5 Things I Wish People Knew About Online Learning

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I’ve been teaching in a fully online setting through the MAT@USC for just about 5 years now.  It’s been an amazing experience, but I still encounter the same pervasive incorrect ideas over and over from people who haven’t experienced what online learning in the 21st century looks like (or should look like).  I’ve often wished that I could include on my business cards as a tagline “Online learning really isn’t what you think it is.”  So, here is my list of things I wish people knew about online learning:

1. Online learning is so much more than discussion boards and recorded lectures.  The standard assumption seems to be that all I do is grade papers and discussion boards, or that I never interact with my students.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  The courses I teach are a blend of asynchronous and synchronous instruction.  That means I interact with my students over a webcam during regularly scheduled class times.  We see everyone at the same time, Brady Bunch style, and we have polling pods, multimedia, chat pods, and breakout rooms.  The online classes I teach are dynamic and interactive.  When students aren’t in class, sometimes they do watch videos or engage in discussion boards.  These aren’t your mother’s videos and discussion boards, though.  These videos have embedded interactive questions, and the discussion boards allow for sharing of multimedia content.

2. Online learning is equally, if not more, rigorous and effective than face to face learning. When you have the old model of online learning in your head, it’s easy to imagine online learning as being ineffective.  However, when you look at new models of online learning both in K-12 and in postsecondary settings, the preliminary research is showing that students are learning MORE in online settings than they do in face to face settings.

3. You can form strong connections with students in online settings. When I teach online, my classroom extends into the homes and offices of all of my students.  I see their children listening quietly on their lap.  We talk about the posters on their walls.  They show me the flowers their partner sent them for their anniversary.  They upload photos of friends and family.  They share links to favorite songs, movies, and books.  They do all of this in addition to the academic work that happens in the classroom.  There is no question that in my online classes, we are a community, not just a collection of strangers in the same virtual space.

4. It isn’t more work than teaching face to face, but preparation is key.  There was a time when teaching online meant grading reams of papers and discussion boards.  That time has passed; if it hasn’t passed for you, then ask your department WHY!  If you’re doing your job right when teaching face to face, then you are putting ample time into designing your lessons, providing feedback to students, etc.  The same things happen online, but teaching online is often teaching without a safety net.  You have to have your materials created and uploaded in advance.  You can’t expect to just throw a diagram up on the board with a dry erase marker; you need a high quality .jpeg to upload ahead of time.  This can take a lot of work in the beginning, when a course is first starting out.  However, once your course is created, your course can be cloned, and you can save your materials for future terms.  If you’re doing it right, it’s not more work.

5. All online learning is not equal. I’ve been teaching with this synchronous/asynchronous technology for the last 5 years, and during that time I’ve seen schools create and promote online programs that are using technology that was outdated 5 years ago.  Or (and this one really kills me), a program will pay for software and then only use a fraction of what it is capable of doing.  Don’t pay for Adobe Connect, and then only use it to broadcast lectures one way!  What works on the ground doesn’t necessarily work online, and instructors need to take advantage of the tools the software offers.  Use the chat pod! Share multimedia! Don’t stick to trying to recreate online what you have on the ground.  What you create online should be different from, but equal to or better than what you’re doing on the ground.  Additionally, there ARE online schools out there that are just diploma mills.  Do your research when choosing where to teach or learn.

So what have your experiences with online learning been like?  Do the programs you teach in or learn in follow a 21st century model of online learning, or are you stuck with flat technologies?

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