Expert Advice: The Realities of Online School
To get real-world answers to some common questions about the truth of online learning, we reached out to Greg Beatty, PhD, who has taught both traditional and online courses for years. We found his responses to be reasonable, insightful, and helpful for anyone concerned about dubious marketing tactics.
Greg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa. He's been a professor of traditional classrooms, via correspondence, in hybrid classes combining online and classroom study, and in fully online classes. He's taught online for several schools from freshman courses through the doctoral level, and has written course materials for some of them.
Greg is also a freelance writer publishing both fiction and non-fiction; you can find more on his writing at Greg-Beatty.com
As an online professor, what challenges has the virtual format posed for you and for your students?
To be honest, the challenges have changed markedly over time. I started teaching online about 12 years ago, and so at the start, the challenges involved things like students calling and saying, "I just bought a computer. How do I turn it on?"
More recently, and more generally, the online format is challenging because of the shift in emphasis and approach, a shift that requires responsibility. On the most fundamental level, the virtual format demands that people process things differently. Rather than using their senses as they always have, and reading cues from both the instructor and fellow students, online students must access the class in a mediated fashion, often via text. Teachers can't watch for blank looks and furrowed brows; they must find signs of trouble other ways. Most online classes are also asynchronous, and so both students and teachers must re-orient in time. This requires patience, awareness, and organization.
Despite these challenges, the number of students enrolling in online courses has been growing each year. Why do you think that is?
I think the number of online students in online classes has been rising for both good and bad reasons. The good reasons are that online classes fill needs that traditional education wasn't meeting. Students who were geographically isolated, housebound, or working under serious time constraints can now take college classes. Students whose schools offered only limited classes can fill in gaps. That's great.
On the down side, many students are buying the hype, and the people marketing online classes are generating a lot of hype. Some of this hype is simple enthusiasm, but some of it is, frankly, dishonest and deceptive. Ads for online schools claim students can earn degrees a lot faster and more easily than is the reality, and students are sometimes shocked when they have to study as much as they do.
Some students express concern that employers might value traditional education over distance education. Is this a valid concern?
Yes, but that concern is becoming less valid. By that I mean, when online education first started becoming popular, few people knew anything about it. Employers were right to be dubious of this innovation; it was unknown, relatively experimental, and took place…where? Online, where chatrooms and pornography ruled? Who wouldn't be concerned?
However, as the online world became normalized, the reasons for those concerns are shrinking, even vanishing. Online education has considerably more quality control and quality than it had, and it is more familiar.
At the end of the day, how can a student decide if an online program makes sense for him or her?
The standard answer to this question is that students are a good fit for online programs if they are responsible and self-directed. They need to be able to monitor their own activities, keep themselves on schedule, determine when their papers are good enough, and so on. This standard view is accurate, but not complete.
To this standard answer I would add that students need to be willing to read and analyze. In person, a student might wait for a teacher to explain an issue further, hoping that the instructor might fill in the gaps. Students might not even read the textbook if the instructor's lectures are comprehensive enough. Online, that won't work. Students must read and reread the material, and shift from passive to active. They must analyze the text, to find its essence, and their own understanding, to locate gaps. If a student is responsible, self-directed, and willing to read and analyze the material, then online classes are right for him or her.
What are the attributes of a quality online school?
A quality online school mostly has the same characteristics of a quality traditional school, with some variations in emphasis. That is to say, both modalities require high quality instructors, clear policies to guide student behavior, and so on.
Most good online schools work to overcome student isolation through doing more than traditional schools in terms of faculty training and course standardization. Faculty are clearer about what is expected of them, and so students know more what to expect. A good online school also makes strong and specific plans for the technological side of online education. They regularly update their servers, they test and maintain their software, and they provide a trained support staff to help students in case of technical difficulties. The tricky thing is, most of this last category of difference is, ideally, invisible to students. If an online school is doing things right, the technical side of things should never draw the student's attention. It should just work, period.