Online Learning: Tech Wins and Losses

My graduate experience has included a significant amount of online learning, in large part because my program, the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES), is a joint program between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University. Our curriculum includes multiple classes that are broadcasted between the two schools, some taught at VT and others taught at WFU. My undergraduate experience, on the other hand, did not include a single online class that I can recall.

I’d like to reflect upon these graduate distance classes, as both a student on-site with the instructor (when the class was taught at VT) and as a student remote from the instructor (when the class was taught at WFU). The first thing that comes to mind is the intense and frequent frustration with the technology. However, giving it a second thought, I recognize instances of appreciation.

First, the tech losses. Despite efforts from the instructors and the tech staff on call, a majority of the classes, particularly at the beginning of the semester, either did not start on time or were interrupted at some point because of a broadcasting software failure. While this is frustrating as a student, it’s probably more frustrating as an instructor. Now, these sorts of failures can, and did, improve with experience. However, the nature of the online environment also made personal interactions, student to student and student to instructor, very difficult. The outcomes varied from awkward interruptions and transitions communicating live across campuses to a general lack of engagement by remote participants. These issues are certainly not easy to navigate as an instructor, but they can be tackled. Some of the best lectures were lead by instructors that made a conscious effort to connect with remote participants. Considering the classes were often around 20 people, efforts to learn students’ names went a long way in building an affective classroom, even across distance.

While the technology was often a pain, it did aid learning in some ways. Having the ability to go back and watch previous lectures was extremely useful. In addition, some instructors annotated slides in real-time. I found marking up the slides to be very helpful. The online annotation had a similar effect of an instructor stepping through a problem on a whiteboard/chalkboard with the added benefit of the notes be saved and recorded. No need for students to frantically jot things down before the board was erased. Learning efforts could be devoted to understanding the steps. In my opinion, this sort of technology is great in any classroom, on- or off-line.

All in all, broadcasting technology will continue to improve and will eventually provide reliable, stable connections across classroom settings. However, there is less of a tech fix to building a more personal classroom across distance. This burden will likely continue to fall on the instructor. That said, with awareness and conscious effort from the instructor, there is promise in playing off the strengths and weakness of tech in the classroom for online learning.


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