Why Is Online Learning Better

You really can see a teacher’s face when they’re standing next to you in class, but online class … that’s a little different. While classrooms have their advantages, a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology finds that online learning “passes the face-to-face test.

Instructional technology has helped and hurt higher education in recent years, and experts worry that it has hurt more than it has helped.

“I still am concerned about the fast pace of it,” says Liz Wineinger, co-author of The Transition from Internship to Graduation (Penguin Random House). “There is a lot more pressure for schools to offer hundreds of classes per semester, and you can have a really bad experience if you take 10 courses in that time.”

Still, many students welcome online learning. One reason is the flexibility it can offer, Wineinger says. “One good thing is that you’re not put in a position where you have to take courses where you aren’t very passionate about. When I started my own doctorate, I really only wanted to take classes in archaeology and ethology.”

Getting students to take class — or to read a book — online is not without its challenges. As the students she mentors found out, both in trying to give them more choices, and in managing the stress that comes with learning online, Wineinger made a few suggestions.

For full disclosure, Wineinger was an adjunct professor at Simmons College until March 2014, during which time her role included teaching online courses.

“We had classes that were on-campus, on-line, in public lecture halls. Some students enjoyed taking a class on the beach with a sea kayak,” she says. “And there were students who hated taking [online courses] — but I love working with them. Many have been able to just keep up their grades and get very good promotions.”

Wineinger taught online in many ways: during the academic year at Simmons and for free on her private website, training resumes and teaching assignments. At Simmons, her on-campus lectures consisted of having three or four students sit in the audience in the auditorium.

“I gave each of them a writing assignment and they reviewed the assignment and then discussed it in their own sessions,” she says. “I actually taught courses for both in-person and off-site classes.”

Some studies have found online learning leads to higher GPA’s than when there’s also a campus presence. But Wineinger knows online education can affect everyone differently, and sometimes that’s just not the way it works for some students.

“Some students may not be as used to spending a lot of time online, they may not need the constant feedback,” she says. “Another common benefit is there’s no downside for some people who simply don’t want to go to a lecture hall.”

In other words, you can be concerned about online learning, but not afraid of it. Many professors at schools such as Harvard have found success by creating or learning new formats for traditional lectures or teaching topics in the online space, Wineinger says. As the field grows, even most lecturers need some online training.

“I’m glad there are professors who aren’t afraid of it,” she says. “Some college teachers have found that going online makes them more engaging, and students benefit more from that. And professors who are always in their office can’t keep up their teaching in an engaging way if they’re always in their office. They can go online and focus.”

Another way Wineinger has helped online students find success is by designing their own online courses, which she makes available through on-campus or online certification programs.

“Sometimes students come to me and they’re offered an online course by the instructor, but the course is really hard and really hard on them and they don’t have the time to take it. They can get the web site ready and sign up and show what they want to study and they’re ready to drop the online course and take it the traditional way,” she says.

Wineinger believes online classes offer a solid foundation that may be especially important for students who are entering college at an older age.

“That’s the great thing about online classes: you can tackle the hard courses really easily, like calculus,” she says. “Some students are afraid to take those courses. I find as online coursework becomes more widespread, it’s just a matter of time before they can do it.”

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