Online classes: Yay or nay?

CN&R intern Tang Lor shares her experiences with Chico State’s Web courses

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Chico State information and a quick quiz on Butte College’s Web site.

As I settled into my seat on the first day of my Intro to Communication class, Robert Main made the best announcement he would make all semester.

“You don’t have to come to class. You can listen to the lectures when and where you want. All you have to do is get up and follow me right now,” he said.

Main was offering students the opportunity to take his at-home version of the course instead of meeting on campus every Tuesday and Thursday for the next 15 weeks.

I had never taken an independent, at-home study course, but this suddenly sounded more appealing than having to speed walk to class from across campus and squeezing between the tight rows of stadium-style seats in Ayres 106.

So for $40 I got myself a pack of CDs with Main’s recorded lectures, a stack of Scantrons and my first glimpse at what would become at-home, online education.

Since then at-home courses have evolved from watching lectures on CDs through QuickTime to solely Web-based education through a program called Vista.

Now, two years after that class, I am taking my first online course this semester through Vista. This class is more complex than Main’s. It’s no longer just me listening to a recorded lecture. This time it’s a whole virtual classroom.

All the class content is online. Students interact with each other by posting and replying to bulletin boards. The professor communicates through posting announcements on the class site. She even has online office hours that work sort of like instant messaging, where students ask questions by posting to the office-hour bulletin and she replies.

Classes like this are becoming more widespread as computer-based technology evolves. According to the Spring 2008 Class Schedule, Chico State will offer about 68 online courses next semester. Some of these are regular online courses that students on campus take through Vista. About half of those courses are specifically designed for students who live outside of Chico.

Chico State also offers online and distance education, where students outside the area can get degrees without ever having to step foot on campus. Students take classes through the Center for Regional and Continuing Education. Using a program called LiveClassroom, students at home can “sit in” on real classroom lectures.

An easy-to-use chat program allows the virtual students to interact with the professors. Virtual students can do just about anything the others do. When clicked on, an icon that looks like a hand can even signify to the professor that the student has raised his or her hand and has a question to ask. Microphones are installed between every other seat in the real classroom so the virtual students can also hear what their peers have to say.

Even better for on-campus students, like most online classes, lectures can be accessed at any time. Professors can post their lectures in the archives, so if students miss the live lecture they can go back and “attend” class. Under archived lectures, students can also choose to listen to specific parts of the lecture they want to review or may have missed the first time around.

Taking an online course is a change from the traditional form of getting an education. There are still bugs to work out. Computers must pass a diagnostic test and be equipped with a laundry list of plug-ins and compatible programs. LiveClassroom is definitely not for those who still use dial-up Internet services. There is also a lag time of 15 seconds between the real classroom and the broadcast online students see.

Patience with technology is necessary. I was in the middle of posting to a Vista bulletin board when the whirl on the browser just kept going and going. I clicked the “Post” button anyway. Actually, I clicked about five times before the dreaded popup that says something to the effect of, “Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and the program must shut down immediately” appeared.

Online courses are great in that I can avoid trying to run up three flights of stairs two minutes before the start of class, plopping into the first empty seat closest to the door and hope that no one around me can see the beads of sweat dripping down the back of my neck or comment on my heavy breathing. Not having to listen to that annoying student in the front row who has a long-winded, personal anecdote in every response is also a plus.

But when it comes down to it, I still prefer the face-to-face interaction and the in-class lectures to dealing with programs crashing and the volume of reading and mindless hours of Web searching involved in taking an online class.