As we get older, life gets more complicated. We often want to prioritize education, but partners, children, family, and work seem like higher priorities, so we push our educational goals aside. Yet, this is not my story. And, it does not have to be yours, either. Distance education allows us to start and finish our educational goals alongside our messy, complicated lives. And in many cases, online learning is just as, if not more, effective than classroom learning. It is for this reason that I am proud to say: I am a distance education student…(and instructor, and scholar, too).
Let me explain further…
One sunny Colorado day two years ago, I married the love of my life. The wedding festivities went off without a hitch—with the exception of my father’s tuxedo (which was ten inches too large). As my father waddled down the aisle with me on his arm, I knew I was making the right decision. Yet, I could not push aside my ever-mounting anxiety. You see, I was moving.
At that time, I had just four classes left until I would finish the coursework portion of my Ph.D. But, only a few months before our wedding, my husband’s company announced its plans to leave the northern Colorado area. He found a new position, but it required us to temporarily move away from Fort Collins. Together, we agreed it was the right decision. We moved less than three weeks after our wedding.
Since then, I completed my remaining classes online and passed my preliminary examinations. I have also had the opportunity to teach several online courses, and I plan to study distance education for my dissertation. As a student, practitioner, and scholar of distance learning, I am confident in online education’s ability to facilitate student learning. Distance learning is not only convenient, but it also enables students to receive a comparable (and, in some cases, superior) education compared to traditional classroom instruction.
Indeed, studies that compare similar traditional and online courses have consistently found few differences in terms of student performance. Wagner, Garippo, and Lovaas (2011) considered one business applications course—taught by the same professor over a period of ten years—that was offered both online and in face-to-face formats. The researchers found that student performance (i.e., grades) was not significantly different between the two delivery methods. Similarly, Burns et al. (2013) studied the impacts of a two-series class offered via traditional, online, and hybrid formats over a period of two years. They found that students who took the first course face-to-face had better learning outcomes on that course, but students who took the first course in a hybrid or online format did significantly better on the second, more difficult course. Perhaps in some situations, then, distance learning may be superior to face-to-face education.
Beyond student performance, online education has an additional advantage: technology. Certainly face-to-face courses integrate technology into the classroom, yet based on my own experience teaching both face-to-face and online courses, I pay more attention to the role of technology in my online courses. For instance, in a professional and corporate communication course that I teach, I require students to use blogs, Wikis, Twitter, ePortfolios, instant messaging software, email, telephone, and discussion boards to facilitate communication and to complete assignments. And, as an online student, I used additional educational technologies, including social networking sites, podcasts, webcasts, webinars, virtual seminars, and virtual worlds. These experiences directed my attention to educational technologies, their strengths and their weaknesses, and how they impact my (and my students’) learning experience.
You may be asking, so what? Good question. Each of these distance learning technologies, when used effectively, allows for learning outcomes that may not always be feasible in face-to-face courses. Take discussion forums, one of the most commonly used technologies in the online classroom. As a student, I found the online discussion board enabled me (and others) to participate without being talked over, ignored, and/or intimidated by other, more vocal students. In other words, the discussion board technology enabled me to participate in a different, but not necessarily inferior way, than in my face-to-face courses. Meanwhile, as an instructor, this technology allows me to assess student understanding and engagement with the course material. I can track how often a student participates in an online discussion, and I may provide individual feedback to the student on his or her participation, which, in many ways, is how I would use discussion times in the face-to-face classroom. Finally, as a scholar, I know that students may feel more anonymous in online courses, which may actually enable them to be more honest, open, and vulnerable than in face-to-face contexts (see the SIDE model; Lea & Spears, 1991).
Distance education is not without its problems. Students need to be more self-directed learners in online courses than face-to-face courses. Instructors may not be as easily able to identify when a student is struggling in online courses. And, both students and instructors need to be technologically competent enough to use the educational technologies effectively. I admit: Online learning may not be for everyone.
Despite these disadvantages, my experience as a distance education student, instructor, and scholar has only bolstered my confidence and optimism towards online learning. Students, instructors, and scholars need to take ownership for the problems that online education is encountering, but we must also not lose faith in its ability to reach students—like me—who would not have been able to continue their education otherwise.
I wish I could turn back time to my wedding day nearly two years ago. I would tell myself that my educational goals are attainable and that my career in academia is not over. I would say, “Give online learning a chance. It just may surprise you.” And, now I say the same to you.
Interested in finding out more about how online education works? Watch this video.