Some Thoughts on Online Learning

Cleaning out some files, I found one that contained a post for a blog for which I used to write. This was in my “to post” folder when I stopped blogging for the organization that sponsored the blog.

I earned my Master of Arts in Education in 2000 at the local state college, and I have not entered a classroom as a student since. Since then, however, I have completed 66 graduate credits, including a PhD all completed in online settings. These settings have included well-established traditional brick-and-mortar universities that were moving programs to online settings, brick-and-mortar institutions with well-established online programs, and online for profit institutions.

In addition, I have taught in online settings. Here also, in diverse settings. I have taught hybrid courses for the state university where I live, I have taught for an online university, and I have included online components for my students from middle school through graduate school. Further, I have managed secondary students’ participation in several online programs, and I have supported online teaching learning in community colleges. 

Although this experience cannot be considered comprehensive, it is a sample of drawn over almost two decades of interacting with other distance learners, teachers of distance learners, managers of distance learning systems, and content in distance learning settings. I have come to several conclusions about online learning that do shed some insight onto that field that appears to be gaining momentum for secondary learners, undergraduate and graduate students, and adult learners in professional situations.

Online learners are no different from face-to-face learners. While individuals in each group do select their preferred classroom for distinct and recognized reasons (e.g. online learners’ preference for flexible attendance schedules), the best students in both settings are those who engage with the content, classmates, and the teacher. Learners who react to new and challenging ideas with reasons (excuses) why the ideas have no connection to their work or their life exist in both environments (this is especially common in a recognizable group of educators). While such students may earn credits for attending the course, there is little chance they will change anything they do as a result of the course. In my experience the proportion of students who are actively engaged and those who are actively opposed to new ideas are about the same in each group.

Online learners do miss important experiences. Much of the interaction that happens in education is the chatting before class, while walking to and from classrooms, after class, and (yes it happens) during class. For educators, those chats become important in developing a network of colleagues whose opinion you value as well as a network of professional to avoid. Those chats allow educators a chance to practice their thinking and have difficulties pointed out in a safe environment, and a chance to get reassurance that their thinking is on track. Such experiences are difficult to replicate in online settings, and that is an opportunity missed by online learners.

Educators who do enroll in online learning programs can access similar activities by participating in local and regional organizations while enrolled in distance learning programs.

Online learners do interact with diverse colleagues. Many distance learning programs enroll students from around the country and the world. For me, a white male living in rural Vermont about ten miles from the house in which I lived when I lived in high school, this exposure to professionals who work across North America and in urban, suburban, and rural settings. Also, I worked with professionals from higher education, trade schools, private and public schools. Access to educators with such diverse experiences is not typically available to those who enroll in in-person graduate programs. 

Online education can be “canned.” Many online programs, especially the for-profit universities that have become more common in the last ten years, employ curriculum designers who create the content that instructors “teach.” In many cases, this is done ostensibly to ensure the consistency of the program. Students who enroll in the same program during different times and with different instructors of record are exposed to the same content and their instructors use the same rubrics to assess work.

While pre-prepared curriculum does free instructors to devote more time to assessing students’ work and it does allow for quality control by the managers of the school, it does limit teachers’ freedom to expand the curriculum, include emerging ideas, or respond to events that may influence how the content is perceived by the students.

Many online programs are mixing business and education, and the results are ambiguous. Many educators are familiar with the advertisements featuring online graduate degrees for educators. The model is familiar to many who enroll in the courses. The academic calendar is accelerated so that courses are completed in a fraction of the time of a traditional 15-week semester calendar. In my experience, this does allow a student in an online program to be exposed to an amount of content similar to that encountered by students in traditional programs. What is mossing however, is the opportunity to reflect on and explore the applications of the content to one’s current situation.Tuition is paid by credit card and students are enrolled in courses automatically. Ostensibly this is done to ensure students continue making progress towards their goal of earning a graduate degree; the cynic might suggest this is done to keep students enrolled despite the many difficulties students can face in continuing their enrollment. 

Recently, I was hired by an online for profit university for educators. During the interview process, an amount of money for teaching a course was discussed, and it was not out of line with amounts I had been paid to teach graduate courses for educators, although it was below the median I have been paid as and adjunct over the last 15 years. When the details of the contract were actually reviewed, however, it became clear that the pay for instructors at this university had not been fairly represented. The amount was if the course enrolled 55 students or more, which is about three times the number I had encountered as a teacher of and student in similar courses (both in-person and online). If the course enrolled a more typical number of students for a graduate course in education, I would be paid at less than half the amount that was indicated in the interview. Further, the contract specified I would be paid as an independent contractor, and so would have been responsible for taxes and record keeping typically paid and done by the university.

Recently also, I was also on the web site of a different for-profit university and found myself curious about the board of trustees. I was struck by the number of individuals sitting on the board who were officers of financial holding companies (presumably those companies that owned significant portions of the university) and how few educators were on the board. 

My conclusions are few and simple:

First, if you find a distance learning program that appears to meet you needs and the university is accredited, by all means enroll. Beware, however, and be sure you understand how the university operates and how bills are paid, how enrollment is managed and how to apply for leaves if necessary.

Second, if you enroll in a distance learning graduate program, find additional professional activities to complete your resume and that allow you to apply what you are learning to authentic situations.

Third, be a good student. Follow the recommendations of the university, the recommendations of the instructor and what you want a good student to be. You are ultimately responsible for your own learning and only by engaging with ideas and others will you learn.

Fourth, be aware your tuition money may not be going to support the people who are the experts whose insight you hope to gain through graduate studies. The qualifications of the teachers may be used by the university to gain credibility and to justify collecting tuition that is transferred to shareholders and not those who teach and interact with students.