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Blind Faith. D. Colwell. SF Weekly.

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Ground Zero at the World Economic Forum. AlterNet.org

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Links mentioned in this article

Fathom

Jones International University

Onlinelearning.net

UC Berkeley Extension Online

University of Maryland e-Learning

University of Phoenix Online

I’m just two-and-a-half units into my online Spanish language course, and already it feels like a clase privada (private class). I’m the only enrolled student and having bucked administration to get here, I’ve aimed at tackling the past subjunctive with other linguistically challenged gringos. But there are no introductions, no twirling chitchat on the course’s discussion board, and my professor’s comments, typed in red, are brief. I’m averaging 97 percent on homework assignments but the satisfaction is somewhat lacking. I’m feeling rather sola in cyberspace.

Back in December, recently laid off and with time on my hands, I had decided to reenter school, although this time online. I wanted the instant gratification of an immediate start and a way to soak up information while avoiding the drafty classrooms of adult leisure courses. As a journalist, in the business of learning new things fast, the thought of taking on a cyber class-load seemed irresistible. My plan was this: complete three online courses to test their effectiveness and ultimately, get the skinny on elearning—a field that has developed rapidly in the past few years and whose figures keep rolling up.

My mission was straightforward: choose one course I could ace, a second that held my interest and a third, something challenging I might likely (although not actively) flunk. With this task in mind, I was eager to log on and start my “webucation.” Soon, I thought I’d cross paths with zealous students arguing over philosophical minutiae or explore screenwriting from afar. I envisioned gleefully tapping away on my keyboard between virtual lectures and streaming videos. This didn’t quite happen.

Choosing Classes

Finding classes became the first hurdle. Googlephile that I am, I immediately typed in “distance learning on the Internet,” and began the search. I found Onlinelearning.net, tied to UC San Diego and UCLA Extension. The site boasts 20,000 online student enrollments since 1996, with 90 percent of students successfully completing their courses. This sounded impressive but as I looked further, I found classes like “Intensive Grammar and Punctuation Review.” While appropriate material for a writer, this was not something I wanted to chew on for months. I took no time clicking the backspace key and headed to my old alma mater, UC Berkeley.

Berkeley offers 220 cyber courses from physics to sociology, but I naturally honed in on literature—my ace in the hole. I passed on Shakespeare, which I studied in high school, and scrolled further down the page until I spotted “Irish Culture Today.” The class covered an intriguing array of texts including Samuel Beckett’s classic, Waiting for Godot (Beckett was Irish?), and thought I would increase my cache of cocktail party tidbits. The classes ran relatively cheap, at $525 for three semester credits, and the course was self-directed, meaning I’d have a leisurely six months to finish—I was sold.

Next, I discovered a link for Fathom run by Columbia University. Set up as a portal for courses mainly provided by other institutions, including the New York City Library and Cambridge University Press, Fathom posts hundreds of lectures, links, and articles on its website. As I weeded through, I quickly became sidetracked by stimulating material—mainly, a lecture on the social meanings of hats and T-shirts. With an eye on finding a credited course, I refocused and finally opted to revamp my rusty Spanish with the University of Washington. UW offered a class based around Destinos, a Mexican telenovella (soap opera) series televised on PBS. Caray! This looked like a novel way to learn. Only setback: the cost, running at $787, was steep compared to other language classes I’ve taken at local universities. It would dig deeper into my pockets than I wanted, but it was worth a shot.

Finally, I checked out Jones International University (JIU). Based in Englewood, Colorado, JIU touts itself as the first fully online accredited university and offers a variety of business degree programs—perfect. I was looking for a challenging course (in my case, anything loosely skirting complex mathematics) so I wanted to choose carefully. BC 310 “Integrated Science and Math” fit. The accelerated 8-week course examined population growth and global warming issues by applying theories of physics (which I nearly failed in high school) and exponential growth. Although I’ve written about environmental issues in the past, I’ve never studied the science behind it. This looked like a great opportunity and the price seemed right—$750 for a brisk refresher on algebraic equations, no prerequisites required—so I signed up.

There, I had my three courses. After registering and buying my materials, I anticipated the first day of class.

LESSON LEARNED: For a vast array of classes and free information, start with Fathom. eLearning’s two outstanding successes, University of Phoenix Online, with 37,600 enrollments, and University of Maryland University College, with 78,500 enrollments worldwide, offer complete online degree programs. Window shop for prices. The more you learn before registering, the better.

Scrutinize everything you read online—there’s no small print. If your first consideration is academic credit, look for schools endorsed by the US Dept of Education or CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation).

Administrative Headache

I charged the Berkeley and Jones courses to my credit card and within days I was in—easy. Credit limits being what they are, I charged my Spanish class to a different card, but evidently I failed to give my bank my forwarding address and my information didn’t match. I couldn’t register. After half a dozen emails, I grabbed the phone and spoke to customer service. They accepted a different credit card. A week later, I was informed I’d have to provide a transcript proving I’ve studied Spanish before. I didn’t have a transcript, but after a handful of emails convincing the professor I would bone up on the subjunctive, I was OK to go. That was, until I received an unpaid invoice the following week from the University of Washington, triggering my next call to Fathom’s customer service. It felt like there was a huge cyber chasm separating the two. I spent nearly three weeks trying to register and I was slightly annoyed by the arduous administration process—something I thought I’d avoid by registering online.

Loading the Cyber Backpack

Now I was ready to start, but first I needed to order materials. Considering the courses were online, there was a surprising dearth of online material. Most of my classes require paper-based books, upping my anticipated costs. I decided to do the bulk of my reading at the library, but the Destinos books were hard to come by, so I resorted to Amazon.com. There was more, though—the accompanying video and cassette rental cost another $60. Luckily, my JIU course offered an extensive online syllabus. But as I’m the downloading type, I would eventually print my way through several ink cartridges and a mature tree’s weight in paper.

Anticipating the arrival of my materials, I’d forgotten about the pre-Christmas, postal bedlam and worse, anthrax. After ordering my Spanish books from Amazon.com, I waited for them to arrive. And waited. With the holiday season and terrorist scares burdening the local post office, my books were stuck in a quagmire. When I received the video request form from the University of Washington’s resource center, I decided to fax it in instead. After a week, I called the university; they had no record of my order. They sent the videocassettes, which miraculously arrived long before my textbook, ordered from a used seller in New Jersey—literally, across the river. I couldn’t start the course without the book, though, so I waited and launched into my Irish course, wading through the library’s heightened security. The JIU course began as I loitered near my mailbox.

LESSON LEARNED: Look carefully to see what class materials will be available online. Be prepared to factor in additional costs, which can add up quickly. (My course books averaged $80 new and $40 used.) Also, you may spend more time offline than you expect so be specific about what technology you want to use. If you’re looking for streaming video lectures, only consider courses that utilize that technology or you may be disappointed.

Technical Support

My computer know-how is limited so thankfully elearning courses clearly outline the hardware and software students will need. The technical requirements were basic Net surfer fare: 32MB of RAM, a Pentium Processor with 200-plus MHz, a 33.6 or greater modem, an Internet browser (4.0 or higher,) personal email address and various free plug-ins (such as I-Chat). You have to be comfortable surfing the Net or you won’t get anywhere fast.

To speed up my online access, I decide to hook up a DSL line, but here computer savvy was sorely lacking. I couldn’t get it to work. I called my brother, a technical wizard, who spent several hours at my laptop—the source of the problem—but to no avail. I boxed up the equipment and sent it back. I wasted another few days and now own a useless Ethernet card.

LESSON LEARNED: If you’re not PC literate, now is the time to learn. Have a friend guide you through the steps. Information technology is changing rapidly and course hardware/software requirements will move with it—students need to be competent. If you’re not, most schools offer technical assistance 24/7.

First Day of Class

“Hi Peter. (I’m assuming my fellow students are out there—after navigating this site, it feels like I might be taking this course solo!)” I wrote on Berkeley’s online class message board. I punched in my student profile, noting that the most recent student’s post was ten months old, and outlined my reasons for joining the class. “I’m fairly ignorant of individual (Irish) authors,” but eager to “pick up a good book, dissect its plot and debate its merits,” I wrote. As it turned out, I was the only student enrolled in this class for the first several units and the conversation I anticipate developed into more of a running monologue. Unbeknownst to me, my professor was on vacation in Ireland and wouldn’t get back to me for another three weeks.

My first day in Spanish class fared no better. I surfed through the message board seeking other students but nothing. I completed my profile with waning enthusiasm, convinced I was talking to myself in public. My professor responded within a few hours, in English, advertising a language immersion class she held in Guatemala. This was the longest exchange we would have for the remainder of the course.

My Jones course, however, saved the day. “Welcome to BC 310!” wrote my instructor, Bernice, whose chirpy energy transmitted perfectly through email. “I’m looking forward to helping you learn the very interesting material in this course!” It was Sunday afternoon and I was plunked in front of my computer, scrolling through German’s introduction on the course website. The site is divided into several sections: personal, assignment and group workspaces, and a forum for asynchronous (live) chat. I felt the intense concentration of my first lecture as I downloaded the bulky course syllabus and type in my student profile. In response to “How do you feel about math?” I wrote, “Math has always frightened me!” And it’s no exaggeration. Over the next few months, Bernice’s comments to me would range from “Don’t worry yet,” to, “Hang in there!”

I was thrilled there were other students and quickly skimmed through their profiles. One ran a consulting firm from her home in Tahoe, another planed to complete her full degree with JIU by August, and a few hadn’t touched algebra since the late-1980s! They were a pretty representative group in distance learning circles. According to experts, the average e-students are older—from 25 years on up, career professionals looking to broaden their skills, self-disciplined, and because they frequently cover their own education costs, outcome-oriented. “Adult learners are pretty clear about what they want out of the experience,” said Pamela Pease, JIU’s president. “Because time is a valued commodity, students aren’t really craving face-to-face interaction; instead, they want the skills to get ahead.” Basically, they’re a driven crowd, eager to cram a course or two in between commitments.

I read through everything, feeling extremely motivated. Weeks later, though, my enthusiasm had dampened because, despite maintaining a straight-A average, I doubted how much I’d learned.

LESSON LEARNED: If you want the congenial back-and-forth, make sure other students are enrolled in your course. Contact the school, go directly to the professor or ask other students for recommendations—they may suggest a course that is more appropriate or lively. Make sure you know what to expect on the first day of school, especially on self-directed courses with lower enrollments.

Time Commitments

“Time is ticking by furiously,” I wrote a month into my courses. “This is a huge commitment.” My classes required 15-20 hours total studying time per week but already, I was having difficulty committing to any kind of schedule. I occasionally holed myself up, spread out between thick algebra books, printouts, cassettes, notebooks, and videos, cramming assignments in weekend or all-night bouts. But my attention was scattered. I quickly discovered that being physically present made me more committed to the learning process. With elearning, I found myself surfing the Net, easily distracted.

I also learned that despite its immediacy, the Internet is really not a last-minute medium—especially when course websites chronicle student log-ins. As the bittersweet guilt of procrastination lingered, it goaded me to get down to work. But my consistency only lasted for a two-week stretch. Work, an out-of-town guest, and a winter’s cold soon interrupted my flow.

LESSON LEARNED: Going to school is hard work. If you don’t have the discipline or available time to dedicate yourself to your studies, you may want to wait. Online education is extremely student-oriented. Pedagogically this is a bonus, but it also means you’re responsible for ‘getting to class on time,’ even if that means the kitchen table. You make and break your schedule. If you’re serious about pursuing an online degree, discipline and motivation are crucial.

Midterm Progress Report

I was halfway through the semester and, luckily, Spanish was my only course with a midterm. The exam had to be sent by snail mail to my proctor. I scheduled a day to sit the exam, but this took a few weeks to organize, too.

So far, the experience neatly fell into positives and negatives:

Pros

Being online provides superb teacher attention. Because everything was archived, my professors saw how frequently I participated and could follow up when I was losing ground. In many ways, this made learning more rigorous. With the added efficiency of email, I found my teachers’ responses were more immediate than, say, trying to chase after them during office hours. This made courses much more student centered than traditional ‘brick and mortar’ universities.

Cons

My JIU science class kept me mentally sweating—try as I might, I just wasn’t getting it. After spending 30-45 minutes on a problem, such as plotting world energy consumption, I was almost reduced to tears. “I’m stumped,” I wrote in a group email. A classmate responded via email, “I can’t figure out the answer. Does anyone know where to go for help?” Bernice called me for support, but she was reticent to supply the answer. “You should be more complimentary of your abilities!” she said, finally explaining I needed to apply a logarithm to get a straight line. “I hope you’ll find the logical flow beautiful,” she wrote. I had to admit, I couldn’t. The exercise triggered my first math anxiety dream in decades.

Bernice’s encouragement was steady, but I wasn’t sure if I was learning anything outside my ability to voice ignorance. Being extremely visual, I preferred seeing a whiteboard where the teacher could physically draw me through the steps. I struggled through a group project with my classmates, but our access to each other was limited—no one was ever online at the same time, so “live” communication was out. We touched base through email, but I only did the bare minimum.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

This was Michael Lambert’s phase. Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, said that online education attracts the kind of student who doesn’t need the frills of college to get to work. “Distance education is for that rare mortal who is full of self-discipline, a self starter who loves to learn on his own and doesn’t need the stimulation of classmates or instructors in front of him.”

This is a key concept in online learning. In the absence of brushing elbows with my peers in lecture halls, I found myself losing academic speed. As my Spanish and Irish courses were self-directed, I succumbed easily to bad habits: procrastination and eventually, nicotine. I could blame it on the Modelos I ogled as I watched the revolving melodrama in Destinos unfold, but my increasing lack of motivation came from feeling isolated. “I understand your problems with the course,” wrote my Irish professor, with whom I discussed my disappointment. “I guess that’s the tradeoff for the ease and convenience of the whole online experience.”

Also, I was spending a great deal of time at home, alone in front of my computer. While this may be a welcome and convenient reprieve for students juggling children and other responsibilities, I felt cut-off. I longed to be in a classroom. Perhaps I was the exception, though. When I spoke to Judy Rowe, who completed her undergraduate psychology degree online at the University of Maryland, she was concerned that my elearning experience had been so lackluster. Rowe, an international flight attendant, said her professors always designated class time to meet online and live chats were spirited. “Online, the words were flying,” she said. “The contact was stimulating because we had time to interact with the entire class. I didn’t find anything missing from the experience.”

LESSON LEARNED: Know thyself. What kind of learner are you? Are you self-motivated, with solid time-management skills or does teacher/peer stimulation prompt your performance? The University of Maryland online provides a self-diagnostic test that examines learning habits and attitudes. If you’re social like me, cyber classrooms can be lonely ground to tread.

Class Dismissed

On all my courses, the last day of class slipped with little fanfare. Doing the bare minimum on my science course, I received an ‘A,’ although I wasn’t sure why—I completed roughly half the coursework. After taking the final exams for my Irish and Spanish courses, I received an A via snail mail. While I strengthened my Spanish grammar and stretched my academic writing muscles, online courses were not for me. The experience was simply too isolating. My Spanish professor observed something similar. “[Teaching online] is more descansado [relaxing] because one hour of teaching and interaction takes lots of energy,” she wrote to me in an email. “[For students] there is no doubt that going to a regular class is better, at least for a foreign language.”

Is elearning worth it, then? For me, I’d have to say “no,” but the field is still in its infancy—and growing. Also, technology is improving fast, which will enable future e-students to use various multi-media rich resources that yet exist or run seamlessly now. “Broadband video tends to be a cranky medium over the Net, communication in groups is quite limited, and you’re really confined to image animation simulations that don’t typically happen in real time,” says Rob Steiner, founder of the Distance Learning Program at Columbia’s Teachers College. “The technology we have now will look primitive in the future.”

Even though learning online has its drawbacks for me, it reminded me how powerful words and writing can be. Of course, as a writer I’m biased, but the thoughtful discourse I had with both teachers and peers made the overall experience worthwhile.

Dara Colwell is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. She is a former investigative journalist for Metro Newspapers and has contributed to the Village Voice, SF Weekly, AlterNet.org, and Yahoo Internet Life. Find her work online at www.thewritegrrl.com.

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