Patrick Jones, PhD
Prior to taking a position at Excelsior in 2002, my formal education was obtained in traditional, face-to-face classrooms. When I attended Bates College in the 1970s and Columbia University in the 1980s, the internet was not used for teaching and learning at U.S. colleges and universities. I believe that Bates and Columbia still do not offer online courses today. Some of the reasons behind these institutions’ decision not to offer online courses include the nature of their student population and resistance among faculty.
I was somewhat skeptical of the quality of online courses until I had the chance to become more involved in their design and delivery. Having experienced online classes as both a student and an instructor, I am proud to say that I have “consumed the Kool-Aid.” In my estimation, online courses offer several important advantages in the areas of access, engagement and assessment which simply can’t be matched by face-to-face instruction.
Face-to-face classes are offered at defined times and at fixed locations throughout a semester. Students must adjust their schedules to attend face-to-face classes, and, if they miss the class, there is no convenient way for them to benefit from the lecture and interactions which occur during that class session. While students who enter college right out of high school and who reside on campuses may not encounter difficulties attending campus-based classes, adult students who have family and work obligations may frequently experience challenges which would prevent them from being available for an on-campus class.
Online classes, on the other hand, are accessible to students on a 24-hour basis. As long as a student has access to a computer and the internet, he/she can participate in the class at a time which is convenient for him/her. As an instructor for the School of Liberal Arts, I have worked with military service members who are deployed for parts of a term. Online learning provides these individuals with the opportunity to benefit from a college education while deployed on missions around the world. This type of access is simply not available for an on-campus class.
The majority of traditional, on-campus classes feature a faculty member delivering a lecture to a class of students. Sometimes these classes offer students the opportunity to engage their faculty member and fellow students in brief conversations, but many on-campus classes preclude student-faculty and student-student interaction.
By their very design, online courses facilitate engagement through messages, discussions, group projects and assignments. Interactions between students and faculty and among students are part of each course module, and students are graded on the extent to which they engage with their fellow classmates and the faculty member. These engagement activities help establish a sense of community, promote learning and facilitate the development of higher-order skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis.
Students may engage their instructors throughout an online course via virtual office hours and private messages. For the School of Liberal Arts course which I am teaching this term, I receive daily messages from students seeking guidance, input and advice on course-related matters. Contrast this type of engagement with the typical on-campus experience where instructors have defined office hours which limit engagement to a very restricted period of time during a semester.
Assessment activities in face-to-face classes usually consist of assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, and papers. Faculty use the assessment results to assign grades for students and to monitor student progress relative to content mastery and skill acquisition. Students use the assessment results to determine their progress in the course and determine where additional time needs to be spent to improve areas of deficiency.
In an online course, assessment activities include discussion posts, quizzes, tests, projects and papers. While this list is quite similar to assessments employed in on-campus classes, the number of assessment events is usually more numerous in an online course than a face-to-face class. By increasing the number of assessment events, the quality and quantity of assessment results are enhanced in a number of ways. First, the assessment findings are more valid, because they cover a broader range of knowledge and skills. Second, the assessment results are more precise, because they sample student behaviors on several occasions throughout the course. Third, online courses enhance one’s ability to express thoughts in writing. Through constant repetition with writing assignments and careful and constructive feedback, students are able to improve their writing skills.
Faculty teaching an online course have extensive access to assessment information which is simply not available to faculty teaching an on-campus course. Online course faculty can determine the amount of time a student accessed a particular component of a course, how many discussion posts a student made during a module, the average length of a student’s post, and when students were engaged with course components. As an Excelsior faculty member, I have relied on “real time” assessment results to intervene with students who have not mastered certain concepts and skills before these students fall behind in the course. This type of intervention is very difficult to achieve in an on-campus course where the time between an assessment and the provision of feedback to students is much longer.
While online courses may not be ideal for certain types of courses (e.g., surgery, dance, music performance), other discipline areas can surely benefit from the clear advantages of this format relative to access, engagement, and assessment.