Last year, I went from teaching in classrooms in a pretty building with a library on the ground floor to teaching on-line. I also went from the semester system to teaching the same content in four weeks. This has led curious friends of mine, used to teaching in the traditional format, to ask ,
How does that work? Does it work?
Initially, I was skeptical myself. I thought if students were really serious they would make the sacrifices to take the class in a “regular” setting. Interestingly, I had to take a class on a new system and had the option to sign up for a session held on a local campus or on-line. After looking at my schedule, I chose the on-line option. No one has ever accused me of being a slacker – in fact, it may be the only negative thing I’ve not been called. Still, I thought it was possible I might have conflicts those days, whether meeting with clients, employees or investors. The option of taking the course in smaller bits – an hour here or there – was a lot more convenient for me than several hours at a time. To be truthful, too, I didn’t really want to spend hours hanging out with people with whom I didn’t expect I would have that much in common. It wasn’t like a class on statistics that I was really interested in.
So … if we are willing to accept that students who sign up for on-line, limited-term classes might be just as motivated and hard-working as anyone else, do they work? I think the better question is how they work or for what type of students they work.
National University, where I teach, offers courses in a one course one month format. Students are not supposed to take more than one course at a time and , although exceptions can be made, I advise against it. The courses work for those students (and faculty) who can block off a month, and then, during that month DEVOTE A LOT OF TIME TO THE COURSE. Personally, I give two-hour lectures twice a week. If a student cannot attend – and some are in time zones where it is 2 a.m. when I’m teaching – the lectures are recorded and they can listen to them at their leisure. Time so far – 16 hours in the month. Normally, a graduate course I teach will require 50-100 pages of reading per week. Depending on your reading speed that could take you from one to four hours.
I just asked our Project Manager, Jessica, how long she thought it took the average person to read 75 pages of technical material she said,
“Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s a lot more than you are thinking!”
Talking it over, we agreed it probably took around 3-5 minutes per page, because even if some pages you get right away, others you have to read two or three times to figure out wait, that -1 next to a capital letter in bold means to take the inverse of a matrix while the single quote next to it means to transpose the matrix. These are things that are not second nature to you when you are just learning a field. Discussing this made me think I want to reduce the required reading in my multivariate statistics course. Let’s say on the low end, then it takes five hours to read the assigned material and review it for a test or just for your own clarity. Now we are up to 20 hours a month + 16 = 36 hours.
I give homework assignments because I am a big believer in distributed practice. We have all had classes we crammed for in college that we can’t remember a damn thing about. Okay, well, I have, any way. So, I give homework assignments every week, usually several problems like, “What is the cumulative incidence rate given the data in Table 2?” as well s assignments that require you to write a program, run it and interpret the results. I estimate these take students 4-5 hours per week. Let’s go on the low end and say 16 + 20 + 16 = 52 hours
There is also a final paper, a final exam and two quizzes. The final and quizzes are given 5 hours total and it is timed so students can’t go over. I think, based on simply page length, programs required and how often they call me, the average student spends 14 hours on the paper. Total hours for the course 52 hours plus another 19 = 71 hours in four weeks.
IF students put in that amount of time, they definitely pass the course with a respectable grade and probably learn enough that they will retain a useful amount of it. The kiss of death in a course like this is to put off the work. It is impossible to finish in a week.
My personal bias is that I require students actually DO things with the information they learn. It is not just memorizing formula and a lot of calculations because I really do think students will forget that after a few weeks. However, if they have to post a question that is a serious personal interest and then conduct a study to answer that question, the whole time posting progress and discussions on line with their classmates , then I think they WILL retain more of the material.
So, yes, students can learn online and they can learn in a compressed term. It IS harder, though, I think, both for the students and the instructor, and takes a lot of commitment on the part of both, which is why I don’t teach very many courses a year.