Monday was the start of school for many. This semester, I am taking two online courses through the community college to feed my passion for learning through a flexible structure. The online classroom has come a long way. I remember taking my first online class over a decade ago. I remember being nervous not knowing how the class would unfold in cyberspace. The instructor had a one-time face to face meeting, so that we knew what to expect, to try out the platform, and ask any questions we had. The class was a success for me because the environment worked well with my schedule and shy personality. I was able to ask questions more freely, rather than sit in class anxiously wanting to speak, thinking about it so long that an anxiety attack set in. I rarely spoke up in a regular classroom setting. In an online classroom everyone participates and interacts. I gained much from this setting, and I was looking forward to taking more online courses.
Since that first course, all the online courses I have taken since did not require that one-time face to face meeting—all instruction and introductions are done online through a cyber classroom, which is very convenient. Different instructors use different platforms, and as with a traditional classroom, each instructor has a different setup. It is always interesting to see how the course will develop because it can be different every time. Online classes have become popular, especially since the format makes learning available to people that otherwise may not be able to attend a land course.
There are some skeptics that I have encountered. When I tell them I am taking an online course, they have the notion that because the course is online, there isn’t as much work or that it’s easy, and there may be some courses like that. I tell them that often times an online course can be more demanding in the sense that not only do you have the regular reading and writing, but you also have classmate responses. You don’t have to respond to all of the students, but in order to get the most out of an online class, it is best to at least read all of the responses, and then respond to a few that speak to you. For some courses, the instructor also has several research activities that are time consuming, but a great way to supplement learning. An online environment is also a test in self-discipline, time management, and self-motivation. It’s easy to get off track and before you know it, you are behind, and the work has piled up.
I have had some poorly managed online courses, but only a few. I dropped one course because the instructor clearly did not have a handle on how to organize and maintain an online course, nor did they know how to create a community. I felt for this instructor—someone had not provided the guidance they needed to succeed in teaching online. Another online course consisted of interaction with only the instructor, his lectures and commentary online for students to read, and all interaction was done through email. This experience felt like being in a vacuum, knowing there were other students out there, but not being able to interact in a learning community—there was no classroom.
The best online courses I’ve taken were fantastic because the teachers were clearly enthusiastic about teaching, and it was evident that they loved what they did. They made their presence known, rather than disappearing for days without any interaction; these teachers created a safe and friendly learning community and this is what counts. Creating this environment then naturally fosters learning and interaction. It makes learning fun and there is no better way to learn than when you can also laugh and smile at the same time. These instructors were also extremely organized and added structure through weekly planners, readings, and questions. Some used visual and audio media to complement the lesson plans. And some teachers left it open to the students to be creative in using various multi-media to do group presentations.
There is still nothing like a traditional brick and mortar classroom, where you can hear the chalk on the board and see and hear the instructor and the students, but it is nice to know that online options have improved and mirror the traditional classroom, providing students with more flexibility in reaching their educational goals or allowing life-long learners to get their fix on their own terms.