The desire to go to college was a constant battle for me - from not being sure as to what I wanted to go to college for, to not having the funds or the time to go.  I was also nervous about how to start, being no one in my family had ever been to college before.  Added to that was the problem that my husband and I had the occasional battle as he too had the desire to go to college.  The major difficulty was how could both of us accomplish our higher education goals while both needing to provide for our growing family.  So, like so many other things, I put the thought of college out of my mind and onto the back burner for the time being.

Then an opportunity came my way that I couldn’t resist - I was informed about the Alliss Opportunity Grant (http://www.collegescholarships.org/grants/returning.htm).  This grant was available for students who are Minnesota residents and have been out of school for at least seven years.  The grant would pay for one class and the textbooks associated with the class.  This sounded perfect for me, as I could then get a feel how college classes worked before diving in and getting over my head.  Not sure as to what class to take, I was recommended to take a Psychology class as it tied into so much in the outside world - so I did.

The college that I took the class at was just a few miles down the road from me, it was a Community College and what an interesting experience it was.  The Psychology class was a night class, which worked out well for my busy schedule.  The classroom was held in an auditorium - the sitting could easily hold 200 plus students.  The class was mainly made up of mainly long lectures with the occasional educational movie, tests, and quizzes.

I remember my first night of class well; this was the night that I was told about the rules. The instructor stated that we were all adults – many of us may have families to care for or other obligations to take care of.  Because of this reason, cellphone calls were allowed, we were just to be respectful and place them on silent and take the call out into the hallway.  We also didn’t need to call or email to report our absence - we either came or didn’t.  It was up to us as to how we wanted to get our money’s worth out of the class.  We could come and leave as we pleased, but if we knew this ahead of time, he asked that we sat at the end of an isle as to not disrupt others who were trying to learn.

With one class done and hungry for more, I did my research as to which college to attend for the art degree that I was interested in.  I found that I had the option of one of two choices: Alexandria Technical College two hours away from where I currently lived, or the Art Institute International of Minnesota downtown – about an hours drive with traffic and no parking lot.  As I went and toured Alexandria Technical, I was quickly sold and packed up my family to go to college in the country.

While attending college at Alexandria Technical College, the classroom sizes were much smaller - maybe 30 in a class. Teachers there had a different policy when it came to the classroom - students were treated more like kids than adults (mainly, I think, because most of them still acted like children). Cellphones were not to be seen or heard - in one class, if it were heard, you’d end up giving a five-minute lecture in front of the class the following class day.  Doors would be locked - if you were late to class it was considered rude.  Only if the instructor made the decision to open the door after their lecture, did you get an opportunity to come into the classroom – but only if they were feeling generous.

But even with these negatives, the teachers really cared about you and wanted to teach not only the important lessons of the classroom, but also the importance of respect and consideration to others.  They wanted you to succeed within the classroom, so that you could succeed outside in the big corporate world.  You could talk to the teachers to get feedback and a true caring response to your work.  You where seen a person there, not just a shadow within the numbers.

Once I finished my Communication Arts degree, I was not yet done with classes at Alexandria Technical Community College.  I had decided to continue with my education and pursue my Bachelor’s degree - I had discovered Alexandria Technical and Community College shared a partnership program with Southwest Minnesota State University to where all of my Art degree credits would transfer to obtain a Bachelor’s in Business Management as electives with only needing two more years of college.  So away I went to continue my educational adventure!

As I started off on with my general educational classes, some of which were online and some of which were in the classroom, I learned many things about how things are done online and the importance of how to navigate around the college website.  Everything was different then my experience from being in the classroom for my Art degree.  One area I feel colleges are lacking in is teaching new students the how, why, and the importance of being able to navigate through this process.  On a college website, not only do you have the ability to see what’s happening at the college, but also the task of using it to check email, registering for classes, and getting into your online class.  Plus, once in the online classroom, you must also know how to access classroom materials, see grades, how to chat, how to do a discussion, and what a drop box is and how it’s used.

My best online teacher was Pat Koch, a general education biology teacher at Alexandria Technical and Community College.  She did the best job of making the online experience feel like I was in the classroom. Within her online classroom, she had everything from PowerPoint lectures with voice to videos to watch with worksheets.  Even for the book material tests she provided key areas of what to study for.  If a paper assignment was due, it was laid out as to what font to use, the spacing required and the length of the paper.  She was really involved with my education providing up-to-date feedback regularly - even though I never had met her face-to-face.  She also did a good job of not only teaching us online students, but also in getting us involved with each other.

Meanwhile, I also began taking online classes at Southwest Minnesota State University - a college that was 2 hours away.  Their online website was very similar to the one that I had already been using at Alexandria Technical College.  The only real difference that I had noticed was everything had a different sign-on and password (which was harder to keep track of) and accessing your email was a separate link (having two separate email accounts that you had to check daily was quite a task).  When it came to their online classes, they had some that were hybrid classes - where not only were you able to see the PowerPoint, but you were also able to see the teachers as well, logging in at a specific time for class. Some of students that lived on campus had the choice to being within the classroom, while others were online.  This gave the student the ability to watch the teacher’s body language beyond just hearing them – a vital ability for effective communication.  You also had the ability to chat in the chat box directly with the teacher while class was happening.  Sometimes however, their response was slow in that they needed to first become aware of your comment (they were away from their desk computer lecturing and had to return in order to notice).  Other times I noticed, depending on the instructor, they might not use the live video camera (possibly camera shy).  Even these teachers were still very set on asking questions and expecting back responses.

One of the things that these teachers did that I thought would have fostered more interaction with the other classmates was to complete team projects.  Teams would consist of a mixture of in-class and online students.  This shouldn’t have posed a big problem, but it did time and time again. One of the problems was with lack of communication - I was often paired with an individual whom did not check their emails.  Without communication from these students, my thoughts were, “If you don’t email me, you don’t exist!” – how was I to know that they didn’t drop out of the class.  Those that did email shared a different problem: lack in knowing email etiquettes - often making the mistake of thinking that messages in email can be implied instead of having to be taken literally due to not being able to pick up on personal mannerism due to lack of personal interaction.  This problem created strife within the group, which helped contribute to the other problems.

Workloads were also often not distributed evenly amongst team members.  Students within the classroom thought that online students had more time to complete tasks - so online students were often given the bulk of the project.  With some team groups that I have been in, they didn’t even bother with this step - making things even harder.  And then there were times I was dictated to – forced to “follow along” just because I was online and was not able to attend the on-campus meeting that they had planned (I had offered other means of communicating with me, such as through Skype, but alas, none took my offer).  Other times my ideas were stolen - I wasn’t given any credit for my thoughts and ideas.  Even when I tried to stand up for myself and state how these actions offended me, I was told to stop having a temper-tantrum like a two year old.

This college also had the flip side that was not so helpful as compared to my other online classes – you were handed a book to read along with an occasional PowerPoint if you were lucky.  The course was filled with lots of discussions and many papers to write and research, but other than that, you were on your own to learn the material – you rarely had any interaction with the teacher.  I was often told that’s just how upper division classes go - they want to teach you to be more independent.  But I often found myself arguing back with the question: how is that teaching when you just go into the online classroom and just talk about the topic that the teacher presented among other student and not hear from the teacher - students teaching students, is anything really gained?

I’ve seen how online education failed to work for my husband and daughter and came to realize that online education is not for everyone, at least not yet.  People should still have a choice as to how they like being taught, especially when online education is so new to the game. Part of this problem I feel stems from the companies, or education systems, which are trying so hard to get with the times.  They fail to have their online teaching systems fully functional and user friendly.  For example, my daughter’s online high-school system had a calendar system that would continue to tell her what was due for the day within that day; however, as she did the work and completed the tasks, another assignment would pop-up and say that it to was due for that day (where originally it was not).  Sadly, this continued all day, every day from morning until nighttime, causing her to finally gave up, frustrated and in tears, because she never made it to any of her other classes for that day and was being reprimanded for late work.

There are so many things that online education systems still need to research to discover what works and what does not.  Unfortunately, in my many years of online education, I’ve yet to be able to voice my opinions as a student as to how they could better enhance the system - making it more unified and user friendly as to keep students learning instead of dropping out (either of the online classes or even to the point of dropping out of school entirely).  Sadly, some of these students will not return to better themselves due to the high level of frustration they felt and the feeling of loss.  They believe that no one cared enough to help them learn how to use the new technology or help them succeed.  This feeling of failure, shame, and uncared for is no way for our society to build itself upon; and learning cannot occur if we as a society cannot listen to the student who cries for help voicing their opinions as to how the system can be improved upon.  

Feedback is so important to everyone – especially the online student.  It is the only means of knowing how well one is doing in the course.  But when you’re taking an online class and assignments are not graded and no feedback is given, it makes it difficult to adjust and make necessary changes to benefit your future.  Do you need to work harder or just give up and try again later?  How well are grasping the material?  If you believe that you have been getting A’s and B’s when in truth you’ve been getting D’s and F’s, there’s a real problem that needs to be addressed!  Unfortunately, I have witnessed that the deadline for withdrawal from the class approaches, yet no grade is posted for the class (or the instructor is behind in grading items).  What do you do?  You email the teacher and get a response back somewhere along the lines as to “I’m working on them” or “Grades are not required to be posted until the end of the semester.  Please read the syllabus!”  The deadline comes and goes and you make the decision to hold your breath and hope for the best.  How is this teaching?

But a better question to ask is what is this teaching our students?  Students, who are given deadlines for their assignments, must be held accountable for promptness with tasks, yet their teachers do not because they hold a position of authority.  Does this mean that we students only have to stick to deadlines while in college, but once we emerge into the workforce like the teachers have, deadlines don’t really matter?

What the teachers are truly teaching us though through their actions, without them really realizing it, is that they are overworked.  Sadly, this is all to common among teachers - where students might have one paper to write per class, teachers have 30 per class or more to grade, and some teachers are teaching more than 4 classes a day.  It is not surprising as to why, over my years of taking online classes, I’ve seen more and more instructors go with other teaching sites that come with the reading book material (for example McGraw Hill Connect).

I currently have a class where my teacher is having us use this site - sites like these usually provides just about everything, lessening the workload for the teachers.  They are really nice too, I’m sure the teacher goes over the course material on the site picking and choosing areas that he or she may want emphasize.  When students go onto the site and does course material, turning in the assignments, the system grades it instantly - providing students with instant feedback.  The only drawback I have found for myself is the lack of interaction from the teacher and other students, as well as any technology malfunctions that may happen (especially at the beginning when trying to get into the right course and class).

Will this be the way to the future for online teaching?  Perhaps, but I find that if this is to be the new way of teaching, I hope they can find a way to also incorporate the most fundamental basic thing all humans need: others.  Online classes may be great for convenience sakes, but there gets to be a point where the lack of human interaction becomes depriving.  My hopes is that as technology changes and prices go down, schools can adapt their online curriculums to foster more social interactions with others – getting to know the instructor and the students better and making those lasting friendships.  After all, besides the education, isn’t that what college is for?

 


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