Is online learning effective?

Mar 12, 2013
Image via Missoula Public Library Online learning is not new — in fact, information sharing is pretty much what the internet does best. From the wealth of information found in online databases to the endless numbers of “how-to” videos on YouTube, you can learn a lot of things just by conducting a quick Google search. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about online learning and have heard the term “MOOC” thrown around. MOOC stands for “massive open online course,” and is basically just a fancy name for a class taught online. There are a lot of free MOOCs being offered, as well as some paid classes that are (typically) significantly less expensive than taking an in-person class. I should note that these courses are almost never offered for credit, so you can’t earn a degree by taking them, but you can still learn something! I thought I’d share my experiences with online learning today, both as a student and a teacher. Learning Online As someone who genuinely enjoyed the prospect of taking a new course on an unfamiliar subject in college, I thought that online classes might be a great opportunity for me to learn something new without making a huge commitment. I signed up for a few free classes (fun stuff, like knitting and jewelry-making), and was excited to get going. That is, until life got in the way and I never completed any of the coursework. Being able to complete a course on your own time is a blessing and a curse because while it’s nice to listen to a lecture in the comfort of your own home, you also have full responsibility for getting the work done. And since there are no real consequences (other than not learning anything) for not completing the work, it’s not surprising that only about 10% of students actually complete MOOCs. After my test with the free courses, I moved on to a paid course on food photography. I took a photography class in high school (more than) a few years ago, so I had somewhat of a background before I started. I also do a lot of cooking and baking, so finding out how best to take photos of my creations was a high-interest subject for me. Unsurprisingly, I made time to watch the lectures, take photos, and send them to my teacher for evaluation. In short, I got something out of it because I put something into it. I’m now taking a paid course on HTML and CSS — something I want to learn about, but am by no means a natural at. I’m definitely not as motivated as I was for my photography class but because I paid something to take the class, I’m trying to keep on track! Teaching Online I have been teaching in-person baking classes for fun over the past year, so I was excited to have the opportunity to teach a class online recently. Preparing for my online class was a different experience, since the whole class was taught through video tutorials and discussion boards where I shared resources and answered questions. I was really excited when nearly 40 students signed up for my class from places all over the country. Classes like this give people access to things that they might not be able to find in their hometowns, and in turn give teachers access to people who they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach — the internet can be a wonderful thing! When the class started, I was really pleased to see that a lot of people were asking questions and sharing photos of what they were learning to do. However, only 11 students shared a final photo of their work with me. From the comments I’ve received from my students over the past few weeks, I know that some people either didn’t have the time to do their final project before the class ended or that they chose not to share their work in the end. As a teacher, not knowing if my students are understanding or benefiting from my instruction is frustrating, but I understand that this is a tradeoff you make when instruction moves out of the intimate setting of a classroom and into the somewhat impersonal web setting. I think that the real glue that holds this kind of instruction together is dedication and a real passion to teach or to learn, both by the instructor and the student. I’d love to hear your thoughts on online learning — have you ever taken an online course? If you are a teacher, can you imagine what your subject would look like in an online format? Let me know in the comments! And if you areinterested in trying out a course or two, check out Skillshare or this list of 700 free courses from top universities on Open Culture.