The pros and cons of online learning — an imperfect solution
While hardly a perfect substitute for the one-on-one interaction of a real life classroom, online learning fulfills an important function for today’s diverse student body. For busy or impoverished students, students from nontraditional sectors of the academic demographic, and for adult professionals already holding a bachelor’s degree seeking to supplement their education with additional credentials, online education can enable such students to continue their academic learning with maximum efficacy and minimal inconvenience. There are certain aspects of the college experience that will be lost to persons who pursue all of their higher education online, but this does not mean that online education as a whole is without value, as it offers a “virtual classroom…open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”(“Strengths of Online Learning,” University of Illinois, 2006)
First of all, what does online learning mean? Even traditional classrooms now make use of web pages, blackboard technology, and email listerves to connect students outside of traditional classroom hours, to offer a “semi-autonomous and self-directed world” for students to add to the value of their education. (“Strengths of Online Learning.” University of Illinois, 2006) Information conveyed through such technology can include basic information such as the professor’s office hours, to links to additional readings. These additional technical resources can also provide students with a medium to continue the conversation of the classroom during their downtime, and also gives them an opportunity to discuss difficult readings and assignments. The students act as virtual aides to one another, in addition to the teaching assistants provided by the school.
But what is usually meant by online learning, in a more controversial sense, is the supplementation of traditional education in the classroom through an online, interactive process whereby the student receives assignments from the professor, may chat with his or her fellow students online, but does not come to class and engage in face-to-face classroom discussion. Traditional, competitive universities, by and large, have not adopted this method of education for seventeen and eighteen-year-olds graduating from high school. First of all, as noted by Randall Hansen in his online article, “Distance Learning Pros and Cons,” for an adolescent, one of the attractions of college is moving away from home for the first time, and enjoying the heady college atmosphere. “Part of the traditional college experience, of course, is the beauty of the campus, the college spirit — but you have none of that with distance-education courses,” he counsels, and “while you often interact with classmates via email, chat rooms, or discussion groups, there are no parties or offline get-togethers.” (Hansen, 2006) Furthermore, from the perspective of a concerned parent, “students are expected to find their own resources for completing assignments and exams, which is empowering for some, but daunting for others.” (Hansen, 2006) In other words, no one is there, encouraging the student to go to class or not to procrastinate. There is no roommate setting a good example, no schedule set by activities, part-time work, and the cafeteria. An online learner has minimal responsibility to his or her fellow students to attend class and participate in class discussion and complete class presentations. There is little personal attention given by the professor or the other students. Moreover, while mainstream colleges and universities may make use of distance learning technology, a distance learning degree still carries a “stigma.” (Hansen, 2006)
However, for an older student, juggling a full-time job and a family, the convenience of online courses is a boon. Students can ‘go to class’ (that is, turn on their computer) when they have time, not according to a set schedule, and they can plan their classes around their commitments. They may benefit from the input of their classmates, but there is less of a demand to be ‘present’ on online message boards and in chat rooms. Even if the student chooses to participate during an online chat, the distance student can do so without the time or expense of an additional commute, and the online student does not have to pay for a dorm or access to a cafeteria, which lacks the attraction for an older student with his or her own house and kitchen. An older student can go to school after putting the children to bed, and can set his or her “own pace and schedule,” and “control the learning environment,” in a way that treats the learner like a responsible adult. (Hansen, 2006) Adults who already have degrees, and are weary of the college experience can also make use of online classes to pursue career-enhancing degrees, such as an MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) part-time, or gain a certificate that offers them a new career path, such as in website or graphic design.
It is not simply the more responsible adult who will benefit from online learning. It can be a more effective learning environment “for certain types of learners (shy, reflective, language challenged, those that need more time).” (“What are the pros and cons?” e-learning FAQs: e-learners resources, 2006) Of course, it could be countered that such learners need to come out of their shells, practice their language schools, and need to benefit from outside resource room help, and thus might benefit from the additional pressures of a live classroom in the long run. But online learning can act as a bridge for such learners, giving them the necessary confidence in their ability to do college-level work, before they venture out into a more rigorous and socially demanding academic environment. Furthermore, “in the online environment learners retain a considerable level of anonymity. Discriminating factors such as age, dress, physical appearance, disabilities, race and gender are largely absent. Instead, the focus of attention is clearly on the content of the discussion and the individual’s ability to respond and contribute thoughtfully and intelligently to the material at hand.”(“Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Learning.” University of Illinois, 2006) Taking an online class enables a student to shed traditional barriers and assumptions of appearance, and viewed as such, enables a student who may have been the victim of academic prejudice to re-enter the learning environment and have a potentially more positive experience
However, one possible ‘con’ that is difficult to overcome is that “instructors need to learn to be effective online instructors,” and go above and beyond the potentially impersonal Internet divide to connect with students. (“What are the pros and cons?” e-learning FAQs: e-learners resources, 2006) Here, the need for self-motivation is felt by the online learner, although it could be argued that even ‘real life’ professors can be remote or insensitive to student needs. But an additional problem is posed by “faculty members who are uncomfortable with change and working with technology or feel that online programs cannot offer quality education often inhibit the process of implementation.”(“Weaknesses of Online Learning.” University of Illinois, 2006) A student must want to gain the skills or degree necessary to benefit from an online classroom in a way that is absent of exterior, immediate motivation such as constant instructor approval or disapproval, as the student will have less tactile contact with even the most concerned instructor.
Some courses will never function as perfect substitutes for online learning, such as “hands-on subjects,” including “public speaking, surgery, dental hygiene, and sports where physical movement and practice contribute to the achievement of the learning objectives. These subjects are probably best taught in a face-to-face traditional learning environment. Hybrid courses may represent a temporary solution to this problem thus making that portion of the course more accessible to a greater number of people who would otherwise have difficulty getting to campus.”(“Weaknesses of Online Learning.” University of Illinois, 2006) Nor can online learning provide the complete social, emotional college experience of having lunch with professors, confiding to roommates in soul-searching late-night study sessions, or participating in extracurricular activities. But for some students, and in some situations, the online environment may be liberating. Moreover, even students enjoying the traditional college experience will need to make better use of online resources more often in the future.
Hansen, Randall. “Distance Learning Pros and Cons.” Quintessential Careers. 2006. [27
Aug 2006] http://www.quintcareers.com/printable/distance_learning_pros-cons.html
Strengths of Online Learning.” University of Illinois. Last modified Aug 27, 2006. [27
Aug 2006] http://www.ion.illinois.edu/Resources/tutorials/overview/strengths.asp
Weaknesses of Online Learning.” University of Illinois. Last modified Aug 27, 2006.
27 Aug 2006] http://www.ion.illinois.edu/Resources/tutorials/overview/weaknesses.asp#AdministrationFaculty
What are the pros and cons?” e-learning FAQs: e-learner’s resources. 2006. [27 Aug 2006] http://www.elearners.com/resources/elearning-faq5.asp
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