When the cat’s away…

18 08 2011

In the three and a half years or so that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never had a guest post…until now. Britney Titus graduated from CSU-Pueblo last spring, and will be starting our history MA program next week. [Yes, we’ve had that talk.]* What we on the faculty love most about her is her infectious enthusiasm for history and learning. You can actually see it spread from her to other students in class during discussions.

One sign of that enthusiasm is her willingness to read this blog voluntarily. Britney has been sending me the occasional e-mail on various topics posted here, but I don’t think she’s ever commented. When I got an incredibly long one earlier today, I asked her to adapt it into this post. Take it away Britney…


When it comes to the online education debate, it seems as though one of the most important factors has been left out in the discussion: the student. What a student needs and wants has largely been determined by administrators, who often have the preconceived notion of online education being the next big thing that will attract even more students to their university. They fail to realize what the student really wants, and, more importantly, how online courses are going to affect the student’s overall educational experience.

I have a friend who is attending a college based in Colorado for her master’s program, but she takes a lot of online courses. She brought up a good point to me the other day. Her school offers all of its courses online, so she has students from Massachusetts who are taking the same online course as her right now. The problem, she said, is not only the fact that there is no personal connection with people she will never see (making the discussions somewhat awkward because there is no common ground between people that live on opposite ends of the country), but also that there is really no authoritative body when taking an online class.

Sure the professor can get online later and say, “oh this is right and that is wrong,” but while they are engaging in the discussion they are all fighting and talking about things out of left field because there is no professor actually there. My friend says she does not get anything out of the discussions because there is no guidance or direction for what they are talking about. The professor does start out the discussion with a question, but by the end, the students have ended up so far off topic that they do not even realize the objective behind the discussion, let alone actually learn anything from it. It is not so much that the online education environment does not have the possibilities for discussion, but the discussions are misguided with the absence of an actual educated professor being present to direct them. They only conclude with everyone being confused about what the correct answer is, which they will probably find out five or six hours later and by that time they have already forgot what most of the discussion included.

What is even more disheartening is what the students are learning in the end. I asked my friend how she was doing in the class grade-wise and her response of, “I have an ‘A’, but I don’t know why,” immediately infuriated me and propelled me to write this post. Not only is my friend not learning anything in the course, she is not receiving the benefits and joys of learning. Being a student myself, I thrive on the feeling I get when I have worked so hard to get that ‘A’ and can look back on five months and say to myself, “wow I learned so much.” The fact that my friend is not only spending countless hours on pointless discussions, but also not understanding the objectives behind the learning demonstrates the ineffectiveness of that online course.

What scares me even more than my friend’s experience is the idea that this environment is beginning to trickle down to secondary schools. I noticed recently that my old high school district is offering K-12 education online. If kids are going to start online education that early, what will make them want to go to an actual college later if they’re already sick of online learning? I am frankly a little exhausted both at the collegiate and lower levels by administrators deciding what students want. Do they go out and actually ask, “Do you need/want an online alternative”? In K-12, it is the adults making the decisions for these kids. Yet, how are they ever going to experience the passion and personality of discussions in the classroom if all they do is grow up in cyberspace?

A log off button simply cannot replace the act of students walking out of the classroom still talking about the discussion that took place ten minutes ago among their peers and professor. At least some students, despite administrative interference, really don’t want that option anyway, even if it includes learning while in their pajamas.

* By the way, if you happen to teach in a history department with a Ph.D. program that can actually place people in tenure track jobs, have I got a transfer student for you (in about two years)!

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