Efficiency? Cons and Pros of Online Learning

This is a follow up from my previous post that provided an outline of my workflow as an online student.

I love my online classes, but I take issue with anyone who suggests that online classes are a more efficient format than face to face classes, as some who have made education their business model would have you believe. Such an opinion probably comes from the perspective of being able to re-use class lectures and other materials on a larger scale of geography and time, but those of us who have been blessed with a high quality education know that lectures and readings are only a small part of an ideal learning experience. Interaction with instructors and other students, and hands-on exercises, are where a higher level of cognition takes place, and this takes time and energy: in other words, labor.

If I’m taking so long to read through the asynchronous discussion posts of all my classmates and reply, imagine how many hours my instructor must put in, if she’s doing a good job. Instead of 1-3 hours of face to face contact time weekly, in an online class I would imagine that easily becomes 7-12 hours for an online instructor, to keep on top of an engaged discussion board and other student communication. I imagine class lectures are also a much lengthier process: in addition to the usual lecture preparation, an instructor doesn’t just show up and present, but must carefully record a video, often doing it several times over if a tech glitch comes up, or if something interrupts them in the middle of recording. The time to set up the Blackboard for a class, or a module in another learning management system, should also not be underestimated. A class site that is easy to navigate makes all the difference with regards to a student’s cognitive load, but it takes a lot of advance preparation on the part of the instructor to organize the presentation of material in a learning module. All of this is on top of the time that an instructor would usually put in, including usual class preparation and quality feedback on assignments.

However, all in all, I find that the inefficiencies of the format are definitely balanced by other advantages. Efficiency is not what education is all about – there are other factors that are far more important to fulfill the personal learning needs of any particular student. As a working mother, I personally would not be able to go back to school for a second masters if I could not do it online. In my online program I get to discuss issues with fellow students from all over the country and all over the world – and I don’t mean they’re just from another country, but as they write they are sitting in another country. I can respond to a classmate’s post at 2 in the morning, or over my lunch break at work, if that’s when it fits into my busy schedule. I can go to a conference, or take on an out-of-town freelance job, and participate in a class from my hotel. I have worked on very successful group projects with teams spread out across the country, using Skype, Google Hangouts, and Google Apps for video meetings and collaborative authoring. As a result, I have been able to adopt such tools for real-life work, building a dream team for a project that is not limited by geography.

Finally, my online discussion participation has helped me greatly to develop my ability to articulate my thoughts in writing – thoughts that are typed rather than spoken. By the time I complete my degree, I probably will have written a book’s worth of discussion posts. In face to face classes in my past it has often taken me several weeks to warm up to my classmates before I feel comfortable jumping into a discussion, but the asynchronous format allows students like me a greater comfort to carefully develop our thoughts at our own pace before sharing them. This has built my confidence in a way that has allowed me to jump in sooner in face to face situations since.

Keep in mind though, I am able to thrive in this online situation precisely because of the face-to-face liberal arts education I had as an undergraduate. That was the formative experience that forever made me think critically and articulate myself carefully, rising to the challenges of my instructors and classmates. Without that foundation, I could very well be floundering in my online discussion boards. I admire efforts to bring to an online format the kind of undergraduate education I was lucky to have, so that it can reach a wider audience, but in that situation quality comes from time and personal attention: again, labor. Technology can scale certain aspects of education, but an instructor or advisor’s personal attention cannot be scaled in the same way, which means, yes, someone needs to pay for their labor.

All of this summarizes my experience so far as an online student, and I hope it is enlightening to those who are looking at online education from the outside, or those who are taking their first online class. If you’re an online student with a different perspective, I hope this will inspire you to share your experience as well, either in the comments below or on your own blog (in which case I hope you’ll provide a link in the comments below). We need to share our perspectives and help shape how the future of online education will develop.

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