The Worst Part of Distance Education

July 13, 2007

Ever since Five Weeks to a Social Library took place, I have been seriously thinking about what it could mean for distance education. Obviously, I’m extremely interested in the current state of online education – and why it just doesn’t seem to be ready for prime time yet. I will admit that my experiences in a distance program over this past spring semester really highlighted the problems and issues that can make online classes so frustrating. Adding to this were some thought provoking blog posts from a couple of people involved in creating the Five Weeks experience – Meredith Farkas’ Two Models for the Future of Online Continuing Education at Techessence.Info and Michelle Boule’s Unsucking Online Education, Part One and Part Two on ALA’s Techsource blog. Primarily, both authors are interested in the ramifications of the Five-Weeks online education for continuing education – rather than for structured degree programs.

While I am excited about the prospects of such programs for continuing education, I honestly think that the Five-Weeks program could become a great model for distance, degree programs also. Let me tell you something, vendor-supplied course management systems are just as cumbersome and sucky as OPACs. No wait, let me amend that statement – they are much suckier than OPACs. They can be clunky, bloated, irritating to use, resource intensive, picky about platforms and browsers, unattractive and overwhelmingly unappealing. And, they are often THE primary interface that distance students to interface with their institution.

At SCSU, they use WebCT (the Vista release). I hate it. It is very spartan. It has no social functionality to promote student interaction (beyond the standard discussions and tough-to-use chat feature – which, trust me, do nothing to promote student socialization). It seems to use frames – this causes me frustrations when trying to wade through class discussions. When you click on a discussion posting to read (which displays in a pop up window), and then close the discussion, the web page has to repaint itself – marking the discussion as read. It is annoying, especially since it can often take several seconds. Also, when the page redisplays itself, it always returns to the top of the page – even if you had been reading a posting that was below to fold, so to speak. As such, reading discussion postings often requires a great deal of scrolling. This is especially problematic if one does not keep on top of the discussion postings. When I went to Las Vegas in early June, I didn’t log into WebCT for a week. It took me several painful hours to actually wade through all of the discussion postings. I am frustrated by the online course system more often than not. ARGH!

In opposition to this closed, difficult-to-use system, the Five Weeks class seemed to be such an open, social learning experience that had great participation. I realize that many professors might not care for such a public classroom setting, but I would think many would see the advantages to such an interactive experience – publicly available or not.  Amanda Etches-Johnson’s LIS757: Social Software & Libraries course is another example of this. Personally, I think this would be a wonderful way to learn – using blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and other social software tools – a wonderful way to interact with fellow students and professors. I find it impossible to build any type of decent relationship with professors in the current system. It is a bit sad that I have not developed any type of significant relationships with any of my professors – other than with my advisor (and I seriously need to write a post that is an ode to him at some point).

To me, the Five Weeks course and course sites like the one run by Amanda Etches-Johnson highlight how stagnant current course management systems can be. Learning via WebCT is not the most enriching educational experience that I have ever had. It will be almost all that I remember from my graduate experience at SCSU – which actually may make the entire time spent studying seem quite unreal once I finish. I would not do another distance program where the only interface was WebCT – no way. It does not even come close to capturing the realities of the face-to-face experience.

Distance education could be so much more than it currently is – so much more than it currently is at SCSU. There are so many great tools to enhance social interaction and learning – and I think we need to have these things incorporated into course management systems. What are we waiting for?