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Is Online Education for You/Your Students?

Kim Haynes

Is Online Education for You/Your Students?We’ve all seen the ads: go to school in your pajamas! At any time of day! Thanks to cheesy infomercials and stories of diploma mills, online education has a bad rap, especially among some in the educational community. But is that fair?


What is it?

An online course is completed through “discussions” and assignments. The discussion may be done through an exchange of emails or in an online forum. A teacher initiates the discussion, posts assignments for students to complete, and guides the online conversation. Grades are based on online participation, written assignments, and, in some cases, tests. Students may take a single course or earn a degree.


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When is Online Education Useful?

Three Real Scenarios

Mary Jo is an honors student. She wants to take Calculus, but can’t fit it into her schedule. So she takes it online through the community college. She’ll do the assignments alone, then take the exams at the college. If she passes, her high school will give her credit for the course.

Anne teaches full time and coaches sports. She works very long hours, but really wants to get her Masters in Education. She can’t attend courses in person without quitting her coaching responsibilities, so she enrolls in an online Masters program. She can do her assignments after practice or during her prep period.

Carlos is an Advanced Placement teacher and a Department Chair. He can’t afford to take much time off for conferences or workshops. Instead, he does online professional development, including online AP summer institutes, so he continues to grow as a teacher without racking up lots of absences or travel bills.


The Advantages


#1: Convenience

For once, the infomercials got it right. With online education, you can go to school in your pajamas, or on your own schedule. You’ll have a due date for your assignment or a weekly participation requirement, but no one cares if you complete it at 3 pm or 3 am.


#2: No “Wasted” Time

We’ve all had those students who would rather work alone and feel like their time is wasted by “slower” classmates. For them, online education is ideal, because the other students are nothing more than posts in the discussion forum, which can be skimmed over or ignored entirely.


The Disadvantages


#1: Isolation

Online courses try hard to simulate the classroom experience, but they don’t fully succeed. A student struggling with a topic can email the teacher, but may have to wait awhile for a response. “Quiet” students may limit or avoid participation in the forums, which increases the sense of isolation. One graduate of an online Masters program said she’d taken two years of courses with her classmates, but didn’t remember their names six months later, because there was no relationship between them.


#2: Accountability

This is where things get tricky. How can administrators be sure the people who get credit for the work are really doing the work? Some programs use in-person tests, so they can in fact make sure the right person is getting credit for the course. Others require user names and passwords to ensure the “right” people are participating. A really innovative cheater can find ways around many of these approaches, but most online schools seem to use the same set of policies and procedures.


The Bottom Line

Online education is best for the self-starters. We’ve all had those students who practically taught themselves – the ones who just wanted the teacher to provide the information, give a little feedback, and stay out of their way. In student slang, online education is perfect for “nerds.”


If you’re a fan of multiple intelligences, think about it this way: online education is good for linguistic intelligence, because there’s lot s of reading and writing, and bad for interpersonal intelligence, because there isn’t the same interaction or “give and take” in the discussion forums.


Online education has some tremendous advantages to offer students and teachers alike, but it is still evolving. Be aware of the difficulties, but don’t let them turn you off to a great opportunity for yourself or your students!


Are you a online education fan or hater? Share your take in the comments section!