Should you Take an Online Class?

Tomorrow, my summer 2015 classes begin. This semester, I'm teaching 3 classes- 2 fully online, 1 mixed mode/hybrid. I've completely revamped my curricula since last semester, based on some student feedback (I solicit student feedback a lot, and occasionally there are some real gems of wisdom that I incorporate into future semesters). I'm trying to make the curriculum more relevant to what students see themselves doing after they graduate (I have a lot of seniors in my classes), because, sadly (depending on your perspective), I've found that students respond best to assignments that they see a potential practical application for, and not assignments that are a bit more abstract and focus more on critical thinking. I still incorporate a good bit of the latter, of course, because I feel like I'd be doing my students a disservice if I didn't, but I hope that if I help students connect more with the course overall, they will be more receptive to the assessments that are less directly career-oriented.

However, another topic always comes to mind at the beginning of each semester, especially as discussions of the future of college persist in the culture. The popularity (and criticism) of MOOCs, degree programs that are almost entirely online, and the overall need for flexibility in academia (I have students that live 2 or more hours from campus that rely heavily on online classes) has changed how classes are taught. You can't just adapt a class that has been taught face to face to an online/hybrid mode with no changes- it's not just how you're delivering material that's different, it's literally everything, especially in classes that are fully online where you might never meet your students.

In a few days, I'm going to address these issues in a post about whether or not you should consider teaching an online course. But today, I'm going to address the other side- what type of students should take an online class? Everyone can, of course, and some students simply have to. But some students respond better to online classes than others, and it's important to know a few things about yourself and the class before you commit. 

1. What kind of student are you? Are you someone who asks a lot of questions during class, depends heavily on instructor feedback, thrives on interactions between students? While you can have all of these experiences in an online class, it's going to be a lot different. You might have a question for the instructor based on the readings or about the assessments- are you okay with not getting a response for a day or two? Are you comfortable with little or no verbal feedback? Can you get your social interaction needs met via discussion boards or the occasional group assignment? Regardless of how much your instructor communicates with you or how quickly they respond to e-mails, you are going to be primarily alone for the bulk of your class. You have to be very self-sufficient, detail-oriented, okay with some ambiguity, and comfortable working independently. Granted, if you love working alone and hate some of the distractions of the classroom, then an online class is a perfect fit.

2. What kind of class is it? Some classes are just perfect for online instruction, particularly those that are primarily focused on memorization or standardized information. Medical terminology is a perfect example of this. But some classes are more difficult to take online. For example, I teach a research methods class, where there are a lot of abstract concepts and ideas to digest, a lot of writing, and a lot of critical thinking. Some of my students thrive taking this type of class in a solely online environment, but some really struggle. For the vast majority of the struggling students, they are not lacking in work ethic or intellectual capability, but they simply need more of what a face-to-face class that meets regularly can provide. They need lectures, they need to ask lots of questions, they need consistent and detailed clarification on instructions and expectations. There is nothing wrong with this, but you need to know what type of class you are signing up for, and whether you are comfortable with taking that sort of class with the innate types of limitations that online classes provide.

3. What kind of professor is teaching the class? My university gives an award every semester for outstanding online classes, and they publish the class online so that other instructors can see the class and use it as a model. The professors that win these awards are operating their courses on many levels- not only are they highly organized in terms of the class presentation and very communicative with students, but they use elements such as social media (Facebook groups, Twitter feeds), multimedia components like videos and slides, interactive modules, and external resources in ways that help the class material really click for students. They might post videos of lectures, or have occasional Skype meet-ups with students. When done well, these are prime examples of how online classes can really shine. I try to incorporate these components into my own classes, and students tend to respond enthusiastically. Of course, on the other side of the spectrum, there are instructors who put little to no effort into the class. This can mean minimal communication or assignment feedback, courses that are disorganized or technically unsound (assessments aren't published the week they are assigned, links to external videos or links are broken; that kind of thing), absolutely no outside material of any kind, or, the complete opposite, the instructor that throws 500 YouTube videos, Ted Talks, PDFs, and slideshows at students with no context, leaving the student to try to put it all together. Is the professor of the class someone who you know is updated on technology and really tries to put together a good class? Or is an online class an afterthought for them? Ask previous students that took an online class with that professor or see if you can get a copy of the course syllabus ahead of time to try and find out before your grade is in their hands.

Of course, the only way to know if the mix of your personal attributes, the class, and the professor will work for you is to take the class. And sometimes the odds can be in your favor, and you might still have a horrible experience- but isn't that the case with any class, really? Online classes are a godsend for students who may have full-time jobs, familial obligations, live far from a college campus, or simply don't thrive in a campus environment. But before you think you are taking the easy way out by signing up for a course online, really think about whether it's the right choice- for you, for that class, with that instructor. If you set yourself up for success, you're much more likely to have a good experience and leave the class with knowledge, skills, and experiences that make you a better student and future professional.