Some Thoughts On Online Education At The Halfway Point

Now that I am half way done with my MLS program at SCSU, I am starting to think about and assess my online-education experiences, I have taken 6 online classes over the past 16 months. To be honest, I have conflicting emotions about the efficacy of online education. Overall, it is incredibly convenient. I have said before that I have no wish to enter into a traditional graduate program. Online classes afford one an extreme amount of freedom in terms of doing work, participating in class, taking finals, etc. Since I work full time and have personal commitments, this is essential – and will make it worth it to put up the problems that exist in the realm of distance education.

In reading general discussions and articles about online education, one of the primary concerns that people express is that students may be able to get away with doing less work. There seem to be concerns about how to assess student work and participation accurately. These concerns make sense. It stands to reason that professors must find new methods of evaluating student performance. After all, class attendance and participation are not nearly as clear cut as in a traditional classroom setting. However, what really bothers me is that I haven’t read anything about concerns about faculty performance in the online setting. The professor can make or break a class. And an online class has no chance to succeed if a faculty member conducts a class as if it were no different from a traditional one and without significant preparation time. Sadly, I feel as if several of my MLS classes have suffered from this problem.

Another big problem with choosing a distance program is the lack of community. Sure there are online discussions for some classes. However, there is no real sense of bonding with fellow students – or no real ability to develop a deep student/advisor relationship. There is no meeting with other students to work on projects, no chance meetings where spontaneous discussions about classroom lectures occur, no face-to-face sessions with one’s advisor, etc. There are very few opportunities to bounce ideas off of people and learn from fellow students. Ironically, I have found that this blog has helped to fill the gap and helped to make me feel a part of a community – maybe not a school community, but a library community. With this sentiment in mind, combined with all of the library 2.0 and social software discussions, I’m convinced that distance students need vibrant and comprehensive online communities that allow for widespread participation.

The bottom line is that based upon my limited experience with distance education, it is still a work in progress – and one that needs a great deal of work. I admit that in my current program, I feel very disconnected from the school, the ILS department and my fellow students – and I’ve discovered that this is really the biggest problem. I am not sure what to do with this, how to approach it or even how to make my voice heard. Who do you talk to? How do you find out the information that you need to know? How do you develop relationships? My recent experiences with one professor in particular have really highlighted how bad the online experience can really be. and how much work really needs to be done. The problem is that when one is so disconnected from the school and its policies and procedures, it is almost impossible to believe that one can effect positive change. Since I’m half way through the program (and will be 3/4 done at the end of this semester), I don’t necessarily have lots of time to try and figure this out.

A caveat:In my opinion, there are some serious problems with the online MLS program at SCSU. I do believe the problems are somewhat inherent to distance education in general. I’m still happy that I choose to attend SCSU – and have had some wonderful experiences that make the awful ones easier to cope with.

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15 Responses to Some Thoughts On Online Education At The Halfway Point

  1. Corey says:

    Interesting thoughts on Online Education. I’d also considered some of these things in my decision to study my Master of Information Course by distance. Others I’d not thought of until you mentioned them. It occurs to me that some of the same issues apply to those that are studying by distance and not online. For example those people who study via correspondence.

    My wife has just started a writing course. No online component, no forum, no message board. She has a folder of study materials, a large selection of books, and when her first piece of assessment is in they will assign her a mentor. At least we have access to forums and other “electronic communities”.

    I will admit that a large contributing factor in my decision to study was that it was by distance and online. I’d had a really bad experience completing my honours degree some years ago and it’s taken a long time to feel I could trust an educational institution again. Which is ironic as I’ve worked for one them for four years now.

    I absolutely, positively, without a doubt, agree that the professor / lecturer makes or breaks the course. This is true no matter how the course is taught.

    I hope this semester gives you more positive experiences than bad, and I look forward to hearing about it via your blog. I know I’ll be posting about my experiences on mine. Your blog gave me the inspiration to do that for which I thank you.

  2. Does sound like you’ve got a bit of a dog of a school, at least for online ed :-( I did some work for the University of Md University College (UMUC) a few years back. Prior to being allowed to teach an online course, professors had to *take* an online course. A real one, led by a wonderful instructor, who put us through all sorts of online learning exercises. It was a wonderful way to learn our way around their proprietary CMS, and of course to experience life as a distance student. Ever since I’ve been convinced this approach is the way to go.

    On the community front, the schools I’ve been involved with for distance ed (Nova Southeastern, U of Calgary) have mostly had at least some f2f component to their distance programs. I know Syracuse does this for their MLS as well; students are required to meet on campus at least once (couple of weeks at the beginning of the program, or a couple of times per year, or a couple of times throughout the program). Yeah, it’s a hassle and a cost to have to leave home for a week or two, but it does really seem to foster that sense of community you’re lacking. Students form bonds and continue them online.

    Obviously not a lot you can do now, but I’d sure encourage you to let your program know – at least during an exit interview. If they don’t offer something like that, write ‘em a letter – they need to know!

  3. I too am enrolled in a distance education LIS school (through Missouri-Columbia); though in mine, we meet once a month for class work and do the rest of the work online. I agree that what I miss most is the lack of community. Schools could easily fix this, by actively creating, promoting, and maintaining online spaces for students to “hang out.” The course I have taken so far has a forum, but it was structured, not conversational. There is no program wide online place for students to “hang out” and share ideas.

    The worst part of it is, I have no clear idea on how to get involved and change the way things work. Perhaps that will come when I am further along. When you’re on a campus, you see signs for meeting of all kinds of different groups, you have lots of way to get involved. Online, I feel like I have to search for activities or forums I can participate in, and then most of them are “members only.” For instance, there is a student association blog, but there is no information on how to contribute, or any contact information at all. Plus I only found the blog in a roundabout way.

    I hope that I can work to change this while I am in the program. It’s good to hear that other distance learners feel the same frustrations I do.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Wow, these are some great comments.

    Corey, thanks so much for your kind words about my blog. It is always nice to know that others have found inspiration in something I’ve put a great deal of time and effort into. By the way, I am really looking forward to reading about your experiences in grad school. It sounds like a fascinating programs. You are right that the online educational experience is probably very different for distance students vs non-distance students. My observations are entirely based on my experiences as someone who is studying entirely by distance.

    Paul, thanks for sharing some of your experiences in the realm of online courses. I’m glad to hear about the requirements for professors teaching online classes. I have absolutely no idea whether the professors at SCSU have had that sort of training or not. As I have mentioned, one of my professors is absolutely excellent in the online environment – and I consider myself extremely lucky that he is my advisor. However, others just don’t get how to teach to distant students.

    I am trying to work out how best to inform people at the school about the issues I have noticed. However, I have the same problem that Karin talked about – absolutely no idea how to contribute, who to complain to, how to get my voice heard. Karin, I can completely empathize with your sentiments.

    There is definitely a massive disconnect for distance students who are not required to actually go to campus. We have not cohorts or specified groups of students. I do need to make it clear that I specifically chose a program without such attendance regulations. Many schools require attendance in August – and as a systems person I absolutely cannot be away from my library in August. That part I can only blame on myself. However, there has to be some way that distant students can connect online. One of the difficult parts is that I have no idea if the people at SCSU are even discussing this type of thing. I have made some very vague inquiries – and now need to make stronger ones.

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. […] who really just has to stop writing such insightful pieces or I will never get anything done, wrote a piece on her experiences as a distance learner a couple of weeks ago. And if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I had written […]

  6. Lori says:

    Great minds think alike! I have been doing the online thing for years and it is definitely the professor who makes or breaks a class. I have had classes that are basically coorespondence classes and I have had classes that provide great learning opportunities. As far as the community of an online class–that too depends on the professor and how he or she encourages students to interact. I’ve been in online classes where I felt more a part of the community than in any classroom class I’ve ever been in. I’m in a class now where the professor has never once replied to my emails. Ironically I took this class on campus a few years ago and dropped it because the professor yelled at me…turns out it is the same professor! I’ve also learned that the success of a library depends on the leadership from the branch manager. It seems to trickle down to everyone. The two schools that I attend now have “anonymous” surveys at the end that go to the distance ed department. But my biggest pet peeve is that most of these schools offer degrees in instructional design for online classes. So why do they not use their own resources! It will be interesting to see how things change in the next few years. I’ve already seen a hige improvement in the last two years from what my first online class was like nearly a (gasp) decade ago!

  7. Sara says:

    I am currently enrolled in the distance learning MSLIS program at Syracuse University. In regards to your disconnect, I would have to say I do not share the problem. The program required a ten-day residency during the summer where the entire staff and student body of incoming students were required to be there. Granted, you do not meet many of the further-progressed students unless they are local to the campus (and many were), but you do get to speak at length with many cohorts of the semesters to come. I think the model was superb and I feel very much a part of the school because of it.

    I completely agree with you in terms of the professors making or breaking the system though. I have had some professors who are extremely involved with the discussions and projects, and others who did not do anything but answer questions directed to them via email. Another still seemed to be learning what to teach and the course felt as though she had thrown in everything she wanted to try with no rhyme or reason.

    Overall though, I simply could not attend traditional classes do to a similar schedule. I had other options as the field is growing immensely, but I am very satisfied with Syracuse and how they have modeled their distance program.

  8. […] the quality or lack there of when it comes to online education.  A few thoughts from Jennifer at Life As I Know It opened this can of worms.  Meredith continued on a theme at Information Wants to be Free.  I did […]

  9. Jennifer says:

    Sara, thanks for sharing your experiences. I am really interested in the ways that other schools deal with distance education. I think the programs that require some type of residency have an entirely different community spirit for their students. I knew that when I chose a school without one, there would be some serious issues with bonding with fellow students and the like. However, I don’t really have the luxury of being able to travel for the required residency time frame. I can’t help but feel that there must be some way to help the distance students at SCSU overcome this disconnect on some level.

  10. Finally catching up on blog reading! This is a great post. I completely agree that faculty make or break the course, but that tends to be true offline as well.

    I’m not sure if all of these problems are inherent in distance education–part of the “problem” is the conflicting ideas on what makes up “education”. I was recently chatting with someone who is taking a lecture (f2f) course with a expert in the field. She just wants to sit and listen to him, not hear what her fellow classmates have to say about it. That’s a perfectly valid educational experience. So is having deep discussions with everyone bringing their perspective into the conversation. Some of these methods work well online, some don’t. I’ve been in lectures that I would have loved to have online, being able to replay portions, stop and think about something, and NOT have it interrupted by other people’s questions. I’ve also had online experiences when I really, really wanted to see these people face to face, because I wasn’t successfully connecting online, and I wasn’t sure if I was understanding what anyone was talking about.

    One thing that is definitely true about online classes is that you are really taking your own education into your own hands. You must schedule the time to spend “in class”, since there are few or no convenient (or inconvenient) required times. You end up being the one working out your communication problems, technical or otherwise. It’s a huge responsibility and one that I know I wasn’t completely prepared for when I started online classes. (And University of Phoenix is regimented compared to most traditional university online courses. The necessary requirements are pretty well spelled out: time, technology, and effort. Always multiple the time factor by at least 2, however!)

    One possibility for helping online students is an online forum. SCSU does have the facilities to have MySCSU online groups, or there are myriad non-university systems available. Phoenix had online groups, but the Adult Ed and Distance Learning students & alumni also have a separate Yahoo group. I had a colleague at Pittsburgh who described their cohort system with social online groups for each cohort, plus a central program one so less experienced students could ask questions of the more experienced members. Let me know if you’d like to experiment!

  11. […] Distance Education Librarian, at the Buley Library at Southern Connecticut State University left a comment on my Some Thoughts on Online Education at the Halfway Point post. In the comment, Rebecca was […]

  12. […] news reader about the quality of online classes from colleges and universities. Posts like this and this seem to echo my […]

  13. […] news reader about the quality of online classes from colleges and universities. Posts like this and this seem to echo my […]

  14. […] Jennifer Macaulay posted: The bottom line is that based upon my limited experience with distance education, it is still a work in progress – and one that needs a great deal of work. I admit that in my current program, I feel very disconnected from the school, the ILS department and my fellow students – and I’ve discovered that this is really the biggest problem. […]

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