There are some truly impressive advantages to pursuing a degree online. Freedom to choose when to do assignments and participate on discussion boards, easier organization of work and progress, no traffic, to name a few. But there are costs and problems as well, and in the interests of full disclosure I am writing about one of those.
The University of Houston at Victoria has a very nice system set up for online classes, which they call “WebCT”. It runs a lot like Microsoft Outlook, which happens to be the format for students’ e-mails as well. This past weekend, however, something went wrong and the system ran very very slowly. At times it was impossible to access WebCT at all. Tuesday morning, for example, the techs thought they had it fixed, but that was incorrect; most people to tried to access their online classes could not get in, and the ones who could found that the system did not allow access to their classes. For hours the techs sweated and struggled, and finally got the system up and running a little after 1:00 PM. It worked well enough for me to take my first on-line quiz (Chapter 1 in Accounting, I got 8 out of 10 right, need to study harder) and participate in some Discussion Boards.
I should mention again that online education is much, much different from in-class learning in how the student does his work. Where in the classroom, the student physically shows up and gains credit for attendance whether or not he actively participates or just sits like a lump, in the online condition the student is required to participate in online discussions (the Discussion Boards) as proof of a virtual “attendance”, which means that the online student cannot afford to slack off. Also, where the classroom instructor relies on subjective impressions to determine whether a given student has advanced the discussion and materially contributed, in the online situation the student’s comments and questions are posted on the board for everyone to read and address. The student’s volume and quality of work will be simple for the professor to verify, whether participation was regular, whether the comments were substantive, whether sources were cited, and so on.
Also, it seems that the volume of reading is much heavier for the online student. In the classroom setting, of course, there is the text and the assigned readings, as well as sources for research projects, but in the online class since there is no lecture – at least, not so far in the three classes I am taking this semester – the student is tested and challenged by the assigned reading and text. He must use his own judgment to consider the essentials of each chapter, and he must decide on his own how much time to devote to memorization and how much to analysis. Of course, as a rule whenever a professor repeats an instruction, like saying ‘read the whole textbook all the way through by the end of the second week’, he’s giving a strong hint about what he will expect in his quizzes and tests.
I discovered another unique feature to the online class today; one of my professors asked a student to leave the class because of unacceptable conduct on the Discussion Boards. In these days of blogs and chat rooms, it seems that some folks have forgotten basic rules of civil discourse. It’s a little bit tricky, when people discuss issues which they feel strongly about, to remember that how they say something can be just as important as what they say. The professor, understandably, was a bit displeased that a notice about courtesy and professional conduct now has to be added to the board.