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Ask Professors: What are the Pros and Cons of Online Learning and Instruction?

With such busy lives and the convenience of the internet, the ability to squeeze education into any available moment is empowering. Our brains are constantly at work, processing all the knowledge and information our minds are willing to consume.

It’s hard to restrict education to the romance of the classroom. While I would count myself as one of the more hesitant traditionalists, I recognize the absolute need for flexible education today. When I got my master’s degree—in residence—I had to quit my job in order to make all the 10:00 AM and 1:30 PM courses. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but if it weren’t for my two-income household and credit, that would have been impossible.

The shift towards mid-career and mid-life education necessitates accessible “classrooms.” From a competitive perspective in the workplace, it’s often overwhelming to consider how credentialed one’s peers are as they, too, are finding ways to squeeze education in any way they can. And so online education—just to keep up and stay current—is becoming a matter of professional survival in many fields, such as tech.

Higher ed is no longer a four-year post-high school experience on a college campus. It’s continuous and ongoing.

Jay Elarcosa

I interviewed Jay Elarcosa, a part-time instructor for Cerritos College’s Department of Business Administration in Los Angeles. He let me know that out of his Department’s 104 classes during the spring semester this year, only 14 of them were taught on campus. Times are changing.

That said, the fears of trading all things interactive and social for the private, isolated screen are very real. While the trend toward telecommuting and all things online may be the wave of the future, there are certain elements of personal interaction that are undoubtedly missed by the screen. One might argue that brick-and-mortars like Macy’s and institutions like Yale are acting as our social benefactors as they attempt to preserve the soul of physical presence.

Perhaps a necessary practice as we consider online learning is to stop viewing online education as a perfect replacement for the institution. Ivy walls will always hold an undeniable role in our culture of innovation and knowledge generation. Instead, online education might be treated as education in its own right—providing more access and more opportunity to more people, regardless of the moment in their lives.

Drawing on the experiences of seasoned instructors—as well as my own as an online teacher—we’ll look at some key differences between online and classroom instruction.

Accountability

One of the challenges with online education today is this kind of check-the-box mentality, where students may have the tendency to view their online education as a means to an end rather than a total learning experience. There is a sharp difference between viewing education as a process of papering—simply put, a degree—and an actual education. As I’ve said over and over to my students, “You get out of it what you put into it.” Jacinda Townsend, instructor and Appalachian writer in residence at Berea College in Kentucky repeated the same sentiments in my discussion with her.

Jacinda Townsend

Online education is a commitment, and learning takes time and drive. So while “showing up” for online classes may take more intrinsic motivation as no one is directly noticing student absence, the absence is still noticed. Elarcosa notes that if students fall behind in their online classes, he emails them to remind them that they are not fulfilling course requirements. The same would go for ongoing absences in the classroom.

I recently made the overzealous mistake of enrolling in an online class amidst other commitments with work and family, including preparing for a big household move. You can guess which one fell to the back burner—and I’m an instructor! That said, if life is in the way, assignments aren’t going to get turned in on time, whether online or in class. This is particularly a challenge for mid-career, part-time students, and I encountered it all too often in my own teaching. The majority of my students enrolled in evening classes were attempting an educational program amid life responsibilities like work, mortgages, and kids’ homework.

The surmounting advantage online education has over campus instruction is the ability to flex with a student’s schedule. Elarcosa notes that many course assignments and quizzes are completely open throughout the semester, meaning that students are able to complete assignments and quizzes when time permits, not necessarily on a deadline. In cases where deadlines are necessary, students are still able to complete assignments, though with a late penalty. Turning in assignments late, though, still accomplishes the goal of learning and practice. The challenge from an instructor’s perspective with too many late-doers is that students aren’t prepared to engage with one another if reading and assignments aren’t accomplished at certain points within the course.

Barbara Brock

I interviewed Dr. Barbara Brock, professor emerita at Creighton University, who currently teaches courses for an online doctoral program in interdisciplinary leadership in education. She points out that late assignments in the online environment are especially easy to identify since learning platforms clearly keep track of when assignments are submitted. Students can easily track their progress without relying on an instructor’s grade book.

In a writing class, particular steps throughout the writing and researching process help hold students accountable to one another. Completing drafts for feedback sessions imposes deadlines that students, who may feel a bit of peer pressure, are often likely to meet. In the online community, students may turn in draft assignments by posting them to discussion boards. Students engage with peers by reading assignments and offering feedback. It’s easier to blow off a person whom you’ve never met. In this way, some students will choose to offer feedback only as required.

It’s particularly dangerous for online students to view the responsibility of peer review as another box to check rather than an opportunity to really push a peer and grow in one’s own writing. From my experience, class time feedback sessions tend to be more focused as readers have fewer distractions.

Additionally, the reader has the opportunity to pause at moments within the piece, ask questions, or even throw out suggestions in the middle of reading—at the moment the thought comes to mind. This back-and-forth exchange is invaluable in the writing process. Though feedback can be read and digested at any point, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned dialogue.

When I taught writing online, I often scheduled meetings with students to give feedback as I found it more effective. Not only was I more effective in pushing students to see where their writing might go in its next iteration, but meeting in person reduced sensitivities and misconstrued criticisms as many students feel vulnerable when presenting their work for critique.

Academic Honesty

One of the big criticisms of online education is academic honesty. There is no real way for the instructor to know if the student is the actual brains behind the work. I absolutely loved Elarcosa’s overall attitude towards accountability here: “I’m not too concerned about cheating,” he notes, “If [the students] don’t get the education, it will show up in their jobs. You can’t fake knowledge.” Elarcosa let me know that in some courses, students take exams using Proctorio, a program that monitors students through their computer cameras as they take exams.

Like Elarcosa, I take a trusting approach in my teaching and I figure that any lack of actual knowledge will eventually catch up to a student. However, if the issue of academic honesty presents a roadblock for institutions to embrace online education, then programs like Proctorio and those featured in our article on plagiarism seem like an effective work around.

Engagement

Courtenay Stallings

I asked Courtenay Stallings, adjunct professor and assistant director for Pepperdine University’s graphic media department, what her favorite aspect of class time is. Her response echoes what many academics who have grown up with the classroom would say: “My favorite aspect of class time is when students actively engage in discussion and dialogue and become passionate about a topic. I love seeing the look in their eyes when they connect to a subject. There’s nothing like it. It’s why I teach.”

I couldn’t agree more with Stallings, and I admit that my own decision to teach was born out of similar sentiments. There’s nothing like being in the moment with your students when the whole room seems to grab onto a topic and light up. The energy is a bit intoxicating for a passionate academic and is the pinnacle of what we refer to as knowledge generation. I particularly loved these learning moments when this academic energy filled my night classes, which were traditionally filled with tired professionals. Students actively participated in impassioned discussions without awareness of the late nine o’clock hour.

These impassioned exchanges happen a little differently in the online environment. Students may be digesting the discussion throughout their day, and perhaps new ideas are brought to the table due to the gift of time.

As an instructor, it is extremely rewarding when we see students logging in multiple times per day to continue a discussion with their peers. Facilitating the dialogue, it’s the instructor’s joy to keep interjecting and pushing the students further along in their academic curiosity—finding potential offshoots in the conversation when possible.

Offering a fresh perspective, Dr. Brock let me know that she experiences even more participation in her online courses. Since students are required to post responses and engage in discussions, “Nobody can hide in the back of a classroom.” She feels that discussions are quite valuable since students have more time to think through their responses.

For instructors who love the experience of being with students, digital-only interaction is a challenge. Dr. Brock contends that instructors do need to adapt to this new style of delivery in order to find successful ways to interact with their students. Stallings mentioned that Pepperdine uses Zoom, a video-conferencing tool, in order to teach remotely. As online instruction grows, I think we’ll see more and more “synchronous” video deliveries and interactive methods of instruction that do require logging in at prescribed times. I taught a few courses in which some students tuned into my on-campus class via video teleconferencing and actively participated in discussions throughout class time.

Stallings notes, “I really appreciate the ways in which technology allows me to engage with students, but I do think that nothing compares to teaching in person in the classroom. There’s a deepened relationship between myself and my students when we can exist in the same time and space and commune together. One of the reasons I love teaching at a small liberal arts school is the ability to get to know my students on a personal level. Engagement can certainly happen remotely and online, but it cannot compare to face-to-face interaction in the classroom itself, in my opinion.” Again, I see the need to consider online education as a different method rather than a complete replacement for the classroom.

When discussing engagement with Jacinda Townsend, she noted that discussions in online classes can be much more time-consuming because students and instructors alike are trying to make themselves understood in writing. While interacting in person with students, instructors “can look at their faces and gauge where they’re at,” she told me, “In person, there’s a back and forth.” In written communication, making yourself understood without the tools of presence like facial expression, body language, and voice inflections can be more of a challenge.

Conversely, Townsend notes that the subject of creative writing seems to be incredibly effective as an online course. Writers often express themselves better in writing than in oral communication and so the online platform is quite conducive to a workshop style of course in which students are checking in with one another at different moments in their writing process, sharing their progress and offering feedback as they go.

Underscoring my own experiences with class engagement, both Townsend and Elarcosa told me that there are always students who remain engaged throughout an entire online course, and the majority of Elarcosa’s students stay engaged. Townsend said that for some students, staying completely engaged is “a bit of compulsion.” These students commit to commenting on every single student’s post. These students also tend to be the students who get the most out of the course.

Townsend admitted that it really is more difficult to keep students engaged online, and expressed that teaching online “is difficult for the same reasons it’s difficult to take an online class.” We laughed about the idea that someone may be showing up to try and fix the air conditioner while an instructor is focused on a course. Like the students carving out time for their coursework, things compete for our attention as well.

Flexibility

In my discussion with Townsend, she concluded by telling me that “the overwhelming positive” of online education is that it serves students who could not take a course otherwise—in her case, a writing class. Eliminating the challenges of getting to classes at set times opens many windows of opportunity for the willing. And education any time has become increasingly important as the educational requirements for employment swell.

For instructors, the ability to teach anywhere any time means that busy professionals can come on board. By opening the instructional talent pool in this way, working professionals that are on the cutting edge of their fields teach online courses. Elarcosa enjoys teaching online for its flexibility with his business and personal life. He teaches his online courses even while traveling. Students get to draw on the real-life experiences of a variety of in-the-know and in-the-business talents.

This mobility for instructors is huge and allows institutions to not only enroll a diverse population of students—from anywhere in the world—but a diverse faculty as well. Likewise, as Dr. Brock points out, the ability to teach from anywhere allows instructors to grow professionally.

That said, universities have to balance the number of professionals they employ as adjunct professors with their roster of full-time academics who devote their lives to research and higher education. A balanced education gleans perspective from both full-time and part-time instructors, and online education tends to rely a little more on the part-timers.

Elarcosa highlights that online education is a sign of our changing times. The students are on board, but many academics, he notes, are hesitant. This is understandable considering the value of dialogue with a physical presence. When I asked Stallings about Pepperdine’s overall attitude towards online instruction, she expressed that, “The university is clear about the importance of human interaction in the classroom and values face-to-face instruction.” Many of Pepperdine’s graduate programs utilize online learning, but the institution still emphasizes the importance of classroom instruction.

At Cerritos College, Elarcosa highlights that the institution sees online delivery as the way of the future, underscored by the few business courses taught on campus. He recognizes that many instructors at Cerritos College are hesitant to teach online and the college’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that instructors will not have to teach more than fifty percent of their course load online, nodding to the instructors’ preference for classroom time.

From a business perspective, Elarcosa sees online learning as advantageous for institutions in that the online platform reduces operational costs. By going digital, universities no longer require large, expensive campuses. And while many maintain a physical campus presence, this presence can be scaled down, thereby reducing costs. The question still remains on whether or not this savings will trickle down to the students.

Melissa Hatch

After earning her master’s in composition in Oklahoma City, Melissa moved to Honolulu, where she taught composition and advanced writing courses for Hawaii Pacific University and Honolulu Community College. Later focusing on online education, Melissa has taught online writing and research courses for community colleges as well as four-year universities. After a long stay in Hawaii, Melissa moved to Las Vegas and built a thriving real estate business, where she now resides with her family.