Point vs. Counterpoint

Counterpoint: Online Learning Should Replace Conventional In-Class Techniques

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

When it comes to learning options, it’s not just university students that have come to increasingly rely upon technology for research, computations, and access to digital course resources to augment their learning within the conventional classroom.   Students also have the option to take entire courses online through a specific website for their school, or a network of schools.  While some students prefer taking courses using the materials provided online for their course, others simply can’t learn as well online as they can in a classroom.

A variety of assessment models have been developed over the years to describe how students and people in general learn new material presented to them, and the approaches they may take to further understand what they have been taught. A student’s learning style is directly related to their preferences in how they receive information, how they process and begin to understand it, and what practices and exercises they use to retain the information.

A student learns and understands material best in ways unique to them, and what may be a great resource or tool for one student may thoroughly handicap another’s ability to learn. For example, most of you reading this have come across students that often ask multiple questions of the professor during a lecture. That student may learn best by taking in the information and processing it during class, immediately seeking help when a new concept just doesn’t compute.

Such an inquisitive student may find Interactive learning through discussion and explanation is their preferred way of learning, but is that learning style transferrable to the setting of an online course where lectures may consist of lecture notes, a recording, or both? Imagine sitting next to someone in the library, when suddenly they throw their hand up in the air as though to ask a question, but there’s obviously no one around to answer. Soon enough they’re waving their arms around like a maniac trying to land a plane (and maybe land a hit on you by accident), and as you pack up to move to a less eventful section of the library, you see headphones in their ears and that they’re on a website for online learning. A professor on a recording can’t answer their live questions!

So, for some online courses, discussion and questions are facilitated online through message boards and e-mails between students and professors. While this is a way to ask questions and keep track of answers, not everyone answers e-mails or questions online as reliably and quickly as they do when the person asking the question is right in front of them.

A common complaint from students, especially first year students, is the pace of a course. It’s easy to say a course is moving too quickly or is going at a snail’s pace. A benefit of online courses that is often highlighted by those running them is that students can learn at their own pace. While this may be true, there are still assignments, quizzes, and projects with specific due dates assigned to them, implying that a certain portion of the course’s material must be understood within a certain time period, much like the equivalent course taken on-campus.

Course projects can be an unavoidable occurrence for students, along with working and collaborating with others taking the same course. Even when classmates see each other in class, it can be hard to organize and share the work load of a project, let alone finding time to work on it together as needed. Tools such as Google docs allow students to edit the same document online simultaneously, but there is still the issue as to whether online group work methods are as efficient as getting together as a group and being able to communicate directly without having to text, e-mail, or message every new realization or solution.

Online courses are often used as an alternative to on-campus courses by students who encounter schedule conflicts when enrolling in classes each term. Others make use of online courses for convenience, to catch up or move ahead of a class, or perhaps while away from Waterloo on a co-op term. The main word used above was an alternative. While online courses are a viable and justified decision for a lot of students, relying upon them excessively may not be the wisest choice.

On-campus lectures, tutorials, and labs allow students to further develop note-taking skills, along with work and study habits specific to being around others in an environment that is often far from quiet. Another key skill that is produced from being around others throughout the day is the ability to communicate properly according to the environment students find themselves in. If you’re hanging out with your friends, you’ll talk as you usually do – using any vocabulary or attitude you desire. When it comes to interacting with professionals such as professors, advisors, and faculty members, a student should learn how to communicate appropriately.

Verbal communication skills are key in any face-to-face interview or in many co-op placements, yet there are many students who may carry their lives out through their computer by use of e-mail, online messaging programs, and social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Learning how to talk to someone in a professional and courteous manner can be learned outside of the classroom as well, but why ignore an opportunity that you’re paying tuition for anyway?

For those students who don’t have distance or other personal reasons factoring into their decision to take an online course, they should carefully consider and research whether it is the right education option for them. The decision can be based around, but not limited to factors such as any convenience it may create, educational experience gained or lost by learning online, and whether their individual learning preferences and habits would transfer well to an online based education community.

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