30 October 2008

Boomer Ed: Choosing Online or F2F Classes

Part 2 in a 6-part series on Boomers going back to school during the economic downturn

The lure of online education is great and I am a proponent of the method. But most of this post will give you pause for thought. Online isn't for everyone.

Can adults returning to college compete in online classes? Or should they stick to F2F (face to face) classes? Adults of any age can adjust to the technology of online course work. If you already know how to email, and if you've ever attached a file to an email message, you have the skills to learn the rest of the technology needed. Most online programs rely on a user-friendly "learning management system" or LMS. The most popular brand is Blackboard and the most popular open source version is moodle. An LMS provides a password-protected course space for threaded discussions, assignment uploading, and chat rooms. Increasingly, LMSs include social networking options, too.

So a F2F class wouldn't use such technology? Actually, many on-campus classes use an LMS, too. So, even if you attend classes in person, expect to learn some of the same technology as online students.

Which is better?
I have seen superior learning occur in every online class that I have facilitated. (I also taught the on-ground version of those classes.) Research into this matter finds "no significant difference" between online and F2F when large numbers of classes are compared.

Which is better for me? Yes, that's the crucial question. Regardless of my opinion or any number of research studies, your learning style is the most important consideration in choosing between online and F2F settings. As a general statement, visual (reading) learners adjust more quickly. Online courses involve a lot of reading and writing. And even though online interaction can be very rich and rewarding, some students have difficulty adjusting to working on their own rather than going to a class meeting on a campus.

Isn't convenience the main reason people want online classes? At least at the beginning, that is the lure of an online education. Adults returning to school often can do so only if they can accomplish the work on weekends and late at night. (I am compelled to add that many of these convenience-seekers later become fans of online learning.)

What are the requirements of online education?

1 - Discipline to stay on schedule
2 - Willingness to learn new technology skills
3 - Willingness to participate actively

What is "willingness to participate actively?
" In a nutshell, there are no passive students in an online course. In a F2F class students can play a passive role (not participating, or even sleeping) or a distracted role (reading the newspaper, texting on a phone, or surfing on a laptop). When you are online for a course, you cannot do those things and accomplish the course. You must log in and proceed with the activity of the course. Sure, you can sit there and text a friend instead, but the online class will still be waiting for your attention.

I prefer in-person interaction but I need the convenience of online. Should I proceed with online classes? I offer three pieces of advice.

1 - Try out one online course. Keeping up with the due dates can be a challenge, even for the most organized person. By taking a single course you can learn best techniques to manage your time and technology.

2 - Give online a real chance to impress you. Set aside your negative expectations and enter the course space as an observer. First, look for aspects of the course that are similar to F2F courses. Then, look for aspects that are missing in F2F settings. A major plus is that most online courses are asynchronous, with little or no same-time meeting. Asynchronous discussions have time for reflection and so students' comments are typically more reasoned and more relevant than F2F students' spur-of-the-moment comments.

3 - Don't sabotage the course with fellow students. Consider what you would think if you were in a F2F class and someone said, "I really resent having to sit here and talk with you; this is a crummy way to learn." Now, flip the setting and imagine a student in an online class posting a message of "I really hate online and I learn a lot more in campus classes. This is a crummy way to learn." Well, that's what some people say in online classes. Of course, they feel some anonymity because their comment is in print, not spoken face-to-face. They probably don't have a clue that they have offended fellow students and perhaps the instructor, as well.

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold (www.marybold.com, www.boldproductions.com, College Intern Blog) is not under any circumstances to be regarded as professional, legal, financial, or medical advice. Or education advice. Or marital advice. Or even a tip.

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