When I graduate in a few months with a degree in political science from North Carolina State University, I will have completed roughly one-third of my required hours over the Internet within the comfort of my own home.
My experiences with distance education have made me rather skeptical of some in the academic community who label distance education as the incestuous offspring of trend and convenience. It’s not.
For one, participation, exams and papers—they are all part of the distance education model. You don’t get out of them because you’re taking the class online.
But participation and human interaction (or the lack thereof) is often the go-to criticism for distance ed detractors. For example, a column written by a fellow college student recently stated as much, but the complaints were largely focused on how online education diminishes extracurricular, outside-the-classroom face time.
And while the column also rightly points out that online class discussions can become flaccid, and that the lack of human interaction can detract from the overall learning experience, does this not also describe the experience many have in traditional classes, too?
Especially for those enrolled in a large university, many lower-level classes take place in a stadium setting, with two or three hundred students copying notes from a Power Point presentation.
Even if a student attends a smaller school, most have been in at least one class where attendance was the lone measure of class “participation.”
On the flip side, most of my online classes require large amounts of student interaction.
As with live classes, online class professors also set the rules of engagement for participation, as well as the required frequency. So a class—live or online—that is limp-wristed in its participation requirements is a negative reflection on the course design rather than the course location.
My experience in distance education participation requirements run the gamut: forum posts; phone calls; video chat; interviews, surveys.
Heck, last spring I completed an entire lab section via distance education delivery. And per the professor, my lab experience is precisely the same as those who took the lab on campus.
But the most prominent method of interaction is class forums. Most courses require students make a certain number of original posts and respond to classmates’ original posts each week. These forums aren’t for students only, though. Instructors and TA’s often jump in the mix to steer discussion just as they would in an on-campus class.
Another qualm that those opposed to online courses raise is that of professorial interaction. And it’s true: the student does not have immediate access to a professor during class time.
This isn’t a problem for those comfortable with self-teaching, but again, I’ve had this issue in live classes due to class size or structure. I’ve had a professor who stated he didn’t want to take questions during his lecture, but would never leave enough time at the end of class to answer all questions, for example.
Professors still have office hours in online classes, and they still respond to emails. So while the student may not be in the presence of the professor, the student still has their attention.
And let’s not forget the positive aspects of the online delivery method, such as scheduling flexibility and 24/7 access to class materials. The benefits are very tangible. I can pause, rewind and rewatch parts of a lecture that I need more time internalizing.
Online classes also allow me to travel without fretting over missed coursework. In September, I will be attending a conference in Denver hosted by the State Policy Network—a network of free market think tanks in all fifty states.
On the one hand, I will completely miss a week in my brick-and-mortar class. But for my online class, I will miss a whole heap of nothing (so long as my luggage stays with me).
The flexibility of the online model will allow me to take advantage of a unique opportunity that will undoubtedly give added texture to my scholastic experience, while not skipping a beat in “the classroom.”
And that is the ultimate draw for many students: How can I intersect my academic goals with the rest of my life? Certainly the distance education approach isn’t perfect, but neither is the on-campus model.
As for me, the comfort and convenience of distance education trumps the classroom.
College Fix contributor Clark Connor is a student at North Carolina State University.