Maybe you’re thinking about taking online classes for professional development or to work on your master’s degree. Maybe your school is interested in adding online learning options for at-risk students or to expand your electives. Maybe you’re considering work as an online teacher to supplement a regular teaching job or to be your primary job.
Online learning is a wide and varied field of options for teachers and students these days. Everything from computer-graded credit recovery systems to teacher-lead synchronous courses to self-paced teacher-guided programs and anything in between falls under the umbrella of online learning.
I’ve been in online learning as a teacher, instructional designer, and student (sometimes at the same time) since 2009. And while the name “online learning” fits many different programs, the fact is that online learning can look and function very different depending on how it is used and run.
Here are my observations on online learning:
- Online education is largely affected by how it is run. This includes the administration, the goals of the program, and the teaching staff. Some programs have great support for the students– and staff. Some teachers are responsive and exceptional communicators in the online environment. Some good schools can end up with teachers or staff that are not a good fit for online learning. Students may still be successful in the less supportive settings, based on what the student requires. Overall, a positive online learning experience includes accessible teachers and supportive staff.
- Online education is not “easier,” but it is usually at least, or sometimes more rigorous than other formats. For most students, the work is usually comparable to the expectations of a brick-and-mortar setting . For some students, however, the courses may be more rigorous, as they are not adjusted for the community as can happen in certain areas, such as at-risk populations. Online learning environtments usually build and sell their courses on rigor and high standards. For online teachers, there is usually less prep-work as far as preparing a daily lesson for one or more classes. The institution will usually determine if and when there are live lessons. The rest of the time, though, teachers will be working on grading and engagement. There is no re-using last year’s lesson or other short cuts when it comes to making phone calls or trying to elicit responses when email disappears into digital black holes.
- Engagement is crucial in online education, but it is also a huge issue at all levels. (I’ve taught high school and post-secondary career training, both for required courses and self-selected.) Online learning requires a great deal of motivation and self-direction. It can be very easy to blow off working “today” (and today becomes several todays, until a student is falling or has fallen behind). This often happens at a higher rate than students would normally “skip” attending a face-to-face class. In order to engage, students and teachers have to do more than show up– they have to reach out. Students have to reach out with questions rather than raise a hand, look quizzical or hang around after class until the teacher asks if they need help. It’s a different process and can be daunting. Teachers, then, also need to reach out to disengaged online learners, helping to take that first step– and do so delicately to avoid being accusing about absences or lack of participation. A student who just sits in class will likely get something, if only that they are making the effort to be present. There is no digital equivalent to “just showing up” in a virtual classroom.
- Online learning can be lonely, but it can also open up other avenues for collaboration and friendship. Students and teachers who use online learning should make sure to find other avenues for socialization. Students often socialize– heavily at times– in school with classmates and friends. For staff who move to online learning positions, it can be useful to find other opportunities to get out and meet with or make friends. How much a person needs to get out and find people to interact with and things to do will vary– some introverts may need vary little beyond their family on a regular basis. Others will need to find book clubs, home school groups, gaming groups (Euchre, Pokemon, Magic) or meet-ups of similar interests. On the plus side though, this can be the impetus for an online student or teacher to explore activities and social groups of like-minded people, perhaps finding friendships they would have missed by sticking to the familiar.
- Online education is not for everyone. Students who enroll in online learning often struggle with the tools initially, which usually include navigating a course, submitting attachments (similar to with email), and taking online assessments (which really are like those What Celebrity Do You Match? online quizzes). Students that are unable to overcome the hurdle to using online learning tools can quickly become disengaged and discouraged. Even “Intro to Online Learning” modules do not always help ensure students have the ability to find and submit their work as needed, unfortunately. This is compounded by issues with motivation and perseverance. Students may not realize what it means to sit at the computer all day for school or to be in complete control of their school access and work completion. Some do much better in a more directed environment, whether they want to admit it or not. (As an online teacher, I focus on cheer leading and providing resources, even if I’m thinking a student would be better off in an environment that fits them better.)
- Online learning does provide some great opportunities for certain students– of all ages. It can offer additional electives beyond what the school normally offers, which can help keep and engage students not interested in the normal electives. It can offer flexible attendance options for students with barriers to attendance, such as jobs, children, and health issues– and this also applies for adult learners. It can provide credit recovery options where students can test-out of material they know and focus on the material they don’t, speeding up the process of earning credits and helping to graduate in a timely fashion, rather than risk dropping out from being too far behind.
- Online learning can be very satisfying. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get attached to people you “only” know online. After all, those names are not just words on a screen– they are attached to living, breathing people on the other end of a keyboard. Students who may be experiencing success in school after too long without it. Teachers and staff that care and want to support their students. All people. Supporting students in any setting is rewarding.
After a decade in online learning, as teacher and student, I’m glad that it’s an option. I enjoy participating in it. And I think it’s important that everyone finds a good fit, whether online, or not.