The good and bad of online education

As it becomes more common, teachers work to make it as engaging as traditional classroom instruction

Let’s face it: Online education is here to stay. But re-creating the experience of a traditional classroom in a virtual environment is a tricky feat.

“You come up with all these things as a teacher, like whether you’re going to tell a joke at the five-minute mark, or whether you’re going to ask a certain student something. I don’t know if you can put that into an online environment,” said Scott Brady, a Chico State geography professor who has taught at least one online class each semester for nine years.

“I can’t bring everything to an online course that I can with a traditional course. One day I may be able to say, ‘Yeah, this is a seamless thing. [My online courses] are the same thing.’ But not yet.”

So-called “distance learning” at Chico State dates back to the 1970s, when class lectures were “microwaved” to centers intended for geographically isolated students, said Jeff Layne, program director at the Center for Regional and Continuing Education. The college offered its first online course in 1995.

Since then, technology has turned traditional teaching methods upside down, and today Chico State offers a variety of online instruction, including degrees and courses offered solely online, “hybrid” courses that are divided between in-class and online components, and telecommunication courses that broadcast to an external audience.

A program called Blackboard is used for online instruction; it’s a course-management system run through the Web that allows instructors to post announcements, discussion questions, homework assignments, exams, grades and more.

As Blackboard becomes increasingly functional, course sections are cut and class sizes grow, more and more Chico State instructors are transforming their traditional classes into hybrid and online-only courses, which frees up staffing and energy used at the university, and keeps students from getting lost in massive lecture rooms, Layne said.

Basically, it’s a matter of efficiency.

This trend was recently demonstrated by the University of California’s potential plan to begin offering undergraduate degrees online, Brady said.

“The [UCs] are being asked to serve more students, and they’re getting smaller contributions from the state,” Brady said. “So they have to figure something out.”

The increasing number of courses offered online is good news for students who live outside Chico, are disabled, or cannot attend classes regularly due to work and family responsibilities. However, the shift has thrown some students for a loop.

Chico State student Danielle Andrade said that, while she enjoys the freedom online courses offer, she struggles with their impersonal nature.

“Online courses are harder for me personally because I need that face-to-face interaction,” Andrade said.

Chico State student Courtney King was able to take a course while living out of town this summer, but said she struggled.

“I think there is way too much to try to teach and/or learn just online. … It needs to be done in a classroom, where you can ask questions of the professor,” King said.

Student Heather Morse, who took a few online classes recently to meet the Credential Program prerequisites, says that online classes work better for some students than others.

“It depends on the type of learner you are—whether or not you feel engaged in the work,” Morse said. “I think learning—just like with traditional classes—depends on the teacher and the level of students’ discipline.”

For students who take courses online, Blackboard is their virtual classroom.

Creating an interactive online course that doesn’t bore or alienate certain students is not a simple task, Brady said. Making courses interesting relies largely upon an instructor’s exploitation of Blackboard’s features, such as efficiently using discussion boards and giving assignments that require students to engage in student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction.

Instructors also must organize their sites with special attention to accessibility, especially for disabled students who have impaired hearing or vision, as well as those with limited computer literacy. It also requires expert website organization and that instructors stay on top of course material by making sure links and multimedia features are always working properly.

“It’s a different kind of work,” Brady offered.

Chico State’s Technology & Learning Program provides instructors with training, advice and a rubric for online instruction, said Ann Steckel, one of four instructional-design consultants at the center. She and her team created the rubric, which provides instructors with a checklist of things to consider when it comes to creating an engaging and effective course that will come alive to students. The rubric has been adopted by nearly 200 universities nationwide.

Often, TLP consultants simply give instructors tools that allow them to think of their classes in a different way. For example, Steckel encouraged one art instructor to have students document pieces of art they encountered in real life with cell phones before uploading the images to the Internet, as opposed to having students find a piece of art online and write about it.

“Students need to be recognized as co-creators of content,” Steckel said. “When college students realize they can create at higher levels and publish their work, it creates another dimension.”

Chico State has even developed an entire virtual campus, which is likely to start grabbing the attention of students this fall, Steckel said.

Still, most experts seem to agree that online education will never fully replace the traditional classroom.

“You can’t take the teaching out of teachers,” said Steckel, who taught math for 25 years before becoming a TLP consultant. “Teachers are what inspire the student, not the computer.”