Assessing my First Online Course

"I got two degrees in Awesomeness and Bad-assery online! Email me to learn more!" Photo Credit:
“I got two degrees in Awesomeness and Bad-assery online! Drop me a line to learn more today!” Photo Credit:

My summer online course on the history of libraries has concluded, and I think everything went pretty good for the most part. This was the first online course I’ve ever taken, so it was a new and exciting experience for me. As I gradually worked my way through the weekly assignments, I took notes on what worked, what didn’t, and spent a lot of time thinking about the future of online courses in education, especially with regards to history classes. There is no coherent flow to these forthcoming thoughts, but they are thoughts that I think are worthy of further discussion, and I welcome any additional comments from readers.

Course design is key: The way an online class is designed is key, obviously. Everything from font size to working links to clearly written instructions are necessary to ensure that students have a clear grasp of what is going on in the e-class. My online course was designed fairly well. It was easy to understand what was expected of me as a student and the content was split into coherent units that made sense. The assignments were challenging, but not overwhelming, which was good for me as I continue my internship at the Indiana State House and begin writing my thesis in my free time.

What are the best methods for fostering online classroom discussion?: For each weekly assignment, students were required to post their work to a discussion board and provide two responses to the work of other students in the classroom. This method is most likely very similar to the types of discussion forums that are created for other online courses, but overall I felt pretty underwhelmed by a lot of the classroom discussion. I’ve read about and heard from others on the positive benefits of online discussion, especially for those who don’t speak in class often. Online discussion provides these people an opportunity to share their thoughts and content without the pressures of being in a traditional classroom setting, which can be pretty overwhelming for some. I’ve never had these sorts of problems, but I’ve made plenty of terrible classroom comments that probably would have been better left unsaid, so I can understand if someone has a little more control over their voice than me 🙂 However, I value personal interactions highly and I tend to think that even if I say something that is completely wrong, having a good discussion allows us all to learn and try again. I love asking questions, and am not hesitant to admit that I really know very little about anything at the end of the day.

The big problem with online discussions can be summarized in a short example: Assignment X is due on Friday and the two peer responses are due on Monday. All students get done on Friday, but nobody (including myself) starts commenting on each others work until Monday night. Some discussions continue beyond Monday night, and I had a particularly good one with another student on the importance of historians studying change over time. Yet most discussions abruptly ended after Monday night as students moved on to the next assignment. Even worse, there were at least two instances in which I wrote detailed comments to other members in the class on their work without any sort of response whatsoever. This behavior is not only wrong but downright rude, in my opinion. If student A asked student B a question in a traditional classroom during discussion time and student B refused to answer, other students and the teacher would rightly question why B refused to answer, and there could be further consequences for B’s actions. If it’s wrong for B to refuse to answer in the brick and mortar classroom, then it should be wrong in an online setting too. I hope those people had points taken off or something to that effect.

I think Twitter could really come in handy for promoting better online classroom discussions. In my digital history class last semester I learned about the awesomeness of Twitter, and I continue to tweet to the #iupuidh hashtag when interesting articles pop up. Twitter allowed for the sharing of relevant articles between my classmates and me and allowed us to learn more about history and the digital humanities outside the classroom. I would recommend to future online instructors that they seriously consider using Twitter as an avenue for enhancing classroom discussion.

Should online courses cost the same as traditional courses?: I don’t really know, but I don’t think so. At IUPUI online courses cost the same as traditional courses, and I paid a hefty sum to take this online course. While there are costs involved with hosting content online, hiring competent teachers to control and teach this content, and providing maintenance to keep the site running, I have a hard time justifying paying the same amount of money as a traditional course for an online course in which you never personally interact with your teacher or the vast majority of your classmates. Although I have my doubts about the effectiveness Georgia Tech’s new online master’s degree program for computer science students, I can appreciate that the entire degree will cost around $7,000 as opposed to the $40,000 it costs for non-Georgia residents to attend the program in person. Georgia Tech realizes that online courses and traditional courses are not the same and that they shouldn’t be priced the same either. Online students don’t utilize campus housing, dormitories, or student facilities, nor do they get involved with campus activities such as intramurals or Greek life. To ask them to help pay for the maintenance of those things seems wrong to me. Nor do I think the credit hour cost should remain the same. Which gets me to my next question…

What am I paying for with an online course?: Generally speaking, when a person pays for a traditional course, they are paying for access to a classroom, a teacher, and the knowledge that is shared within those walls. Under most circumstances, people that don’t pay are not allowed access to that classroom. Digital technology has changed this, and with regards to my online course, anyone in the world could get online and access the very same information we learned for free. So it seems to me that I am no longer paying for access to classrooms, teachers, or knowledge, because those things are now free. What I am really paying for is the piece of paper that says that I successfully completed this course. Anyone can take the online course, but since I paid money, I get a certificate at the end. There may not be anything wrong with this model–and I certainly support the sharing of free knowledge–but again, I have a tough time agreeing with the idea that online courses should cost the same as traditional courses.

What sorts of classes would benefit the most from an online format?:  Not all classes and subjects are the same, and I think schools need to take time to determine if there are subjects of study that are more appropriate than others for online instruction. A online computer science master’s degree may make a lot of sense, but an online music, history, or teaching degree may not make as much sense. But even if we acknowledge that an entire online degree may be problematic, is there still room for some online instruction in most degree programs? I think there is.

What do you think? Your comments would be greatly appreciated.