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Students learn the ins-and-outs of virtual classroom as online course enrollment explodes

By evmaiden/Creative Commons via Flickr

By Ted Ballantine

In 2012, 7 million students grabbed their books, fired up their laptops and logged into class.

In these classrooms, there were no rows of desks to be found; no chalkboards, projectors or podiums. These lecture halls didn’t even occupy a physical location, and many of the students attending hadn’t even left their beds.

This is the virtual classroom, and more and more students are participating in online classes every year. Since 2008, there has been a 33% increase nationwide in the amount of university students who were enrolled in at least one online class, according to a 2011 Sloan Consortium study.

At Loyola University Chicago, the growth is even higher; 6,071 students are now enrolled in at least one online class compared to a total online enrollment of 1,867 in 2008, a 325% increase. The number of online class offerings has increased as well, rising from 133 in 2008 to 451 in 2012.

The trend is clear: the virtual classroom is becoming more and more integrated into the college experience. But what does this mean for university learning? And is logging into class from a dorm room truly the same as learning from a desk in a lecture hall?

Two different worlds

Terry Moy, Director of Online Course Development at Loyola University Chicago, doesn’t deny the stark difference between the two learning environments.

“Going from a traditional face-to-face class into the online environment takes a little getting use to and overcoming a few learning curves,” he said.

One such learning curve is the dynamic between the professor and the student, according to Andy Petroski, Director of Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University.

“In a classroom environment, the driving force is the lecture,” he said. “[In online courses], you need to think much more about the student experience versus how you’re delivering the content.”

Part of improving the student experience comes from replicating the face-to-face classroom—at Harrisburg University, according to Petroski, all the students in a class can link up their webcams and see and speak to one another. It they don’t want to talk, they can chat; the professor can also set up poll questions to test students on material.

But online classes are going to differ in some ways from the real-world classroom no matter what, said Moy. Course expectations and requirements, for example, which would normally be outlined during class, need to be established by the professor beforehand through email or Blackboard.

In many cases, said Moy, schools don’t have the bandwidth to link up the webcam of every student. In these instances, class discussions don’t take place face-to-face, aren’t moderated in real-time by the professor and don’t even require students to open their mouths; conversation happens on a specified discussion board outside of regular class-time.

These changes are real, but whether they are for better or for worse depends on the specific class, professor, and, most of all, student.

“There are forums but they don’t replicate that [in-class discussion],” said Chris Gilroy, a junior at DePaul who has taken an online course from the University as well as one from Coursera. “I need heavy guidance. There was some of that, but mostly it’s…a monologue, where a [face-to-face] class would be more of a dialogue.”

Moy acknowledges that student feedback shows a desire for more interaction between the professor and the student. But, he says, it’s not as if the online classroom contains a brick wall separating students and teachers. There are ample methods of communication that allow many students and professors to foster a good relationship, even if they never see each other face-to-face; professors can post assignment feedback, send emails, contribute to discussion boards and set up virtual web cam meetings. Office hours still exist as well.

“Students get to know the faculty pretty well,” said Moy.

While the virtual classroom features a vastly different learning environment than the regular classroom, the changes aren’t inherently harmful to students’ learning. They can be beneficial, too.

Moy says the online medium allows a previously unknown amount of flexibility to students. They can download lectures to their iPods and review the material when they please, and the nature of the written assignments and discussions allow students more time to organize their thoughts and structure their work.

Dispelling the myth?

Still, there remains a perception that online classes are inherently easier than so-called “real” classes; that they carry less of a workload and less of a commitment from students. But according to those who have experienced the virtual classroom, online classes require much more effort than conventional wisdom suggests.

“As an online student, you’re actually more active because you aren’t just sitting, listening to a faculty member lecture for two hours,” said Petroski. “You’re often the one who is driving the interaction and the experience.”

But what do the students think?

“[Online classes] are just as challenging,” said Loyola University Chicago junior Jon Magnant, who has previously taken an online computer science class during Loyola’s summer session. “You can coast through the coursework to the same extent that you can with any large lecture class…but you won’t do well when you do that, whether its online or in a real classroom.”

“It comes down to studying well, having the will to work hard, the same things that lead to success in any class,” said the 20-year-old networks security major. “Those things might be harder online for some people…[but] I’ve never taken an easy class in college.”

The future of online classes

What does the future hold for online classes?

Petroski doesn’t envision universities ever switching completely over to online classes. Instead, schools will be able to offer various types of learning experiences—a few different types of online courses to spice up the regular mix of face-to-face classes.

“It will give universities the opportunity to differentiate themselves,” said Petroski. “There has been a lot of talk lately about what the value of a university is…and I think crafting unique experiences will be on of the major values a university can provide.”

So if a student likes lectures, they can take lecture classes. But if they like a more hands-on experience, that will be available as well—and not just online. Petroski sees the student-driven style of online courses eventually taking root in face-to-face classes.

“Hopefully the online experience will change the classroom,” said Petroski. “So the classroom is no longer a place where you just sit and listen to the instructor…it becomes a place where students go out, get the material, then come into the classroom and get coaching and work through problems individually and in groups.”

  • written by eballantine on May 3rd, 2013
  • posted in News Editing

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