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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
I had my three courses. After registering and buying my materials,
I anticipated the first day of class.
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.
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
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.
the Cyber Backpack
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day of Class
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.
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.
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!”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
far, the experience neatly fell into positives and negatives:
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.
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.
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
Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
(c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (www.linezine.com)