Monday, January 16, 2006

Online and upward 

I question whether students prefer online classes. I just finished using Aplia with a principles of macroeconomics course and student reaction was about 50-50. Aplia is class management software with two great features to me: First, it provides some cool real-time experimentation. Students loved that. But it also provides a rather substantial set of homework assignments for students to do. Now my students keep complaining that they "want more homework", which my colleagues and I agree is code for "we want some easy points." Not an opportunity for points, just something that says "click here and here and watch your grade go up!" Nationally-normed homework assignments are likely to not do that for students at places like St. Cloud State. The questions are not easy. So while I like it, the students don't.

But the article is correct that online classes and traditional classes with a lecture component are not all that different, which creates a problem for universities:
They are reluctant to fill slots intended for distance students with on-campus ones who are just too lazy to get up for class. On the other hand, if they insist the online courses are just as good, it's hard to tell students they can't take them. And with the student population rising and pressing many colleges for space, they may have little choice.

So universities are trying to manage the flow of students into online classes. In the department's distance offerings we have a GPA minimum that we do not use for the traditional sections, because we find students aren't as motivated naturally by online sections.

Two-thirds of schools responding to a recent survey by The Sloan Consortium agreed that it takes more discipline for students to succeed in an online course than in a face-to-face one.

"It's a little harder to get motivated," said Washington State senior Joel Gragg, who took two classes online last year (including "the psychology of motivation"). But, he said, lectures can be overrated -- he was still able to meet with the professor in person when he had questions -- and class discussions are actually better online than in a college classroom, with a diverse group exchanging thoughtful postings.

"There's young people, there's old people, there's moms, professional people," he said. "You really learn a lot more."

And that's my one suggestion for these courses for next time: If you can give them a chat area or some place to interact with the instructor and each other (I think it should be something other than email), this is a big help. That's been the suggestion I've made to Aplia, which has no chat or bulletin board area.

(h/t: reader jw)