Related: Continuing Education, Erin McHenry

Don’t Be Last in the Online Learning Race


I will be honest: I have never been a big proponent of online learning.  I enjoyed teaching in front of a group and liked witnessing the connection with the students and the subject.  There’s nothing like seeing the cognition light bulb go off when you were the one who flipped the switch.  I was hesitant to develop online courses because I didn’t believe our Continuing Education students would engage with the content, the teacher or their peers as well as they would in person.  Not to toot my own horn here, but could any online instruction be as dynamic as I can be in person?  I also worried they would spend more of their time struggling with technology than they would on learning the subject.

Most universities are currently offering some form of online learning, whether they have classes that are 100% online, such as our Cont Ed online courses, or a hybrid with both face to face and online instruction, or the version that includes online webinars with headsets and a time where all students call in at the same time.  In all cases, some components of online learning are here to stay.  I’ll skip the debate about IF we should be teaching online because realistically, students want the convenience and online learning is cheaper than constructing new school buildings.  So let’s move on to why everyone should try online learning.

Without warning or intending to join the online education race, I experienced the benefits of it during a little east coast snow storm a few years ago that some of you might remember as “Snowmageddon.”  In essence, when you have to cancel two days out of a four-Saturday course and you are out of spring Saturdays to make up the classes, you have to come up with creative solutions and hope that the students will accept these options rather than have to spread out the missing class time over four Friday evenings, or something as equally unappealing to busy teachers.  Our only possibility was to supplement our remaining in person class meeting with online instruction and forum discussions.  I predicted complaints, technology confusion, and boring, boilerplate discussions.  I was wrong on all counts.  The students’ willingness to give an extra effort in this unexpected endeavor might have been because they had been yearning to give online learning a try; but it’s more likely that they didn’t have time to take the course later, which could have caused their teacher certification to expire thereby resulting in a pink slip and no rent check.

With the number of students requesting online courses growing every semester, the Snowmageddon experience forced me to give online learning another chance.  Our department looked at the ways a lot of other schools produced online instruction and learned a lot about what we didn’t want to do.  We came up with a model that we think works best for our students and their educational goals.  A small group of our pioneer instructors took on the challenge of our new online format and again, they proved I was wrong about how engaged students could be online.  We started in subject areas that I felt comfortable in, that I could envision how to teach within our online structure, such as reading and special education.   Every week had a lecture of some kind, a reading or resource and wrapped up the week with a forum discussion sharing a student’s perspective as well as commenting on at least one of their peer’s ideas.  In the early stages of our online courses, I constantly asked the instructors for progress, feedback and read what students were contributing online.  I saw a high quality in the work that I wasn’t expecting.  I heard from instructors that they had students they knew from past face to face courses and observed their participation blossom in ways they never saw with so many other students competing to be heard.

We discovered that clarity of deadlines and expectations was critical.  I saw students go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the assignments, finding creative ways to present instructional techniques that I didn’t know where possible anywhere, much less online.  After I stopped to think about it, I realized that those were simply the techniques and benefits of good teaching; my comfort level expanded to subjects I couldn’t perceive as successful in an online format: science and mathematics.  I went back to my original doubts with online instruction: How could an online instructor instill as much comprehension as a live, dynamic teacher in front of the class?  Then I came across the The Math Dude.

With the growing trends showing that U.S. Students Trail Global Leaders, the brilliant educators at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) recognized the staggering need for improvement in math comprehension.  MCPStv produced several downloadable videos to compliment the county’s math curriculum and breakdown the mysteries of algebra in a format that can be played (and replayed) for free on an iPod or one of many other technology devices kids are glued to on a daily basis.  In an effort to show their students “How Cool Math Can Be,” the Math Dude convinced me that online learning can be certainly be dynamic as well as a great resource for students struggling in a subject, to give them extra instruction without other students noticing they need it.  Of course, I also became jealous of the filming resources at MCPS, but again, our online instructors impressed upon me their innovative teaching skills.

One of our science teachers brought basic kitchen ingredients and a bowl to film an experiment demonstrating the states of gases, solids and liquids.  With only a flip camera, cornstarch, water and a bowl in the basement of Trinity’s Library, we were able to show students (presumably science teachers too) how to reproduce the experiment in their own classroom with inexpensive elements within every school budget.  Some of our math teachers showcased their knowledge of new technology by utilizing a free whiteboard iPad application to capture what they would have taught students in person.  They used an app that recorded their voice while they drew sample problems on the screen of their iPad, using it as they would have on the whiteboard in a classroom.  These students can actually hear their instructors teach problems but they can do it from home after they put their kids to bed.  Even for classes that aren’t online, wouldn’t all students benefit from a video review of some of the instruction for upcoming tests?

Not only can students benefit from this type of instruction, but administrators (and politicians dividing tax dollars) at schools of every age group, from K-12 through university, will soon discover that fewer brick and mortar resources will be needed for online learning.  Educational facilities for in person courses require classrooms, desks, technology, electricity, heat, as well as the constant upkeep of the actual brick and mortar. 

I still think there is a right time and right place for online learning, but I also think that there are advantages to every party that chooses to utilize this form of teaching.  The students who need to process the information more than once can have the time to learn and relearn at their own speed.  The teachers can reach more than the usual number of students during one semester and aren’t bogged down by a daily class schedule.  Schools can use some facility funds to go into other areas of teacher preparation, recruitment, and development, student scholarship or other areas of educational research that might help the U.S. climb back up the educated ladder.

Embrace online learning.  It isn’t going away and it is a good way to see what appeals to kids today.  Try an online class with us or anywhere and give feedback to make it better while the opinions are still being formed about the best way to learn online.

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