Online classes present ‘intriguing’ possibilities


By Mo Nuwwarah, Opinion Editor

It’s 9:00 a.m.  Your alarm screeches in your ear. You groan, fumble for the off switch and end the din. You trudge to the kitchen with heavy eyelids and an empty stomach and begin your daily routine: cereal for breakfast and a hot shower. You pull on a comfortable pair of sweatpants and a wrinkled T-shirt. It’s time for school.

But instead of heading out the door and walking to your car, you open your laptop. You start a program that allows you to enter a virtual world.  Controlling your avatar as easily as you control your body, you enter a “classroom” and sit at your desk. Students from another university halfway across the nation sit all around you.

Class begins, and the teacher starts her lecture. You listen attentively, occasionally taking notes. Your thoughts begin to drift, but you try to keep your focus, glancing at the clock every now and again. Just another day at school.

Sound farfetched? Probably a bit, but you can definitely see this happening in the not-too-distant future, right? Maybe in 2040? 2030?

Try 2011.

At many schools across the nation and world, students and teachers are using technology to reshape the landscape of education. Tools like Second Life – the program described above developed by Linden Research, Inc. – are turning “farfetched” dreams of the future into reality.

Lynnette Leonard, a professor in the UNO School of Communication, teaches a course called Computer Mediated Communication. Every Monday and Wednesday, the class “meets” in Second Life, joining a similar class from Central Michigan University in the virtual world.

“It’s like ‘World of Warcraft’ but without battles,” Leonard said, referring to the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game. “We’re investigating communication through technology.”

The two professors from each school take turns lecturing, but the students’ learning isn’t confined to the classroom setting. Through Second Life, they get unique opportunities to meet students from Brazil, Netherlands and other foreign countries.

“I’ve had students tell me they go places and everyone’s speaking Spanish,” Leonard said. “Yeah, because you basically just walked into Spain.”

This virtual collaboration is a valuable skill for the students to learn, she said, because students are entering a world full of prospective employers that are increasingly reliant on technological communication. The class primarily focuses on the Internet, a frontier UNO and hundreds of other schools are already using with entirely internet-mediated classes, though most don’t involve programs like Second Life.

Such classes present intriguing possibilities for educators and students. For example, students are able to access material as often as they wish. They can schedule their learning and study time around busy work schedules. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of online learning is that teachers can reach students who are geographically distant, expanding the reach of universities.

Teacher and student reactions to the online classes have been mixed.

Sophie Ibrahimi, a senior journalism major at UNO, took an online class called “Special Topics – Harry Potter” in the summer of 2010. The Internet-mediated class was supposed to be primarily discussion-based.

“You can’t do that online,” she said. “I love the books, but I hated the class.”

The discussions took place on a message board provided by the University. Ibrahimi had trouble with the clunky nature of the board, which she said “sucks” because the threads aren’t easy to read and it’s difficult to start your own. Even when she got past those annoyances, the format just didn’t work, she said. The discussions moved slowly and seemed lackluster. Often, she’d get excited for a topic but end up waiting days for peers to respond.

“It does [break up the momentum of the discussion],” she said. “By the time they get around to responding, you’re over it.”

Despite her affinity for the Computer Mediated Communication class, Leonard sees a lot of problems with the push from the University to get more classes online. Many teachers, she said, just throw material online and hope students will learn. Worst of all, many students are failing to learn as much as they would in a traditional classroom.

“A lot of them take it for the convenience factor,” she said. “Those students are essentially throwing their money down the drain.”

Senior Micaela McGovern agreed only certain students should look into online classes. She’s taken a food science class and two business classes online. They’re structured for the self-motivated student, she said.

“They’re nice if you have a busy schedule,” the marketing major said. “They have a lot of benefits, but it can really suck if you forget things. It fosters procrastination.”

For example, McGovern said, students were required to use the discussion board to talk about the material each week in one of her online classes.

“Every student waits until Friday to do it,” she said.

Juggling a full-time school schedule while spending 20-30 hours per week waiting tables makes online classes ideal for McGovern, who also takes night classes to condense her school schedule and allow flexibility for work. Many other students at urban universities like UNO share these time management struggles.

However, Leonard, who’s been teaching at UNO for five years, said online classes don’t fit the demographics of the school as well as some would think. UNO is growing and gaining more traditional full-time students and less with 8-to-5 work schedules, she said. Also, the average age of the student has dropped dramatically.

Yet, the school has been pushing to get more classes online.

“It’s an interesting choice because it doesn’t seem to fit our mission,” Leonard said. “It’s a solution to a problem of who we were rather than who we are.”

Schools like UNO will face the dilemma of how best to mediate their classes to accommodate students with different preferences. Some will continue to gravitate toward the traditional classroom experience, while others will latch onto the convenience of online classes.

“I prefer online because I’m OK with reading material and understanding it,” McGovern said.

Ibrahimi doesn’t plan to take any more online classes if she decides to continue her education after earning her undergraduate degree. One change she thinks would help is the addition of an explanation of the online experience in the class description.

“Thoughtful adoption” should be the mantra of the people planning future steps for universities, Leonard said. She suggested administrators ask themselves, “What needs are we trying to meet with this?”

“I see a role that it can play, but I think that role is still being decided,” Leonard said.


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