The expansion of the Internet has included swift development of online college classes and programs. Students at many colleges and universities have access to a number of online options that either supplement classroom learning, or in some cases, provide an entire degree program. Understanding the pros and cons of both learning formats can help you decide which learning environment best suits your educational needs. The present paper highlights various emerging issues in classroom and online learning.
Today is a very exciting time for technology and education. Online programs offer technology-based instructional environments that expand learning opportunities and can provide top quality education through a variety of formats and modalities. With the special needs of adult learners who need or want to continue their education, online programs offer a convenient solution to conflicts with work, family and study schedules. Institutions of higher education have found that online programs are essential in providing access to education for the populations they wish to serve. In order for an online program to be successful, the curriculum, the facilitator, the technology and the students must be carefully considered and balanced in order to take full advantage of the strengths of this format and at the same time, avoid pitfalls that could result from its weaknesses. Before any online program can hope to succeed, it must have students who are able to access the online learning environment. Lack of access whether it be for economical or logistics reasons will exclude otherwise eligible students from the course. This is a significant issue in rural and lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Furthermore, speaking from an administrative point of view, if students cannot afford the technology the institution employs, they are lost as customers. As far as Internet accessibility is concerned, it is not universal, and in some areas of the United States and other countries, Internet access poses a significant cost to the user. Some users pay a fixed monthly rate for their Internet connection, while others are charged for the time they spend online. If the participants’ time online is limited by the amount of Internet access they can afford, then instruction and participation in the online program will not be equitable for all students in the course. This is a limitation of online programs that rely on Internet access. The expansion of the Internet has included swift development of online college classes and programs. Students at many colleges and universities have access to a number of online options that either supplement classroom learning, or in some cases, provide an entire degree program. Understanding the pros and cons of both learning formats can help you decide which learning environment best suits your educational needs. Computers improve classroom learning as long as teachers and students are equipped to reap the full benefits. Internet access allows students to conduct comprehensive research and communicate with other education providers beyond the four walls of the classroom. Computers also run specialized software programs that enable teachers to provide tutoring or personalized instruction for students who need advanced or remedial educational resources. There are many reasons why online programs have become a popular form of distance learning in higher education today. The online environment offers unprecedented opportunities for people who would otherwise have limited access to education, as well as a new paradigm for educators in which dynamic courses of the highest quality can be developed. Here is a list of some of the major benefits of online programs:
Classroom Learning Advantages
Classroom learning typically offers multi-sensory appeal. You can listen to the instructor, receive visual cues through PowerPoint images, handouts or whiteboard lists and participate actively in hands-on activities and case studies. You also have direct access to the instructor in class. Interaction is immediate and you normally have opportunities to ask questions and participate in live discussions. This also allows you to benefit from the firsthand accounts of other students’ experiences. If you want to build and maintain personal and professional relationships during your education, classrooms also offer greater personal contact with other students.
In contrast to online learning, classroom learning is normally fairly structured. You meet at regularly scheduled times on the same days each week. This limits flexibility with work and other activities. You generally must be in class to get the learning experience and to keep up with requirements. Unless your instructors record lectures, in-class instruction is not available after the class session is over. Students who struggle to focus may also find classrooms and cohorts distracting to their learning experience.
Online Learning Advantages
A major reason students turn to online classes is because of the convenience. You can sit at home or go to a library to do your coursework. This eliminates the need for driving, which saves gas, and in some cases, allows you to take classes from distant schools. Online learners also get to develop their Internet, technology and virtual team skills by participating in online discussions, tests and other virtual learning activities. The ability to do coursework on your own schedule and to manage the pace of your learning experience is also benefits to online students.
Classroom computers open up a whole new world of telecommunication, allowing students to access national and worldwide educational websites. Immediate access to current materials enables students to respond, analyze, read and digest educational content that isn’t available in most textbooks — or at least hasn’t made it to print yet. Video conferencing, multimedia presentations and electronic communication tools also give schools the ability to educate students, including those who are home sick or take online classes. Teachers must keep close tabs on classroom Internet use, ensuring that students aren’t socializing, playing games or researching topics that don’t have educational value.
Computers provide a way for students to engage in project-based learning. According to the University of South Florida, laptop computers and wireless network connections allow teachers to incorporate multiple computers into the classroom, take them on field trips and send them home with students who need to complete electronic or research assignments. Computers help students access timelines, historical data, images, graphs, scientific findings, art, pop culture, current events and music that make projects come to life. Classroom computers also allow students to share files, work on group assignments and distribute knowledge quickly and efficiently.
Classroom computers make it easier for teachers to delegate their time and attention. Programs geared toward remedial students, advanced-learning software and tutoring help teachers address the needs of students who are falling behind or require more challenging workloads. Since a teacher usually teaches to the median-level student in her classroom, computers help slowly down or speed up the learning process. As long as a teacher doesn’t become dependent on classroom computers — causing her to slack off on lesson plan preparation or lose her creative edge — computers can provide a more comprehensive learning experience. Computers also make it easier for teachers to record grades, calculate averages, report absences and maintain assignment logs. They can also use computers during break times to brainstorm classroom activities, research age-appropriate projects and locate multimedia presentations to complement academic subject matter.
Students use classroom computers to respond and interact with the world around them. For example, instead of simply reading about the Black Death in textbooks, computers give students the opportunity to research what types of modern-day illnesses pose similar problems. Or they provide access to online documentaries that teachers may not legally be allowed to show publicly in a classroom setting due to copyright laws. “Forbes” reports that education technology personalizes learning, enabling students to deploy the medium that works best for them. Interactive smart boards, online group discussions and webinars provide educational opportunities that teachers can’t provide in a traditional classroom setting.
Educators often use software programs and online resources to help students develop and hone basic skills, such as reading comprehension, grammar, math, spelling and punctuation. Headphones make it possible for individuals or an entire class to participate in interactive learning, allowing each student to work at her own pace. Many free online educational sites such as PBS Teachers and ABCya.org provide interactive games for students of all ages. Some basic skills require practice and repetition, so computerized games make learning interesting for students.
Online Learning Disadvantages
A key factor in assessing your potential for effective online learning is your level of self-discipline. Students sometimes misconstrue that online classes are less rigorous or time-consuming. Instead, they require more self-discipline, time management and motivation to complete work. Limited interaction and access to instructors and no personal contact with other students are also common drawbacks. While effective online instructors are available via e-mail, phone and web conferencing, you don’t have the same interpersonal relationship in most cases. The potential for miscommunication and misunderstandings is more prevalent online as well, especially given the lack of context and nonverbal messages in e-mail and discussion forums.
E Learning Shortcomings Successful on-ground instruction does not always translate to successful online instruction. If facilitators are not properly trained in online delivery and methodologies, the success of the online program will be compromised. An instructor must be able to communicate well in writing and in the language in which the course is offered. An online program will be weakened if its facilitators are not adequately prepared to function in the Virtual Classroom. An online instructor must be able to compensate for lack of physical presence by creating a supportive environment in the Virtual Classroom where all students feel comfortable participating and especially where students know that their instructor is accessible. Failure to do this can alienate the class both from each other and from the instructor. However, even if a virtual professor is competent enough to create a comfortable virtual environment in which the class can operate, still the lack of physical presence at an institution can be a limitation for an online program. For the faculty as well as the participants, such things as being left out of meetings and other events that require on-site interaction could present a limiting factor in an online program.
Some environments are disruptive to the successful implementation of an online program. Administrators and/or 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. These people represent a considerable weakness in an online program because they can inhibit its success.
Sometimes administration cannot see beyond the bottom line and look at online programs only as ways to increase revenues and are thus not committed to seeing online programs as a means of providing quality education to people who would otherwise not be able to access it. In such a case, an institution that is not aware of the importance of proper facilitator training, essential facilitator characteristics, and limitations of class size would not understand the impact that these elements can have on the success of an online program.
In the excitement and enthusiasm for online programs that has been generated recently, it is important to recognize that some subjects should not be taught online because the electronic medium in its current state of development does not permit the best method on instruction. Examples are hands-on subjects such as 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. However, solutions of that sort still underline the fact that online teaching cannot satisfy all educational needs and goals. Just because it may be technologically possible to simulate a physical learning experience, this does not necessarily mean that it is the best way to teach it.
- Learners with low motivation or bad study habits may fall behind
- Without the routine structures of a traditional class, students may get lost or confused about course activities and deadlines
- Students may feel isolated from the instructor and classmates
- Instructor may not always be available when students are studying or need help
- Slow Internet connections or older computers may make accessing course materials frustrating
- Managing computer files and online learning software can sometimes seem complex for students with beginner-level computer skills
Overall impact of e learning
The main advantage of asynchronous online learning is that it allows students to participate in high quality learning situations when distance and schedule make on-ground learning difficult-to-impossible. Students can participate in classes from anywhere in the world provided they have a computer and Internet connection. In addition, the online format allows physically challenged students (and teachers) more freedom to participate in class. Participants access the Virtual Classroom through their computers instead of having to “go to class” physically.
The Virtual Classroom is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Time efficiency is another strength brought by the online learning format. Asynchronous communication through online conferencing programs allows the professional juggling work, family, and study schedules to participate in class discussions. There is no question about doing the work; just do it at the times that are more convenient. Students can access their courses at any time of day or night. Further, they have continuous access to lectures, course materials, and class discussions. This is particularly convenient for those who may need to reread a lecture or take more time to reflect on some material before moving on.
The online format allows a dynamic interaction between the instructor and students and among the students themselves. Resources and ideas are shared, and continuous synergy will be generated through the learning process. Each individual can contribute to the course discussions and comments on the work of others. The synergy that exists in the student-centered Virtual Classroom is one of the most unique and vital traits that the online learning format possesses.
High Quality Dialog
Within an online asynchronous discussion structure, the learner may reflect on comments from others before responding or moving on to the next item. This structure allows students time to articulate responses with much more depth and forethought than in a traditional face-to-face discussion situation where the participant must analyze the comment of another on the spot and formulate a response or otherwise lose the chance to contribute to the discussion.
Within an online discussion, the individual student responds to the course material (lectures and course books, for example) and to comments from other students. Students usually respond to those topics within the broader conversation that most clearly speak to their individual concerns. These situations result in smaller conversations taking place simultaneously within the group. While students should read all of their classmates’ contributions, they actively engage in only those parts of the dialog most relevant to their needs. In this way, students control their own learning experience and tailor the class discussions to meet their own specific needs. Ideally, students make their own individual contributions to the course while at the same time take away a unique mix of information directly relevant to their needs.
Level Playing Field
In the online environment, learners have a certain measure 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.
Access to Resources
It is easy to include distinguished guest experts or students from other institutions in an online class. Further, today’s students have access to resources and materials that may be physically located anywhere in the world. An instructor can compile a resource section online with links to scholarly articles, institutions, and other materials relevant to the course topic for students to access for research, extension, or in depth analysis of course content material.
The literature of adult education supports the use of interactive learning environments as contributing to self-direction and critical thinking. Some educators have made great strides in applying these concepts to their own ground teaching. However, many classes still exist which are based on lectures and rote memorization of material. The nature of the semi-autonomous and self-directed world of the Virtual Classroom makes innovative and creative approaches to instruction even more important. In the online environment, the facilitator and student collaborate to create a dynamic learning experience. The realization of a shift in technology creates the hope that those who move into the new technology will also leave behind bad habits as they adopt this new paradigm of teaching. As educators transform their courses to take full advantage of the online format, they must reflect on their course objectives and teaching styles. Many of the qualities that make a successful online facilitator are also tremendously effective in the traditional classroom. Convenience is at the top of the list of reasons why students take eLearning courses. Although assignments usually have submission deadlines, eLearning courses are primarily independent of time and place. Students can access instruction at their convenience, no matter where they live or travel. Online instruction knows no geographic boundaries. Online courses link students from all over the world. Students can share ideas in a culturally diverse setting with people from different social, economic, and experiential backgrounds. Since its inception in 1999, Revelation Online has linked together high school students across Canada and in England, USA, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Russia, Italy, France, Taiwan, and Germany.
- Students can study anywhere they have access to a computer and Internet connection
- Class work can be scheduled around work and family
- Learners can test out or skim over materials already mastered and concentrate efforts in mastering areas containing new information and/or skills
- eLearning can accommodate different learning styles and facilitate learning through a variety of activities
- Self-paced learning modules allow students to work at their own pace
- Students have the option to select learning materials that meets their level of knowledge and interest
Online courses can provide individualized attention and a depth of interaction from instructors and students not achievable in a large classroom environment. ELearning courses encourage contemplative and reflective learning opportunities. With eLearning, students have time to reflect before responding. The asynchronous communications can eliminate the barriers that inhibit some individuals from expressing themselves in face-to-face settings. Setting aside quiet space and time without interruptions, students concentrate and think about the readings before participating in the discussions.
- Uniform standards maintained
- Consistent content delivery
- Fewer errors, safer environment
- Students develop knowledge of the Internet and computers skills that will help them throughout their lives and careers
The online format reduces preconceived notions based on student’s age, gender, race, background, or level of experience. Through online discussion, students can receive and give valuable feedback to each other and learn from people with a broad array of backgrounds and experience with less judgment than might be found in a face-to-face situation.
- Flexibility to join discussions in the bulletin board threaded discussion areas at any hour, or visit with classmates and instructors remotely in chat rooms
- Instructors and students both report eLearning fosters more interaction among students and instructors than in large classrooms
- Hands-on or lab work is simulated in a virtual classroom
- Fewer penalties from non-compliance
- Successfully completing online or eLearning courses builds self-knowledge and self-confidence
- Encourages students to take responsibility for their learning.
Both students and facilitators must possess a minimum level of computer knowledge in order to function successfully in an online environment. For example, they must be able to use a variety of search engines and be comfortable navigating on the World Wide Web, as well as be familiar with Newsgroups, FTP procedures and email. If they do not possess these technology tools, they will not succeed in an online program; a student or faculty member who cannot function on the system will drag the entire program down. User friendly and reliable technology is critical to a successful online program. However, even the most sophisticated technology is not 100% reliable. Unfortunately, it is not a question of if the equipment used in an online program will fail, but when. When everything is running smoothly, technology is intended to be low profile and is used as a tool in the learning process. However, breakdowns can occur at any point along the system, for example, the server which hosts the program could crash and cut all participants off from the class; a participant may access the class through a networked computer which could go down; individual PCs can have numerous problems which could limit students’ access; finally, the Internet connection could fail, or the institution hosting the connection could become bogged down with users and either slow down, or fail all together. In situations like these, the technology is neither seamless nor reliable and it can detract from the learning experience. While an online method of education can be a highly effective alternative medium of education for the mature, self-disciplined student, it is an inappropriate learning environment for more dependent learners. Online asynchronous education gives students control over their learning experience, and allows for flexibility of study schedules for nontraditional students; however, this places a greater responsibility on the student. In order to successfully participate in an online program, student must be well organized, self-motivated, and possess a high degree of time management skills in order to keep up with the pace of the course. For these reasons, online education is not appropriate for younger students (i.e. elementary or secondary school age), and other students who are dependent learners and have difficulty assuming responsibilities required by the online paradigm.
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