According to a poll that went up on The Daily’s website last week, 58 percent of Northwestern students are either interested in taking online courses in the fall of 2013 or might be interested depending on course offerings, which means 42 percent of those polled indicated no interest in taking advantage of such offerings (my mathematical abilities are astounding, aren’t they?). While these numbers don’t exactly blow me away, I am slightly surprised — I would have expected a greater number of Wildcats to be in favor of such opportunities, which NU will begin offering through Semester Online, a consortium between ours and nine other universities.
After thinking for a bit about why students might not like to take courses in this new format, I came to a few possible explanations: 1. Online courses don’t provide optimal professor-student interaction; 2. Online courses might encourage laziness and procrastination (as if these don’t already exist); and 3. Learning from videos and uploaded PowerPoints is far from equivalent to traditional in-classroom teaching.
I must give credit to each of these deterrents. While relevant and credible, however, I do feel that there’s an appropriate response to each. For instance, while I understand why some might think online courses don’t provide the same level of professor-student interaction as normal classes, I must argue in defense of Semester Online that this isn’t necessarily the case.
In fact, the type of video conferencing utilized by Semester Online requires that all participants — both instructors and students — be live on camera. The software doesn’t simply deliver pre-recorded video segments to students; it will be based on live interaction. Both students and professors can speak, type messages in the media section, and present material. In this way, professors and students are actually forced to interact more than they might in a traditional setting — not less.
Initially, one might also assume that online courses encourage procrastination and laziness. While this argument holds merit — students do indeed work at their own pace — it’s not quite as simple as it may seem. Online courses students might have heard about in the past or taken in high school are oftentimes entirely self-paced. Semester Online’s classes, however, will require weekly attendance in discussion sections (very much like NU’s current discussions). These sections, which will have 15 to 20 students each, will provide an opportunity to get questions answered in a smaller setting and will also require students to keep up with the course material.
Touching again on the issue of students’ past experience with online classes, respondents may be mistaking existing formats for Semester Online’s new format. The new format, while still including some pre-recorded materials, is not simply a dropbox full of PowerPoints and handouts for students to browse at their own leisure. Classes are taught in an interactive way, with opportunities for questions to be asked (both by the professor and by pupils) in real time. Semester Online will provide the ideal balance of self-paced learning and innovative interactivity.
When one looks at NU’s new partnership from a more knowledgeable vantage point, it’s clear to see that these courses are a great addition to our curricular offerings. Some students may decide that the learning environment provided is not right for them. I fully appreciate that, but I do believe that students should be wholly informed before making any decisions about these new offerings. Who knows — econometrics might be more bearable in a warm, comfy bed.