Thoughts On Online Education

Between 1/4 and 1/3 of my teaching load is, voluntarily, online. I’ve been teaching online for (I think) about 7-8 years.

There are pluses and minuses. A major plus is the ability to instantly link to valuable Internet resources (though it requires someone like, ahem, me, who is well familiar with what’s good and what’s bad on the Internet). Though this is a gap that is closing as more classrooms become “wired” and offer instructors immediate Internet access with a projector and audio for the entire class to see and hear.

The obvious minus is the lack of Face2Face interaction and coldness at not being able to make a “human” connection. For professors who DON’T teach with their personalities (the Ben Stein, Ferris Bueller types) online classes would subtract nothing. However, for the rest of us, something serious does lack when they can’t see my facial expressions or hear the changes in tone of my voice. But, technologies like Skype may one day close that gap as well. (When something like Skype is boiler plate included on all cheap computers.)

Yeah, you’ve heard this before. But here’s an observation perhaps you’ve not yet heard (and maybe I’m wrong; maybe this is just me seeing things). As a community college professor, I’m increasingly noticing “extremes” in the kinds of students who take online classes. More of the bad students who think online edu will be a cakewalk; many don’t complete the course and get “Fs” for that reason. But also (this is, in part, judging on the informed well written comments on discussion boards I’m noticing; plus the self described professional backgrounds of students on the “introduce yourself” board), really good students, tending to be older and in need of a higher ed degree, who understand they need to take classes more as a means to an end, who understand the time you save in NOT having to commute to school during work hours and the ability to do the school work at your own convenience permits you to get the credits without paying the opportunity cost of lost hours for employment. And community colleges are the most economically affordable game in town. So get as many credits there as you can.

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9 Responses to Thoughts On Online Education

  1. Mr. Rowe,

    Do you have any thoughts as to the kinds of classes that work better (or as well) when done online? For example, do more specialized classes work better in a traditional classroom setting than, say, an introductory or survey course?

  2. Jon Rowe says:

    Lecture oriented classes work better online. The math and science classes where the teacher has to “see” whether the student is getting the formula, not so much.

  3. James Hanley says:

    I teach several courses on-line every year as an adjunct for a community college. I concur unequivocally with Jon’s assessment of the two extreme type of student. I give out 1/3 to 1/2 failing grades in each class, but it is always for failure to complete the course. Some of those students never even log into the class website (for those who don’t know, the instructor can tell exactly when a student access, which elements of the course they access and when, and exactly how much time they spend logged into the course). Others log in 3 or 4 times, never to return.

    Self-motivation is the crucial factor to success in an online class. In a face-to-face class I can badger a student about not doing the work, even to some extent using “shaming” as a technique by badgering them in front of the rest of the class. Online you can completely avoid any interaction with me. But doing so nearly always means you fail.

    As to type of courses, I agree again with Jon. Lecture-type courses. In addition to math and science, I don’t think philosophy courses would do well, because they so often tend to emphasize in-class discussion. But while I only do lower-division courses (because my college doesn’t do on-line courses, and the JuCo where I do them doesn’t have upper-divisions classes), I have a couple of upper-division classes that I think could make decent on-line classes despite the fact that I (try to) engage the class in a lot of discussion. In those classes, unlike certain philosophy classes, the discussion is not a necessary element of the class, just an “added-value” element, and the material can be learned simply by reading.

    One final observation. Jon is also right about the value of on-line education, which is for busy and/or non-wealthy people to get portions of their own education at lower cost and on a more convenient schedule. My on-line courses are at an Iowa community college, but a large proportion of my students are current U. Iowa and Iowa State students (and the occasional student trying to get back into one of those schools after failing out). I think on-line courses are definitely lower quality than on-line classes, which leads some people to dismiss them completely. But we all find the lower-quality good to be the most cost-effective purchase sometimes.

  4. buddyglass says:

    I took a class at a junior college one summer when I was home from school, since I knew the credit would transfer back to the University I was attending. Psychology 101. It was probably the easiest class I’ve ever taken, including everything I took in high school. (Though, high school Health comes close, along with the “Individual Differences” class I took in the Education dept. at the institution where I eventually earned my degree.) Looking back, it irks me that my parents’ tax dollars went to fund classes like this one at the JC. I can’t imagine anyone learned much from it, even those who earned top marks.

    During a different summer I took a distance learning class offered by the Math dept. at the place where I got my degree. *That* class was actually more difficult than many other lecture-based courses I took at that same university, including some in the Math dept. So in that sense I guess it was “good”. It was 100% self-study.

  5. James K says:

    One my lecturers at university (he ran Intro to Finance, which was compulsory for everyone getting a Bachelor of Management Studies) actually videoed all of his lectures, and just had students watch them in their own time instead of running scheduled lectures. Of course it was still backed up by tutorials which were run face-to-face.

  6. buddyglass says:

    One of the better classes I ever took in college was a digital logic design class in the EE department. This was a class every EE and CS student had to take, and my university had about 35k undergraduates, so it was a “big” class. It was also kind of a weed out class. Not because the material was particularly difficult or because the professor graded on a particularly severe curve, but because the class was entirely self-paced, and lots of would-be engineers and computer programmers have absolutely abysmal time management skills.

    Basically there were 20 chapters in the book, which the prof. had written. There were maybe 15 TAs for the class (they dipped into upper-division undergraduates since the material was so basic). These guys would hang out in a particular room, so you didn’t have to schedule an appointment to get individual help. In order to move from one chapter to the next, you had to pass a six-question quiz with a perfect score. With a catch. When you were finished, you’d call a TA over who would grade the exam right in front of you. He’d mark each problem right or wrong (with no comments), then you got another 30 minutes to correct whichever ones you’d gotten wrong. If you successfully corrected them all then you “passed” that chapter. If some were still incorrect then you had to wait 3 days before re-testing on that chapter.

    Semester grades were determined by how many chapters you completed. If you completed all 20 then you got an A and could skip the final exam. If you only finished 18 you got a B, 16 was a C, and so on. If you had less than an A then you were obligated to take the final exam. So there was a lot of motivation to complete all the chapters on your own so you could opt out of the exam.

    I think he also had a projected schedule of what chapter students should be on given the length of the semester. Students who were sufficiently “behind” according to this schedule had to attend mandatory “study sessions”. (Basically study hall- I don’t think there were lectures, but TAs were available to provide individual help.)

    Anyway…I liked the format. If you kept on pace you never had to go to lectures, never had to study for a “big” exam covering multiple weeks of material, and got out of having a final exam at the end of the semester. And yet I felt I still learned a decent amount.

  7. AMW says:

    Jon & James H., how demanding is teaching an online course, and how well does it pay? Every once in a while I’ll consider it as a possibility for bringing in a little more money, but I’ve never acted on it.

  8. James Hanley says:


    That’s very much a “it depends” question. Some people put a lot of effort into their on-line classes, getting online at pre-determined times and engaging in group discussions, or at least making themselves available to immediately answer questions through chat sessions at that time. Some claim it takes as much time as a face-to-face course.

    My experience is different. The initial setup of the course was very time-consuming, especially when I did Public Administration, which was an entirely new prep for me (I hadn’t ever taught it face-to-face). It required setting up on-line lectures, which take time to do properly,* preparing quizzes (a slow process, given the way the software works), and adjusting some of my standard assignments so they’d function better in an online environment (sometimes this meant changing them so they could be more easily submitted electronically, although some students mail them to me, and other times it meant clarifying instructions since I couldn’t meet face to face with the students to answer questions about the assignment).

    But once that’s set up, the transfer from one course to another is just the click of a button, as long as it’s the same course at the same institution.** The only term-by-term setup that’s required is to adjust the course record number and due dates on the syllabus, then get all the proper due dates set up for each assignment, quiz, etc. That’s a matter of one or two hours work (perhaps it should be a bit more, as I invariably screw up one or two due dates, so obviously I’m not proofing closely enough).

    The grading time depends on how you set up your assignments and quizzes. If you do mostly multiple choice on quizzes, then the system can automatically grade for you. Otherwise, it takes as much time as you’d normally spend in grading.

    Beyond that, I check in daily (or if I’m traveling during a summer session, I let them know and check in as I can) to see if anyone has emailed me with questions. There are normally more questions dealing with technical problems with the software, requests for due-date extensions, and notifications that I’ve screwed up due dates than there are questions about the material itself, but that took several terms to achieve, and resulted in large part from tinkering with my lectures to preemptively answer most of the substantive questions.

    I get paid something like $2,000 per course section (it may have one up, I’m not sure–some terms they send me a contract, other terms they seem never to do so; but I always get my paychecks so I really don’t pay much attention to the gross pay). I’m sure that varies from place to place, but is probably a rough average. For a one-shot course I don’t think it’s worth the effort, because I’d get less than $20 per hour of actual work put in, with prep time and all. But as you repeat the course and need to do less and less tinkering, it becomes more and more worthwhile.

    Still, it’s worth noting that I do this as extra work on top of my regular load, as it sounds like you would be doing. It does become a drain at times, and I’m enjoying not doing it while I’m on sabbatical. Checking my email with that college and logging into the course site to see if anyone’s got questions becomes just one more annoying task at the end of a day when you just want to zone out and watch reruns of Scrubs because it’s mindless. And of course the grading is more grading on top of your regular grading, and often at the same time, or else just before and after, which stretches out that horrible period when you’re doing lots of grading.

    I find it worth it, because the extra money from two courses per term, three terms per year, pays my student loans and feeds the pot that is allowing me to go back to Syria next month. If I didn’t have student loans still, I’d use it to pay down the mortgage on my house faster. Or stick it all in retirement savings. When I get tired of doing it, I just consider how it’s making other expenses easier by taking care of one of them, and faster than I would otherwise be able to.

    I think Micro and/or Macro, if that’s what you’re thinking, could be done on-line very well, and the more often you’ve taught them, the faster the initial setup would be.

    *There’s a great risk in on-line lectures of effectively just adding a redundant chapter for students to read, this one written by you. My approach, which I think students respond well to, is to highlight the important concepts I want them to get out of the chapter, and add a few real-world examples in an anecdotal format, while staying away from the kind of extensive detail that would make them a mind-numbing online read.

    **And as a long as you don’t screw up and hit the “done” button before you’ve actually linked to the prior course. At least the way WebCT works, there was no going back to redo it, and since I’d uploaded nothing from the old course, I had to do it all file by file from my computer, a slow process.

  9. AMW says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jim. I’m now teaching Managerial Econ to MBAs for the fourth and fifth time this semester, so obviously the workload there is dropping. In the spring I’ll be adding a new prep, but it will basically be Managerial Econ for undergrads, so it will be more or less the same. What’s more, I have free access to grad students to grade for those courses, and my teaching load is just 2-2. This means I have greater research expectations, of course. But still, it might be that putting together an online course would be doable given my circumstances.

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