Online coursework isn’t as easy as it seems

Online courses lead to communication breakdowns and more work for everyone.

Trent M. Kays

Online coursework has increased over the last five years, and universities seem to be charging in that direction even more. The allure of online coursework is strong because it’s often convenient. However, convenience is just a small part of what online learning and coursework entails. Online coursework is normally sold to students based simply on its convenience, but such coursework is normally much more difficult than face-to-face instruction. It requires more time investment from both teachers and students, and it’s almost impossible to catch up when a student falls behind.

Online coursework certainly is convenient in that a student can access it anywhere they have a computer and internet connection. The popularity of online courses seems to drive the false notion of easiness. Since students can sit at home and be in class at the same time, they seem to think the course will somehow be easier. This is a completely false conception. Yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ latest report on the matter, 20 percent of all college students have taken at least one online course by 2008. Given the amount of online courses now offered, that number can only have increased.

Most online courses are taught through asynchronous communication. Meaning, the instructor posts something and then the student responds at a later time. Nothing is happening at the same time, and there’s no actual dialogue. In addition, almost all communication is done through writing. Instructors have to write out more details than normal, and what might be a one-minute dialogue in a face-to-face conversation can quickly become several paragraphs and days worth of asynchronous discussion. These types of courses require ample time to complete, and they aren’t necessarily as easy as some would believe.

But, universities keep pushing online courses to students because they don’t require classroom space. Physical space on university campuses is often a contentious topic. Everyone wants physical space, but there’s only so much available on a campus. So, online courses seem to offer some relief in that an instructor can take care of the class from anywhere, and a student can take the class from anywhere.

Teaching and learning relies on the interaction between the student and teacher, and there are some things that just aren’t replicated in online environments. Body language, social cues and recognition are often lost in online environments. In a face-to-face class, an instructor might better know if a student understands a concept because the instructor can see the understanding. Likewise, the instructor can gently push a student toward an understanding or epiphany. These issues of body language and subtle cues are important when teaching. All of this is lost in an online course because the technological medium buffers such things.

There are certainly ways around such buffering. For example: weekly video posts from both instructors and students where the facial expressions of both can be seen. Or, regular video chats with small groups of students, so questions can quickly be asked and addressed. However, both instructors and students do not always use these types of workarounds. Many students simply log in to their online course site, check it quickly, write a quick response and then they log off. There is almost no social interaction. The dialogue and conversation many experience in face-to-face courses is lost in the name of convenience.

Convenience comes with a cost. While the number of online courses is increasing, the amount of instructor training to teach online isn’t. It’s hard to teach online. There may be a few instructors whose teaching style lends itself to online teaching, but many instructors find the transition from face-to-face to online instruction difficult. Moreover, students keep signing up for online courses without realizing a tremendous amount of work is required, even more so than in face-to-face courses. For those students who dislike writing in general, they are in for a rude awakening because the act of writing dominates online courses. For students who aren’t self-disciplined enough to sit down once a day and work on their online coursework, they will fall behind quickly and struggle to catch up.

Whether or not to take an online course should not be such an easy decision. It is not a decision that should be made quickly and without consideration for the consequences of taking such a course. If students thought about the amount of work they do in one face-to-face course and then doubled or tripled it for one online course, then they may get a better idea of the commitment involved.

Technology is a wonderful thing, and it has allowed us to advance our culture, society and understanding of the world. But, technology isn’t always forthcoming about commitment. Online coursework is absolutely necessary in our highly digital and mediated society, and knowledge of commitment to that type of coursework is also necessary. Students should be made aware of and understand what is involved in online coursework, so they do not waste time and money taking courses they may withdraw from.

Online coursework in the 21st century requires us to rethink teaching. How one is taught is more crucial now than ever before because we cannot replicate face-to-face courses in online environments. We need to reevaluate how instructors teach and how students learn outside of typical classroom environments.