More e-learning, but low interest

The U is upping its online courses, but many prefer face-to-face learning.
October 15, 2013

Students and faculty are divided about the value of e-learning, despite the University of Minnesota’s goal to expand learning opportunities by creating more fully and partially online courses.

While online course enrollment has steadily increased in recent years, only about 13 percent of students and about 7 percent of faculty members said they prefer online classes to traditional ones, according to a 2012 survey from the University’s Office of Information Technology.

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson said the University is expanding its online course offerings because they benefit students by adapting to different learning styles and allowing more scheduling flexibility.

“If we develop more robust learning, we can improve student understanding,” she said. “They can go back over something a professor has already gone over.”

Students said they dislike online courses because it’s difficult to learn the material when they can’t interact with their professor face-to-face.

“I dropped one this year because it was confusing,” bachelor of individualized studies senior Rachel Herme said. “Our teacher didn’t tell us what was expected.”

Graduate student Erika Prater, who teaches an online art history class called “Why Art Matters,” agreed that the most challenging part of online courses is communication. She said it’s difficult to gauge what students are learning, and she finds they seem discouraged from asking questions.

“I think that [online] courses really lose a lot from not having the in-person interaction,” she said. But biomedical engineering professor David Odde said he never had a problem with communication in the several online classes he’s taught.

“It’s online, but it’s actually live,” he said. “They can ask me questions during class.”

Hanson and Bob Rubinyi, the University’s eLearning director, said watching videos, reading lessons and discussing materials through forums offers a learning alternative for students who struggle to learn by lecture.

A national survey released in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education showed students in online or partially online courses performed “modestly better” than students getting face-to-face instruction.

Different expectations

Some students said they found online courses more difficult than traditional courses because of stricter deadlines and higher engagement expectations.

“If we were a minute late submitting assignments, it would automatically deduct five points,” animal science senior Alexandra Schiller said. “[The website] went down a lot, so it was frustrating.”

Economics junior Aymen Chalbi said he learned very little from the five or six online classes he took last year, although they did fit in his schedule.

Political science sophomore Jackson Fate said he doesn’t like online classes because he can’t ask questions immediately.

“If I can avoid it, I won’t take one,” he said. “But if I have no other option, I’ll be stuck.”

Rubinyi said because online courses often require students to complete more assignments and readings, they can be more intensive than traditional courses.

“Students are surprised,” he said. “It’s a lot harder in an online course because in a classroom experience they don’t have to be engaged all the time.”

The different workload — as well as worries about student performance — also extends to faculty members. Some are concerned about the upfront work required to design an online course, as well as the possibility of student cheating.

The University has implemented e-proctoring, which identifies students by webcam to make sure they stay on their screen and don’t use cheat sheets.

A wider reach

The biggest benefit to online classes, faculty members said, is that a variety of students who live off-campus or have busy schedules can enroll.

“I have a student who lives in the United Arab Emirates,” Prater said. “This credit is the last thing he needs to complete his degree.”

Epidemiology Coordinator Sarah Keene, who teaches the one-credit class “Success Over Stress,” said the online format is a good way to disseminate information without capping enrollment.

“We can have the ability to reach as many students as possible,” she said. “It helps us achieve that goal. … Everybody has access to it. It’s accessible and
approachable.”

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