How Online Learning Is Different From Classroom

If you ever want to know what’s different about online learning, you’ve come to the right place.

Every social interaction involves some harm or benefit to the other person. You go to your parent’s house for dinner and trash talk about that awful teacher you have been dealing with, or you sit across from someone in your workplace who reminds you of that man or woman who stole your childhood.

Online education isn’t like that. I can imagine one especially famous case: my 90-year-old mother was having trouble holding down a job. Her last temp position lasted about four hours. The owner asked if she had any other experience. “I had a small school in Philadelphia called and said, ‘Will you come to Montgomery County?’ She said, ‘Who hires secretaries?’”

What the owner asked was ignorant. In fact, there are often people who know, quite well, how to find the most suitable candidates for a job and act on it. Not so in online learning. If you have an online assignment, someone (almost always a professor) will get back to you, push you in the direction of the subject you want to study, or suggest things you already know about in order to up your chances of doing well. So online instruction isn’t completely free of harm, but there is less of it.

A second thing online schooling lets you do in less damaging ways is use group projects. I saw an old example of this last year on CUNY.org:

One of the college’s teaching assistants, Barry Hater, posted a New York Times article on Facebook, wrote a second piece, described it in detail and uploaded it to Dropbox. Graduate student Daniel Unruh assembled the article, while undergraduate Rosamond Knight, who was working part-time at the time, annotated and made edits. The article was posted to livethedigg.com by a third student, Gavin Rossicordi, who is going on a year-long sabbatical. Since the article was uploaded there have been dozens of contributors to this page.

Here’s the lesson: It’s foolish to expect professors to actually show up to class, read and edit the work they’re grading. Then you had the professor I know who just turned in his grades and never commented on them. Some professors who are less well-known give their grades by email, while many instructors communicate by phone or text, which are definitely not ideal ways to arrange a final course assessment.

Still, the writer of the CUNY article provides an effective example. The end result was that while he had “a lot of free time to investigate other subjects on the site,” he found some “interesting possibilities that interested him.” Much more can be said about online courses without getting into names or figuring out ways to figure out the difference between people who study for credit and students who study online.

One faculty member of mine has had students who have “legendary” rankings on Acclaim, a Q&A platform which evaluates professors’ speaking skills. This is the kind of thing you might expect from a virtual conversation among anyone. But more than 10,000 students rated her in an anonymous heatmap-style tool this year, indicating her near-perfect score as “RISING STAR” and her improving score every year.

And when a student does something like interview for a job and the results are published on About.com, the student who pulled off the interview itself is unable to know that in the beginning of the year she was an 0, and improved to an A- in the end.

Finally, some students use online learning to achieve a near-perfect score on an IQ test, even though that didn’t get them admission to the University of Pennsylvania.

But even in an application for admission to College of the Holy Cross, you only get a review from an advisor if your particular example is especially spectacular. So do as the good old days counsel you, and check for something like perfect attendance, excellent grades in high school, a technical writing project, a perfect score on the SAT, or a physical activity that required a qualification.

There is no instruction or other problem that can’t be solved by these methods. That would be teaching by a stranger or impersonal force. That’s hardly the future; it’s one more brick in the brick wall.

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