My Experience with Online Classes and Distance Learning

August 8th, 2010

I spent the four years of obtaining my bachelor’s degree doing it the traditional way. I went away to school, put my time in living with roommates in the dorms, took full course loads every semester and I graduated in the typically allotted time. It was a great experience and one I’m glad I had the chance to experience.

However, I quickly realized I hadn’t made the best choice for me as far as career fields went. I decided to go back to school and try a new direction – web design and administration. This time around I skipped the full fledged degree (since I already have one) and decided to pursue a certificate. The college I found with the right program ended up being on the other end of the country from me. This means distance learning and online classes. It has been quite an experience, in some ways very different from my first go around and in some ways still very much the same. The freedom from a set class schedule every week has been particularly nice, but there’s still plenty of homework (even more in some ways), and a lot of self-motivation.

Online classes are a very unique environment and overall learning experience. Time and again you will hear that it’s really up to you what you take away from online classes. The harder you work, the more motivated you are to learn, then the more you will learn. In many ways this is true. I’ve found that while I had to have quite a bit of self-motivation in a normal college environment, online courses put the burden of learning even more squarely on my shoulders. I’m at a good time in life where I can manage this, though I’m not sure that I could have at 18. I have had some great classes where I learned quite a bit, and have taken away some good practices and ideas.

The problem with this idea though, is that sometimes it really isn’t all in your hands. Like any classroom environment the value of the class depends quite a bit on the person teaching it. How much interaction they have with the class, the quality of their lecture notes and examples, their willingness to lend a helping hand to a struggling student, these are all important factors in the quality of the class. I’ve been pretty lucky, most of the classes I’ve taken have been from enthusiastic and available professors. While I may not have liked all the work or the subject matter they really encouraged the learning process.

This last semester, however, I was unlucky enough to see the other end of the spectrum. I took a class on JavaScript. It started well enough and I cruised through the first three weeks feeling pretty good about myself and excited about the material. Shortly after that the subject matter got much harder. The text book chosen for the class was a first edition that was co-authored by another professor at the college, and it had some issues, especially with balancing subject matter difficulty. The professor teaching the class decided that the text was written specifically for this particular class and therefore really didn’t need any additional teaching. Each week were assigned a chapter and our lecture notes were merely chapter summaries that didn’t do much to expand on the material. Half the class began to have serious problems following along and the only solution offered by the professor was to give a week off and supply solutions to the end-of-chapter activities. Not incredibly helpful. He was rarely available other than to post assignments at the beginning of the week. All of this is of course was compounded by the fact that I am thousands of miles from the college campus and couldn’t just drop in on him.

Ultimately my solution was soldier on as best I could and buy another JavaScript text so I could try to reteach myself over the summer. I find it unfortunate that I had this experience at all, but overall pleasantly surprised that this has been my only experience with a professor like that. I have one class left (luckily not from that professor) and I’m hoping for the best as the new semester approaches.

(And in case you’re wondering, the new JavaScript text has been gathering dust for most of the summer. I’ve finally relocated it to right next to my computer so I don’t have an excuse to forget about it anymore.)

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