Nearly all of my post-undergraduate work has been in the form of online courses. This is by necessity as I do not live close enough to any school with the degree program I’m pursuing and I’ve used up any reserve ability to relocate at least two moves ago. In other words, it’s not by choice because I have a few issues with the setup of online courses and in the simplest words you might say “I don’t like them.” This isn’t exactly a warning, though you’re welcome to take it as such, but rather I’m feeling an urgent desire to vent.
I despise busywork. I don’t mind doing work. Even a lot of work doesn’t faze me. But if that work does not actively teach me something or showcase my own understanding of the course material then I find little point in doing it. Unfortunately, the foundation of almost any online course is discussion posts. The idea is that these “discussions” are the equivalent of what happens in a real classroom situation. This is misleading because (a.) this assumes that not only does every physical class have discussions but that every student participates equally in them and (b.) there isn’t any actual talking in discussion posts.
Taking each point individually, first even in the classes where discussions occurred they were never the foundation of my learning experience. Possibly this is because I could usually be found tucked away in a back corner (with the pretext of keeping my guide dog safe from being trod upon) where I very pointedly tried to not draw attention to myself. Even when classroom participation was necessary by design, such as Sign Language, I mostly found it embarrassing to be singled out. Furthermore, I can assure you that a good number of my undergraduate classes were little more than the professor standing at the front of the room, droning on. I took a course once where the prof actually read the textbook to us each class. (I am not joking.) So, the assumption that writing an answer to a posed question and/or replying to another student’s answer is the same is patently wrong.
Which brings me to my other point. Discussion posts in an online class are little more than further mandatory reading in what is already a very text-laden environment. Generally they take the form of a question, which doesn’t merely require a response but a “high quality” answer. I don’t know why, but every professor emphasizes the need for this — generally with caps — because without fail 95% of the class doesn’t bother with following this demand. “High quality” here means that the answer should be a critical response that is thorough, well-written, and above all else is properly cited. That means that you need to dig through the class materials (e.g., the textbook) to find the answer and then go find an outside source to back up your own words. (I must have missed those days when I had to have a journal article handy in a physical classroom.) But your grade is also dependent on replying to other students’ responses with an equally critical response as your own answer. I find this to be the most trying aspect of any online class because, as I said, only 5% of your fellow classmates actually bother to follow the instructions. Unfortunately, merely following directions does not make them intelligent and you’re likely to find that they have supplied the most illogical conclusion imaginable to the question. So, finding an answer that you can reply to that will assure you receive credit can be not only time consuming but a major test of your personal zen. What little amount discussions serve to showcase your understanding of the material to the professor is overwhelmed with the chore of teaching your fellow classmates without insulting them.
The fundamental issue with online classes is that I find they boil down to this: the instructor posts his/her notes, gives various assignments to complete and some exams to take. That is not teaching. At best that is facilitating my own learning. Even when the instructor is present and participating in the learning environment by giving timely feedback and encouraging “discussions” the student is still the driving force in this method of learning. More often than not in my experience the instructor does not do this and I’m left wondering why I can’t just CLEP my way through my degree.
Along with these inescapable constants, I also have a recurring issue with online courses that I’ve never dealt with in a physical class: grading without recourse. By that I mean the professor gives absolutely no wiggle room with grading — and any grade given is final. Under the best circumstances I find this type of grading unfair. In my experience this revelation is usually sprung upon the students — it’s not in the syllabus but noted after the first wave of assignments/tests/etc. are graded. I’m not a fan of pass/fail grading systems nor do I like not having a means to debate the worth of my work, but I can respect a professor’s use of such methods if s/he is upfront about it from the beginning. I know what to expect then and I can prepare myself accordingly (read: set myself up for the bitter disappointment of not getting my A). When the announcement is an afterthought, it puts me in a vulnerable position within the class because now every point has become that much more valuable. This is even more of a problem if the professor is also one that does not grade things in a timely manner and/or eschews providing feedback.
Also, if you couldn’t tell, online classes make me incredibly passive-aggressive.