Saturday, May 27, 2006

Why Online? Teaching and Learning via a Modem

I think the biggest attraction of online teaching and learning is one of convenience. Students find that online learning fits in with their lives more easily, often because they are juggling child care and school or because they are trying to take a class while working full-time. Distance is often a factor, too. Students of mine have lived in places like New Orleans and Philadelphia. I have also had students from elsewhere in the state of Kansas, such as Beloit, Wichita, Pittsburg, Topeka, Manhattan, and Lawrence. My wife has had students logging into her classes from Germany and Bosnia.

Usually, the online classes offered at the colleges where I teach in Kansas City fill much sooner than onground classes. With the hassles that accompany technology, online learning can be much more difficult than students imagined. Not all of the students are as technically proficient as they need to be to navigate the class and to troubleshoot problems related to Java, for instance. The attrition rate in previous semesters has been as high as 50%; fewer students than anticipated withdrew during the most current semester, despite the introduction of WebCT 6.0 and all of the problems that occurred during the first month or so.

I first became interested in teaching online because of convenience, too. I was commuting a couple of hours a day from Leavenworth, which is in the northwestern edge of the Kansas City metro area. When my asthma led to problems sleeping, I was often exhausted when driving and caught myself nodding off at the wheel. Teaching online probably kept me from getting into a serious accident. Fortunately, I have now been getting shots twice a week for my asthma and sleep much better. Even so, teaching online prevents me from adding many more miles to my ten-year-old car, saves me money by not having to buy a newer car and by not buying so much high-priced gasoline, and contributes in a small way to reducing my carbon footprint.

I appreciate online learning the most during the winter when snow or an ice storm leaves several inches of accumulation on the roads and when the TV news reports on the amount of accidents and on the difficulties that drivers experience in trying to reach their homes. I can sit in my home office and glance out the window at the weather occasionally as I continue with my grading.

I am happy, too, at not having to deal with some of the more common discipline problems in the classroom. Students no longer attempt to talk to each other when I’m talking. Students no longer visibly show their disrespect by getting up out of their desks and walking out during the middle of class. Online classes have problems of their own. This last semester, a student who resented having to retake the second-semester composition class after having had the class at a private college openly expressed his negativity and intimidated some of the other students with his hostile views of the class and of those lifestyle choices he objected to in the reading. A few years ago, a student found it necessary to criticize one student who admitted having had an abortion and another student who admitted living a gay lifestyle. This student sent private e-mails to these students and quoted Bible verses in support of his own views.

Online learning requires that students take responsibility for their own education. A student who reads the material posted in the class and who communicates with me whenever questions arise regarding the assignments can succeed within the class. A student who doesn’t read the material and who doesn’t fulfill the assignments struggles with the class and often withdraws before the semester ends or simply disappears and doesn’t log on again. It isn’t possible to simply show up and sit passively in class.

There are also students whose writing skills require more individual attention than an online class can offer. These kinds of students often get angry and blame me for their own weaknesses when they never should have enrolled in the class.