If you haven’t been a long-time follower of this blog, back when it was known as “Books, Music, Laundry,” then you might not know that the majority of my MLIS degree was earned through online classes. I’m a strong defender of online education -- when done the right way. I’ve heard online degrees slammed as not being “real” degrees, and this has been especially true in the library world. Now that MOOC courses have gained in popularity, the online degree is again prompting criticism. Online degrees are looked at as the Jersey shore cousins of traditional degrees.
I came across the article “Online classes can be enlightening, edifying, and engaging -- but they’re not college” through the ALA TechSource Twitter feed. The author examines a short MOOC course, which required no tests, no papers, and appears to have had little structured discussion. She rightly says that this is not college. I would argue, though, that real education and academic discourse can take place online, and a sense of community with other scholars can be built as well. Here’s how:
1. Blend online interaction with in-person sessions. My degree included a week-long on-campus session to begin the program, followed by a long weekend on campus each semester. Students were in a cohort and got to know each other well both in person and online. Although I don’t consider myself a very social person, I have kept in touch either professionally or personally with about a half-dozen people I met when I began my degree seven years ago. My experience wasn’t unique: many people built strong friendships through the program.
2. Support the online program with a well-established and well-regarded traditional program. The MLIS program was definitely well-established and highly regarded before the online component was added. In most of the courses, those of us online were viewing the same lectures and class discussions that were taking place on campus. This wasn’t a diploma mill created solely to provide convenient education.
3. Make structured class discussions a required part of the online degree. While we sometimes attempted Skype discussions, the technology was in its infancy then, and those didn’t always work. What did work were typed discussions -- both required postings and interactions through structured comments, and instructor-led IM discussions. The advantages to these online discussions were two-fold: no one could “hide out” in the back row and not contribute, and everyone’s written communication skills improved. My current position involves writing many emails every day, and I’ve often received compliments on my communication skills. Also, I can say that I contributed much more to class discussions in my online degree than I did in my in-person undergraduate degree.
4. Make the requirements for the online degree the same as for the in-person degree. We online students wrote the same papers, did the same research, and did all the same assignments as the on-campus students. There’s no reason for this to be any other way.
5. Keep the class size small. While our classes sometimes could have been smaller, they were nowhere near what anyone would call “massive”. Only with small class sizes can you have the attention from the instructor that’s necessary to maintain accountability.
6. Allow for multiple opportunities each week to meet online as a class. Most of our classes had at least one lecture each week and another session for online discussion. In addition, professors were available by email at any time, and response time was very fast. Many professors also held online “office hours”, in which they were available for help. All of this was in addition to required postings for discussions. Of course, the structure of each class could be different depending on the topics covered, but our courses were not simply a video to watch once a week.
While I agree with much of the criticism of the MOOC in the article referenced above, many of those same criticisms could be leveled at an undergraduate lecture class taught by a teaching assistant, with a hundred or more students enrolled. Just because education is online doesn’t mean it has to be less personal or less demanding than its traditional counterpart.