Online Coursework: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My good friend Ian Lamont, who has been critical of taking classes online, recently decided to take an online math course to ease his entry into an MBA program at MIT.

Here’s my take on some of his points:

The convenience was great. We could go at our own pace, and start at any time during the year. Beginning in April, after putting the kids to bed, I would go downstairs to the living room to spend about 2-3 hours on readings and homework, and about every week, the chapter tests. I never had to deal with driving. Homework and tests were completed online. I was able to make very steady progress, with the aim of completing the course by the time my full-time MBA program started in Cambridge in early June. I was able to finish the required chapters in about two months and take the proctored final exam in downtown Boston the day after Memorial Day, just a few days before heading to MIT.

One of the biggest reasons that people consider taking an online course is because it’s the only reasonable way to acquire some knowledge or skill within some outside time and lifestyle constraint.  This only becomes more of a problem as family and work obligations accumulate.  In far too many situations, the choice is to take an online course or do nothing at all.

…the teacher was very responsive to those questions that were asked by email. I sent more than 10 specific queries over the course of the semester, most relating to grading errors with the MyMathLab software we used to complete assignments and take tests, or questions relating to the final. She responded to every one within 12 hours.

That’s the good.  Here’s the bad:

There was no shared sense of community, or any efforts by the school (the state university that offered the online course) to create one, beyond setting up an online message board. Many of the students used this to introduce themselves at the start of class, but by chapter 1 or 2 in the book practically all shared dialogues had stopped using the official message board.

…Grading was easy.

…The lack of an easy mechanism to ask complex questions was very frustrating.

and the ugly:

..In summary, taking this online math class basically boiled down to being taught by a textbook, and getting university credit for it, from one of the top-ranked public universities in the United States.

In a sense, I can agree with what Ian is saying here.  From program to program and even within programs, there are enormous gaps in the experience for a lot of students who are more comfortable in a classroom setting.

Let me give you an example of my experience, which mirrors the experience that Ian had.  Mind you, my other experience with an online class was at another school, not Harvard.

I needed a foreign-language prerequisite and the only way to get it was to either sit in a classroom twice a week during the day or take an online class.  I chose the online class primarily because my travel schedule allowed it.

I hated it.

Why?  Because I NEVER got to actually speak the language with another real person in the class.  The course was a guided tour through a textbook where you filled out exercises with the correct answers and then went to a proctoring center to take the exam.  Any verbal exercises were done via headset into a recording app which was then graded offline by the instructor.  Pffooey.

Let me tell you that I felt distinctly cheated by the whole thing which (as Ian mentioned) made me feel like I was teaching myself a language with the textbook.  I learned the language alright, and I’m able to converse with others, but the bad aftertaste in my mouth was largely the feeling that the online course was arranged to be as (or more) convenient for the instructor versus the student.  Without any video, and with precious little actual face-time or interaction with other students, you really do feel like you’re teaching yourself but paying good money to someone else for the privilege.

To the schools, this probably seems like a no-brainer: buy some software, assign a junior faculty member to serve as an “instructor” and then collect full tuition without needing to provide space or pay salaries for full-time faculty.  This is wrong.

When I was investigating Harvard Extension, one of the most interesting points was the fact that the videos of classes made online were fresh.  Videos were at most 48 hours old and reflected an actual course that had occurred just a short while ago.  An actual instructor was paid to stand in a classroom and deliver a presentation and answer questions, much as they would for a regular class.

In addition, the coursework that you did wasn’t a one-size-fits-all, fill-in-the-blanks-on-a-webpage kind of experience.  If the course required that you write a program, then you wrote that program and sent in the source code.  Ditto for written assignments and problem sets.  I learned LaTeX primarily as a side-effect of needing a good way to complete homework that depended very heavily on arcane mathematical notation which wasn’t well supported in existing tools.  I even participated in “live” class sessions, where a conference bridge was set up during the class for us to ask questions of the instructor!  Using some screen sharing technology for my Ruby on Rails class, I could see the instructors screen as they went through designing a Ruby application.

What I came away with is that the better part of having a good online education experience depends on an instructor having a willingness to communicate with students.  The next variable is how well the program supports or hinders that function.  Some programs undoubtedly de-emphasize the communication aspect in favor of material presentation.  Others (like Harvard) do a better job of minimizing the gap between communicating in person and communicating over some distance over a wider range of mediums.

I you’re looking at an online course or degree program, pay special attention to the class delivery method and the level of interaction you’ll have with your classmates.  If you feel like you’re all alone, you’re not going to have a good experience.  It really pays to contact the instructors ahead of time and find out how good they are at managing and supporting communication in the class.

So the problem here isn’t so much whether online education is inferior to in-class education per seThe real problem is that a lot of schools are doing a half-assed job of making the distance experience every bit as good as the live experience.  Execution is one of the key differentiators here.

Why did I like the HES distance experience?  Because in almost every case, I could be assured that someone from the class was doing their best to answer my questions and be present for me as I worked through the material.  You wont get that everywhere and you’ll likely pay more for less of it at a lot of the newly-minted adult education programs you see advertised by both private and public educational institutes. 

Caveat emptor.

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4 Responses to Online Coursework: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Online Coursework: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly | CLUEHQ --

  2. nella says:

    well, I have taken a number of harvard extension distance courses and am now embarking on the ALM. Here’s my 2 cents. Forget the typing practice that someone mentioned. How about the additional writing you must do as a distance student. This is a good thing. People need more writing.
    Also class participation is much more voluminous in a distance ed class–you end up writing much more than you would say in a classroom. remember how that sort of thing was graded in an in-person course? It’s not as if the professor wote down a grade very time you spoke. And not everyone particpated. Usually in online classes everyone must; and it’s recorded as part of your grade.

    Also the videos are great and more classes are being conduced via live conferencing. We all need more education today and if that means perfecting ways of making that possible and convenient, we will all benefit. horray harvard extension!

  3. kello says:

    Excellent blog! It’s a pity that it seems to have died 🙁

  4. JohnDrolte says:

    Hey, Richard

    I don’t know if you follow this blog anymore, but I am an Extension student completing my bachelors in computer science. I have a few questions about your experience with the program. Let me know if you’d be willing to discuss them through email.


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