I recently completed an online course entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I suppose that makes it a meta-course. The Online School for Girls (OSG) was the course provider, and my instructor was a science teacher at the Westover School. Of course, in the online world, it wouldn’t matter where she taught. Suffice it to say she was very good online instructor. While I learned a great deal about constructing online courses, I also reflected about whether one could create an online course that would approach or exceed the quality of the best face to face (F2F) courses.

Online Learning

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Several observations and  lessons come to mind:

  1. In the online world, the teacher cannot be the center of the classroom. That structural modification, although it has been endorsed for years, is transformed from a suggestion to a requirement. Students are self-directed based on the instructions and requirements of the course. That means the content and activities have to be designed for student-directed learning.
  2. The notion of time is completely redefined: a) Course content and activities must be divided between what would have been class time and homework time. Both are now merged into one online setting. b) Concrete goals and activities are no longer defined by days or numbers of classes. The online course provides a roadmap of activities, and can impose due dates on those activities, but the parameters of task completion must be explicitly spelled out because there are no bells ringing or class attendance requirements. The course is goal-oriented rather than time slice-oriented. c) Length of online courses is also variable. Courses with specific objectives are completed when those objectives are met (novel idea?). Those timeframes may be 4 weeks, 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, and may not fall neatly into the boundaries of terms or semesters.
  3. The notion of interaction is also redefined. Some interaction between teacher and students can occur as it does in the F2F world; technologists call that synchronous communication — all parties are interacting in the same time slot. More commonly, however, the interaction is asynchronous, meaning that teacher and students communicate at their leisure during a loosely defined timeframe. Knowing which method is appropriate for a given lesson component is critical to ensuring student success, and both techniques are important to simulating a F2F classroom.
  4. Clarity and feedback have a higher standard in the online world. We always strive to be clear with our students, but if we are in a F2F classroom, we will know there is confusion by observing either questions from students or looks of confusion on their faces. In the online world, there will not be immediate feedback, often requiring student initiative to clear up the confusion. Frequency of assessment, both formative and summative, would be more important in the online world so students receive more rapid feedback in the absence of the F2F teacher.
  5. There are web tools available to help teacher and students get to know each other and communicate better. Threaded discussion boards, video lessons, screen casts, VoiceThreads, online chat or video chat, and Skype bring people closer together when online. I felt like I knew several of my classmates reasonably well through these tools, but am not sure whether I would have known them even better if we had enrolled in a F2F class.
My initial conclusion, having completed my test drive of an online course, is that we might approach the quality of a F2F class, and that would mean quality online learning has a future. The questions of whether online learning is a good substitute for F2F classrooms, and under what circumstances, still stand, however. I’d like to hear feedback.
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