Why students should avoid on-line courses

For those of you who know me, and by “know” I mean if you have ever sat in a staff development meeting with me for more than two minutes, you are probably wondering what alien has abducted me and sucked out all my moxie. Don’t worry. That Linda is back.

I spent the last week with over 1300 other English teachers in an unnamed Kentucky city scoring an unnamed high-stakes test. (Both are unnamed in case I need to rant against them sometime later on.) I read well over 1000 first drafts of essays where students were asked to evaluate if college is worth the high cost. They were given six sources to support their claim.

By an overwhelming margin, these albeit biased students supported going to college, even if it left them in debt (or dept, as many wrote, but that’s another story). Their reasons included the need for time to transition from the protection of high school to the real world, the chance to learn about themselves, the knowledge that is only available at this level, the opportunity to take a wider variety of classes, the contacts they make, and the good times they will have in and out of the classroom. They were passionate in their responses, looking forward to the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Then I returned home. My son has gone back to college, dipping his feet in the community college pool. He was diligent in going to the pre-planning sessions and looking forward to his classes. My son is not comfortable or confident with computers. He told his “advisor” that (and I am not using those goofy air quotes here–this person was only there to look at the list of requirements and plug in courses. There was no advising going on). He specifically said he did not want to take an on-line course. Two days before the semester began, he was notified that one of the two courses he had been “advised” to take was not running for lack of enrollment. The “advisor” had by default placed him in an on-line history class.

Because he didn’t feel he had an alternative, he accepted the change. Colleges do not have to include families in course selection decisions, which I believe is wise in general, but this lack of involvement means that students do not have an advocate when some school official makes a decision not in students’ best interest. 

The syllabus for the online class is only posted as assignments are due, so there is no opportunity to plan ahead, an essential part of the skills one should take away from college. The professor posts assignments on Saturday morning that are due by midnight on Monday and on Tuesday morning that are due by midnight on Friday. The general assignments include reading both a chapter in the text and essays found on the internet, watching YouTube videos, and viewing Powerpoint presentations. To prove that he has done this work, he is expected to outline a 50-page chapter (using complete sentence outline format, making sure to include all headings, subheadings, and highlighted text). According to the biweekly assignment sheet, that should take “two to three pages.” These chapters are long enough that just typing in the headings makes for six to eight pages, and my son was marked down the first week because his eight-page outline did not include enough detail, so the professor’s written expectations and his real expectations are distinctly different. In addition, he has to answer three to four questions that apply what he has learned. He has to write a one to two page essay on yet another question related to the topic, and he has to participate in an online forum. Even if he were to read ahead, he doesn’t know what the questions will be until two days before the due date. The comments he has received to date have been cursory, and if I were a true cynic, I would argue that the professor has a stable of remarks that he cuts and pastes into the comments section of the grade book.

My son is in a panic, not knowing if or when there will be a final exam or a final paper. He has no one to turn to because it’s an online class, and he doesn’t have a network of classmates to help him. I can look at what is online, but I can’t see into the future, except to see that after the experience of this online course, he is turned off.

Of course he is turned off. It is a history class, one of his favorite subjects. He is studying about the history of our government, a topic he loves. He is posing thoughtful questions to me and to his father about the differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. He is talking to us about the ways minorities have not experienced equal protection under the law. But he does not have a community of scholars with whom to debate his ideas except in the very artificial and graded forum. He doesn’t know his professor and can’t anticipate if his discourse will be accepted or if it will result in a loss of points. He can’t see who wrote the comment that dismissed the Equal Rights Amendment or who didn’t understand why Plessy v Ferguson was an important decision. Each comment is carefully vetted before it is posted, because these people don’t truly know one another. Plus, at the end of three days, they can no longer see past comments to see a thread and get to know the other students. Because there is no true conversation, each forum posting seems to be with a completely new group of people. There are too many people in the class to really remember who is who.

My son is just one of many students who are forced into online classes that do not embody the true college experience. My former superintendent of schools threatened his teachers by saying that on-line education is the future and that the country will only need a few master teachers to deliver instruction and drones who can do the grunt work of taking attendance and grading papers. He used college statistics showing that many students were enrolled in these classes and that the number is growing.Sure, the number is growing, especially if colleges can dump students into an online course whenever they decide to eliminate a bricks-and-morter class.

While there are some students who need the flexibility of online classes and some shy students who don’t like to engage in verbal discourse, these classes do not meet the needs of most individuals. The virtual classroom defeats the purpose of going to college. If a student can only “meet” with your professor by sending emails, many will not ask questions because they are too difficult to formulate in a coherent fashion, and the recipient of the email may be judging your competency, not trying to help. If the only contact a student has is through an internet forum, it is very difficult to form the bonds of friendship that might make for a contact after graduation. If the materials are presented in a canned fashion (often old videos that have not been reviewed for this specific class), students don’t have the advantage of the most recent statistics or of current events that might have significantly altered the attitude toward the topic. And when the material gets too difficult, it is easy for an invisible student to drop out without anyone noticing. Of course, the student has already paid his full tuition, so the institution isn’t hurt, is it?

I would argue that the institution is grievously hurt by these on-line classes. In the virtual universe, the individual no longer really matters. There is no reason to belong to an alumni association, to recommend your alma mater to young students. It hurts the teacher or professor who is literally phoning in the instruction. It hurts the teachers because class sizes are larger. It hurts the teachers because they have not way of reaching their students other than over the internet, which can be easily ignored. But the real hurt belongs to the students themselves. They miss out on the discourse. They miss out on the impromptu discussions. They miss out on the opportunity to meet with professors after class. They miss out on making contacts with other students. 

Colleges charge just as much for on-line courses as they do for in-class instruction. No wonder they waited until the last minute to dump my son into an online course, after his tuition was paid and when he would not get a full refund and didn’t have an advocate to get that money applied to a future semester. 

What about the students who wrote so eloquently (and some not so eloquently) about the value of a college education? I can only suggest that they run for the hills if one way of saving money is to take on-line courses. They certainly do not live up to their promise. And who but an arrogant, money-hungry administrator could think that a virtual experience is better than a real one?

Signing off for now.