The Online Learning Experience

by Amber Starfire

I was asked how teaching and learning via the Internet is different from teaching and learning in a traditional classroom. My questioner wanted to know what the pros and cons of each environment are, and what is important for teachers and students to know as they enter the online learning experience together?

Having taught in both environments for a number of years, I can say that, although online education is a very different experience than a traditional classroom setting, it is no less rewarding for teachers and students. Both online and traditional learning environments have teachers, students, instructional materials and resources, and a schedule or outline to follow. And both the virtual and physical schools follow the same basic model, including the presentation of lesson concepts and materials, discussion, student interaction, and completion of tasks and homework assignments.

In a traditional classroom setting, we have the advantage of body language, and the synergy and excitement that comes from interacting in the same room at the same time. Questions and answers are realtime. We can look in each others’ eyes and connect on a personal basis. On the other hand, dominant personalities sometimes take over the discussion, while the shy students, or those who feel less secure about their writing, hold back.

Internet-based learning environments usually offer freedom from having to be in a particular place at a particular time. They offer a way for people from all over the globe to connect, and freedom to be “in class” whenever it’s convenient for the students and teacher. They also offer the opportunity for thoughtful reflection in response to questions and comments. While virtual classrooms don’t have the warmth and synergy of personal connection, some people feel encouraged by the relative anonymity of the online environment, and they are able to be more honest in their writing and in what they submit to the class. In addition, there are usually fewer students at a time in an online course, allowing the teacher to give each student more personal attention.

Discussions can be lively or dead in either environment, but for the teacher, if the online “room” is quiet it can be more difficult to engage the students, because you don’t know who is really “there.” In a traditional classroom, you can look at a person and say, “Okay, Sheila, why don’t you read your writing exercise to the class?” But online, you might ask someone to post a response and not receive anything for a day or two, because Sheila is not checking her email.

Some teachers like to meet live via teleconferencing technology. I love the idea, but in my experience, it is difficult to get everyone to meet at the same time, particularly with the time differences due to location. So you’ll always have students absent. However, teleconferencing is a great way to hear “voice,” particularly when students are able to read their own writing. For both teachers and students, an online course can be more time intensive than in a regular classroom. For example, if  I’m teaching “live,” I show up, we have class, then I go home and I don’t have to think about it again until the next session, except for
some papers to review and correct. However, online classes are always in session and, due to the nature of the Internet, people expect nearly instantaneous responses and can feel ignored if they don’t hear from the teacher or each other within 24 hours. If I’m not careful, I can spend hours every day reviewing posts, responding to writing and to student conversations. I find that teaching online requires me to manage my time more effectively.

As a student in an online class, it’s important to be committed and self-motivated. Learning online is very much like independent study. At the community college, when I teach an independent study course, I can expect a 50% dropout rate, because many people simply need the structure of a traditional classroom to motivate themselves to do the work. If a student enrolls in an online course and doesn’t “show up” by posting her assignments or responding to other students’ comments, everyone loses. So when you enroll in an online
course, it’s doubly important to be dedicated to the course and schedule your study time.
Bottom line? Online courses offer a great deal of scheduling freedom, autonomy, and teaching and learning satisfaction. In order to give and get the best from it, it’s important to be organized, committed, and to know your own strengths and weaknesses. The benefits of the virtual learning environment are limited only by our willingness to grow.

The Story Circle Network offers a variety of courses to meet a wide range of interests and abilities. There are a few courses beginning in April, and the next full session opens in May. Click HERE to see the current list of classes and/or to enroll. If you’re interesting in teaching an online class, course proposals for the May-July session are due April 9th. Either way, you’re invited to join our learning community and experience first-hand the benefits of the virtual classroom.

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