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Monday, February 24, 2014

Traditional v. Online Learning

As the online learning phenomenon has been taking over the educational system in the U.S. during the last decade, I had managed to remain mostly indifferent to the movement. I didn't think that I would ever want to take an online class, and I doubted that you can achieve the same level of education through an online course as through a classroom course, but I was not vehemently opposed to the movement. That was until many of my middle school students started choosing online high schools instead of the real thing. At that point, I began to feel a little angry; I was beginning to understand that all these online schooling options might really be about making money rather than what is best for the student, as online high schools are now getting state funding put aside for charter schools. Online classes can be great for adults with full time jobs trying to achieve a master's degree, but an online bachelor's is questionable, and high school online sounds like it would be downright detrimental to the student. School is about so much more than just memorizing content, writing a paper, and taking a test. School is about interacting with your peers and your teachers, discussing topics, going deeper, and learning from each other. And on the non academic front, school is about meeting people that are different from you, learning about other cultures, and trying out sports and clubs and extracurricular activities. The idea of high school consisting of a couple hours at your computer each day seems so sad to me.

I strongly encouraged my middle school students to talk with their parents and try to find an actual school that they could attend. I was mostly unsuccessful, though, and many of my students went on to stay home and complete coursework online. These students would come back and visit and gloat about the fact that they didn't have to go to school, and my heart would break for them. I continued to speak out against online high school, but I realized that having never taken an online class, I was at a disadvantage in my arguments. I know all the benefits of traditional schooling, having attended a traditional high school, college, and graduate school, but every single class I have taken has been in a classroom with other students and a real, live teacher. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I enrolled in an online class. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) hosts online graduate courses in climate and ocean science for teachers. The goal is to better educate teachers in the sciences so that they are better able to share information with students and other teachers at their school. Any educator can participate in these pass/fail courses and receive 3 graduate credit hours from the State University of New York at Brockport. My degree is in marine and atmospheric science, but really I haven't taken a single atmospheric course; this opportunity would allow me to strengthen my anti-online learning standpoint (I swear I entered this experiment with an unbiased mind), and bolster my atmospheric knowledge at the same time.

My AMS course started in September with a "gomeeting" with the course instructors and the students. The technology worked fairly well, and I was able to have all my questions answered regarding assignments and sign-ins for information access. There would be two more of these online meetings in the middle and at the end of the semester. Aside from the meetings, there were weekly assignments that were submitted to two mentors by email, who responded with corrections and feedback. The assignments were fairly simple and straight forward. I read one chapter per week from the course text book and there were review questions that went along with the reading. The questions were really just to prove that you had read the assigned pages, however, as they were simple multiple choice questions. The most interesting assignment were the "investigations." These consisted of visiting specific websites to access data sets from different governmental agencies and then answering simple questions about the data. The questions were never difficult, but this did expose me to new sources of information that I do hope to use in the future. Lastly, there was a "current climate studies" assignment that required linking to recent governmental climate publications, finding specific information in the publication, and again answering easy multiple choice questions. At the end of the course we were also required to informally propose a project that would make use of what we had learned in the course.

I feel that the AMS course had a lot of potential; I did complete all assignments and enjoyed most of them, but I do not feel I know much more about atmospheric science now than I did before the course. I think this is because of several factors, but mostly because of the lack of lecture. I am a person that can read from a textbook and teach myself material well enough to pass tests and write papers, but the information does not stick long term unless someone makes it interesting in a personal way. Having a professor relay personal stories and experiences turns academic material into an entertaining experience that lends itself to being stored in my brain into the furture. Reading a textbook just does not have this effect on me. Also, the type of questions in the course did not stimulate thought and critical thinking, they were solely a tool for the instructors to know whether or not the reading had been done, not how thoroughly I had understood what I had read. The email feedback was helpful, and whenever I had a question, my mentor was willing to spend time answering it, but again email is just so impersonal. At the end of it, I did not feel like I had learned at a graduate level and I was left even more disillusioned with the idea of online learning.

In an ironic twist, I am now teaching a "blended" online and classroom course in marine biology at the local community college. I went into this teaching experience extremely optimistic about what I would accomplish during lecture and the types of deep, stimulating conversations that would take place on the message boards regarding conservation issues and policy. My optimism was quickly dissolved and replaced with realism. The course is a five credit course with three credits being considered classroom and two credits being considered online learning. This means that students are meant to do a significant amount of independent learning and complete weekly online assignments. I assigned videos available on about ocean conservation in conjunction with several related current events articles each week and wrote a detailed prompt to initiate a hearty discussion on the message board. I clearly detailed what was expected in their initial responses to the videos and news articles and required that they respond to at least 2 other students' responses agreeing or disagreeing with their viewpoint and defending their position. The response to these assignments was a lot of grumbling, complaining, low participation, and pathetic effort. My hopes and dreams of a robust conversation pertaining to relevant, current issues were dashed. I think I can fairly say that the online portion of the class I am teaching has been a fail.

As I interact with more and more young people, I have noticed that many of my students are great in class, but really don't want to put in much time outside of class. They love technology, but really enjoy using technology for fun, fleeting endeavors, not prolonged or challenging efforts. Technology has made life much more convenient, everything is available with a finger swipe, but actually spending time to read a whole article is not convenient and does not hold their attention. Doing homework, reading, writing, and having academic conversations through technology seems to be the antithesis of how students expect to use their devices. I don't think that it is impossible to have a quality online learning program, but I don't think that online is the right platform for high school and I really believe that undergraduate and graduate students are missing out and getting a lower quality of education when they take online classes instead of traditional courses. I am nervous that the online learning movement will continue to push forward and the next generation is going to be even lazier and less knowledgeable than the current one.

What have your online experiences been like? What do you think the world would be like without actual schools? I am curious if others have had better experiences and have different points of view.

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