Case Study: The Master's Students Who Bounce Between Online and In-Class Learning
More and more traditional institutions have started offering online learning, but it's a trend that still attracts a lot of flak. Professors complain that incorporating online tools takes too much work. Employers worry about the caliber of accomplishment represented by an online degree. Students fear that a computer could not engage them as much as a classroom.
Jeanine Stewart spoke with students at the University of Washington's computational linguistics master's program (CLMA) to find out how effective online learning is for them. Their course is offered both in-class and online simultaneously, using the web-conferencing program Adobe Connect. This allows students to view the PowerPoint slides online, listen to the in-class audio, and submit comments as instant messages.
The program, currently in its fifth year, has received accolades for its online options. In 2009, program director and assistant professor Emily Bender received the Award for Distinguished Faculty Contributions to Online Learning from R1Edu, a consortium of the top 30 research universities.
When it comes to choosing whether or not to take a class online, the CLMA students are experts, as they make this decision every day. Here are the biggest factors that they consider:
“There's no way I could do this if there weren't the online option. I just couldn't quit my job and go back to school,” said Scott Mantei, who works as a program manager for Microsoft.
Mantei can't leave work in the middle of the day to go to class, as a range of people from program engineers to customers depend upon him for information throughout the day, and could miss a deadline due to his absence.
Many working professionals are in the same position. Going back to school can seem more of a career hindrance than a help if you have to quit your job to do so.
Taking classes online also streamlines the learning process. “The process is definitely easier, because it's really easier to turn in homework online and to get all the materials from one website,” Mantei said.
It is also much more convenient to turn on a computer than to travel across town, park, and walk to class. Avoiding the commute saves students money, time, and stress. Online students do not have pay for gas, deal with traffic, or worry about managing the logistics of getting a baby-sitter or arranging a carpool.
For online students, all the time spent on the class is spent with the content. There is no small talk with students before class or gossip after class, no commuting, just learning.
Even the process of asking a question in class is more direct, since students must express themselves in writing, without the help of body language or tone of voice, by typing their questions during the in-class live-chat sessions.
“I actually prefer when students type their questions into the window, because it's easier that way,” said Emily Bender, faculty director of the program. Written questions are often more clearly worded than spoken ones, and seeing them written out makes them easier to address, she explained.
Online students in this program can choose to view their courses later rather than live, which some say helps them focus better. Why? If they get distracted while watching the class, they can rewind.
“I think the fact that you can go back and review the material as many times as you need to has been a real help...I actually find that I pay attention even better online than in class,” said Mantei.
LIMITED SOCIALIZING AND NETWORKING
All that small talk before and after class may not be necessary, but some students miss it when they study online.
Students who attend class in person have the chance to develop friendships with people who share their interests. Meeting other people in your field is invaluable, said student Glenn Slayden, a retired software-design engineer. After thirteen years working on his website from home, Slayden decided that not only did he need more education to progress, but he also needed a social outlet. Attending class in person has been important for establishing that.
“I've made some really, really good friends there, and one quite profound friendship,” he said. And having always liked school, attending in person is something he enjoys.
Being present has been important not just for building friendships, but also for establishing professional relationships. Last summer, a professor he had got to know connected him with a job at Microsoft. It was the ideal position for Slayden, who put his expertise in Thai machine translation to use for their renowned search engine, Bing.
MISSING THE VISUALS
The CLMA students have a choice, when viewing classes online: they can watch live, hearing the audio but seeing just the PowerPoint slides; or they can watch later, when a video is available, but it's too late to add any comments or questions.
This means that the online students do not have quite as rich a class experience. For recent graduate Eduardo Alvarez, this was frustrating at times, as it was hard to understand how to make the phonetic sounds taught in his linguistics class without being able to see the professor's demonstrations.
“Whenever the professor would make this sound or put his mouth in a certain position, it was impossible to see,” Alvarez said. “You can hear it from the professor, but it's not the same.”
And if it wasn't the teacher's explanations he was missing, it was a student comment. There was a microphone available for students to use, but they did not always use it, resulting in a number of questions he never heard.
Here's the kicker! Distractability can be both a pro and a con. It all depends on whether you focus better online or in class. Some find that having other students around is distracting; others find it motivating. Some need the classroom setting; others need to be completely in the zone, focused on the screen in front of them.
For Alvarez, online learning is not ideal. “I get distracted easily with other things. Attending a class in person is more conducive to paying attention,” he said. “If I'm at home, my family is there, or if I'm at work, I get emails from work. I get distracted very easily.”
GETTING THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Lucky for students of the CLMA program, they don't have to choose whether they like online or in-class instruction better. They can attend class online one day and in person the next.
“It's the best of both worlds,” said Erik Bansleben, the program development director in academic programs for professional and continuing education at the University of Washington.
“You have the convenience because you might have someone in Virginia who can go to UW and get a degree online, but at the same time, if you are local, you can choose to come to class and interact with the faculty in person, so to have that flexibility is a great benefit.”
Bender hopes that offering classes online will enable the program to attract students from all over the world. Right now, students are primarily local. But maybe a future advantage to this online learning program will be “the ability to network with people from all over the world.”
Jeanine Stewart is a freelance writer who has written for The Santa Maria Sun and The Cipher.