion forums. And our teacher has no office hours to speak of. If we have questions, we post them on the website or email our teacher and wait the average two days for a reply (not super effective when each unit takes approximately 3-4 days total).

I misread the layout of our assignment list and somehow got it in my head that our final exam fell after our last assignment was due. That was not correct. Because I only have to access the website twice a week, I didn't notice my error until I was verifying that we didn't have one last assignment due before what I believed to be our exam date. This was three days after the last time slot allotted for taking the final and nearly a full week after the first time slot. Completely my fault, I know. This is one of those mini life failures you don't ever want to admit you were stupid enough to do. So of course here I am sharing it with... well, everyone. That's what I get for being a writer. My whole life ends up on paper eventually.

Anyway, I've now thrown pride to the wind and am grovelling before my professor as best I can via email. I hope she's still checking it now that the class is technically over because I have no other way of contacting her. Like I've said, I know this is my fault. But this would never have happened in a face-to-face classroom with peers and a professor more real than a name in Helvetica size 11 font. I'm desperately hoping that my, up until now, glowing track record holds some weight, but I'm no more real to my professor than she is to me. We have made no tangible connection. I have no idea if she even knows that “Kyra-lin Hom” is a good student without checking her online grade book first. And for the record, this was not a freebie course. Insert expletive here.

At the heart of this matter is the same problem that study after study is finding with online classes: the students taking them are 100% on their own. There is no external encouragement, motivation or pressure to do well in a class, learn the material (very much not the same thing), keep track of class events (oops), or even finish the class at all. There is no support network. How often in school did you forget a test or an assignment only to have a friend remind you just in time? That's not going to happen here. It can't.

Don't get me wrong, online classes are hugely convenient for people with irregular or busy schedules like myself. Also, every online school and professor has its/her/his own style of teaching same as traditional learning. Some classes might as well be self-study with a colorless AI moderator. Others are engaging and life altering. My mom's online classes are very different from mine and my friend's very different from hers.

That said, the numbers are in. Online classes on average result in less effective teaching, higher rates of plagiarism and extremely low completion rates. The hope that cheaper and free online classes will narrow the education gap is turning out to be, so far, little more than myth.

Look at it this way, most people who have difficulty with school have problems with motivation and organization. Now what ever made professors believe that a new education system reliant entirely upon self-motivation and self-organization would catch them up? I'm not saying that online classes can't work. I'm saying that they're a great idea but we need to rethink how to teach them. Teachers have to be dedicated. Too often they can coast through these classes with a few clicks and the occasional checking of their email. That just doesn't make for good education.

So let's not get over-excited about this system just because it's shiny and new. If online education is supposed to be the fresh, progressive and egalitarian classroom let's make sure that's what it actually is before we over sell. Convenient? Yes. Effective? Questionable. Even more so than traditional education, you get out of this exactly what you put in. No more, no less.

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