Contributor Charles Choi
A lack of human contact is a big difference between online and distance learning and traditional classroom settings. “You are kind of learning in isolation,” Monica Mogilewsky says. “You get lots of textbooks, journal articles, recorded lectures, and interactive material. For the most part, you spend much of your time learning on your own, and that takes a lot of self-discipline. It’s difficult not having people you can see, people you can have a gripe-and-drink session with.”
The challenge of staying disciplined in isolation may be a key reason why the average completion rate for MOOCs is less than 7 per cent, according to data compiled by UK doctoral student, Katy Jordan, at Open University. Taylor concurs: “Not many students make it to the end of MOOCs”.
From experience, Lara Hutson, a research assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, has seen that “the students who do best in online courses are those who are very self-motivated, regardless of subject matter.”
When looking at successful examples of distance learning programmes, “you often also find online learning is augmented with forums, discussion groups, and face-to-face interactions, peer interactions that can help students stay the course,” says Chris Taylor, engagement manager at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the United Kingdom.
There was an online community component in Mogilewsky’s programme under which she had to engage with other students via a chat room. “It was great to be able to communicate with students from all around the world,” she says. “We had a course about how people interact with the environment, and when I was participating, Kenya was experiencing electoral manipulation, violent protests, and some explosions. It was really interesting chatting online with students whose conservation work was being impacted by what was going on politically there. You don’t get that kind of perspective from a traditional classroom very often. The most motivating and rewarding interactions I experienced during the program came from fellow students online.”
Lori Grant is currently at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. She also benefits from the virtual classrooms that allow students to host study sessions and interact. “Most of us have developed friendships outside of class. Having the online platform gave me the opportunity to advance my education, while continuing to be a member of my community and family.”
Face time is a key premise of educational technology company 2U in Landover, MD, which helps build online programmes for universities such as the University of California at Berkeley and Georgetown University. Chip Paucek, CEO of 2U, wants to make an online experience as interactive as a campus experience. “In our ‘No Back Row’ approach, you have very intimate live sessions online with average class sizes of 10.4 students. Everyone is on screen at the same time with the instructor to encourage engaging discussions.”
When choosing an online science course or programme, students should reflect on what kind of learner they are. “Do they learn best through discussion and participation with peers, or are they more keen to work at their own pace and time, and don’t want or need peer interactions?” Taylor asks. Knowing how one learns can instruct which online science course or programme might best match an approach to learning, and we’ll explore this in the series next.