Distance Education Still Has a Long Way to Go

By many accounts, online education is the wave of the future. Last month the Department of Education issued a laudatory study concluding that online education is more effective than face-to-face learning. According to an annual survey from the Sloan Consortium, which tracks distance learning, twenty percent of students in higher education are taking at least one online course. In North Carolina, enrollment in the University of North Carolina’s online programs has reached 22,000, and the university system offers ninety bachelor’s degree programs completely online.

The enthusiasm may be justified, but my experience taking online courses at UNC-Chapel Hill makes me wonder. (And my friends’ experiences corroborate my own.) In my view, the content is too easy, the online discussions are pretty much worthless, and the professors are rarely around.

During my college career, I took two online courses and one “hybrid” course. The online courses were semester-long introductory classes in criminology and Latin American geography. They consisted of a series of readings from a textbook (a purchased text, not online), weekly homework assignments, and a final paper. There was also a discussion forum. The hybrid, taken in my freshman year, was a math course that combined once-a-week class sessions with online reading and assignments.

In all three courses the demands on students’ performance were well below the standards of other courses at Carolina. In the criminology course, assigned reading might reach 50-75 pages a week—an amount of reading that many classroom courses require for each day of class. To be honest, I rarely even read the assigned pages.

My weekly routine was the following: I would begin working an hour or so before the assignment was due. I would read the questions, consult the textbook’s index, quickly scan the bits I needed to read, and write down the applicable information. I would email the answers to the professor a few minutes before the deadline and receive an A.

In a traditional class, things are much different. Professors demand much more of their students and help them absorb the material by asking questions, handing out pop quizzes, and putting students into groups. In my experience with online classes, no such devices existed and students slacked off.

A distinctive feature of many online courses is the discussion forum. This is a virtual exchange in which a professor poses a question and the students respond by offering comments over the course of a week or so. But what started out in my Latin American geography course as a medium of thoughtful conversation quickly turned into a soapbox for students. Mostly, they attacked U.S “exploitation” of the region, the “perils of globalization,” and the like. While a traditional classroom is rarely free of polemics, and students’ opinions shouldn’t be stifled, these conversations were hardly the constructive venues they were designed to be, especially since the professor didn’t intervene.

A friend taking a course on the history of the Holocaust also complained about her discussion forum. Students rarely came up with original thoughts or opinions. “Many times,” she said, “students would simply take whatever I had written and posted, reworded it, and attached their name.”

Even more serious was the fact that it was apparently easy for online professors to shirk their education responsibilities. A friend of mine, a public policy major, took an international studies course online because he had a tight academic and work schedule. A problem immediately emerged—contacting the professor. The professor did call him once to give him a green light on the thesis of his term paper, but no other phone calls were returned, no emails replied to, and no grades posted by the professor for the entire semester. The student did not hear from the professor for months—nor, apparently, did any other student in the class.

Similarly, a senior UNC economics major told me he felt he was “just an afterthought” to the professor in his Introduction to African Studies class. Emailing the professor with questions elicited responses that were often several days late, not to mention curt. In a traditional class setting, professors are much more accessible, amiable, and helpful, and the requirement of meeting for class and office hours makes it easy for faculty and students to communicate. But “these one-sentence replies,” the student complained, “don’t help at all when you’re trying to develop a paper.”

Likewise, the student taking History of the Holocaust said that her professor did so little that she claimed, “I could be the professor.” She said the professor’s day-to-day actions were little more than answering emails—often days late.

The hybrid course I took was something of a disaster, and a lot of that was my fault. I was a freshman, still dependent on the regimentation of high school and lacking the self-discipline that is essential for online courses. I could easily forget about an assignment, miss an email, or overlook a due date without suffering any penalty. But compounding this problem was the fact that the face-to-face portion was almost nonexistent. We were supposed to meet in a class with the professor on Fridays. But Fridays are often holidays, and the professor canceled class a lot. I don’t think we met more than ten times–slightly more than half of the scheduled classes.

I did have favorable experiences with online learning—but not the way that most people would expect. Economics 101 and Astronomy 101 were large, introductory classes (Econ 101 had more than 400 students). They weren’t hybrid courses, which are conducted primarily online, with occasional face-to-face classes; they were traditional courses that met several times per week. But the professors incorporated online quizzes, activities, and, periodically, even live discussions. Indeed, unlike my online courses, these classes actually had live chats with the professor! In an online seminar my economics professor introduced supply-and-demand via online graphs that would change based on student inputs. In this way, I could manipulate supply and see its effect on demand. Also, the chat was extraordinarily helpful in answering any questions related to the material. These online tools were instructional, enjoyable, and valuable learning aids.

So, in spite of the general thrust of my comments, I recognize that online courses have the potential to enhance education. But my experience at UNC-Chapel suggests that it has a long way to go before it finds its proper place in a quality education.