By Nicole Mendez
You find yourself knee deep in the writings of Kafka, or Hawthorne. Your textbook is spread out in front of you with notations and highlighter covering words you don’t understand and lines you can’t forget. You’re trying desperately to understand what your classmate is trying to explain while at the same time attempting to see the connection between that and the lesson the professor is trying to teach; all while sitting in your pajamas.
You’re not having a nightmare; you’ve decided to enroll in an online class this semester. It worked with your schedule, you thought you could avoid paying for child care while continuing your education. Who really wants to venture out in this cold and snow if it’s unnecessary? Whatever your reason, you are now a slave to your computer. The obvious appeal to online classes is the flexibility they offer as you could, hypothetically, work on your own time. The downside in online courses can only be felt by enrolling yourself into one of these seemingly easy A’s. Let’s take a peek into the world of an online “classroom.”
They start innocently enough; every professor begins the course with an icebreaker discussion forum. For those of us who have a reasonably steady hand on technology and online forums, this exercise isn’t so bad. You create a post for the class, stating your name, and a little bit of information about yourself. Oddly enough some of the students who enroll in online classes are the ones who will find these introductions the most difficult. As it is not as simple as introducing yourself to a person standing before you, many also view this as their introduction to the web site the class is held on. Posts appear telling classmates’ stories of returning students or overachieving multitaskers who are struggling with the site’s dimensions, or bogged down into a chaotic schedule that only allows for this type of education. This is only the beginning and because these introductions are brief and used primarily for introducing the students to the discussion forum, their classmates will find it hard to connect a post to a name for the remainder of the semester.
Once the icebreaker activity has finished, most, if not all, professors will create links for students to find the grading policy they will be following, the syllabus for the semester, and a full list of what is expected of the students. This is where things truly become tricky. Every professor has a different schedule and without the ability to combine all the professor’s deadlines into one page, a capability that Desire 2 Learn (software colleges like Suffolk County Community College use for their online classes) is in serious need of, the average student is forced to return to a trusty planner to keep track of what is due when and for which class. Most online classes still require a textbook, but not a notebook as all lectures and notes are shared through the site by a link created by the professor; which of course you, as the student, have to find and read as a requirement of the class. This is generally considered the notes you would be taking if a professor were in front of you lecturing. However, where the going truly gets tough is in the discussion forums.
Assuming you have learned how to navigate around the page you are now ready to begin “participating” in class. Unlike live classrooms where participation can easily be viewed as sheer attendance, online discussion forums put your participation in black and white with your name next to your post. Most online classes require the student to post one original thought and respond to at least two other students’ posts. This can lead to a lot of “I agree,” “I like what you said there,” and “Wow, I never thought of it that way.” Most professors ask that students observe the golden rule and treat others the way that they want to be treated. I can only assume that this came from online debates sparking arguments between students because when you’re writing your opinion from the safety of your own laptop you’re less inclined to hold back negative criticism than you would be if you had to face the other student in class once a week. All students are encouraged to participate more than the minimum requirements, but some just skate by as they would in a live classroom. It is important to realize that you should take the extra step and read everyone’s posts, so that you are not repeating ideas already “spoken” by other students. If you were in a classroom setting, you would not hold your hands over your ears when other students were speaking, so by reading other students’ posts you also avoid not learning something that was missing in the professor’s notes.
Once you realize what is expected of you for your online class, you can better handle the large flow of information that will be coming from your laptop screen. Information that is important to the class can be found in the textbook, the professor’s numerous links, other students’ replies to your ideas, other students’ ideas, and since the class isn’t limited to the classroom, the flow of information found on the internet, as many professors and students will pull additional information off the internet and into the discussion in the form of links. The flexibility of online classes is still present but some might say that it doesn’t matter. While it would be nice to only check the forums when you have time, the forum is constantly being updated because everyone is checking it on their “own time.” What was once a virtual classroom that can be “walked into” at 1 a.m. after you’ve put the kids to bed and finished your household chores, becomes the educational equivalent of Facebook; with users constantly checking back to see other’s updates. The professors aren’t making things any easier.
The online class is offered as a convenience to ease the acquisition of an education; as almost all of us are capable of sitting in front of a computer. Students, who signed up for these classes expecting an easier journey than traveling to the campus, are in for a surprise. Professors want the information they’re teaching to be learned regardless of the means of teaching it. For this reason and for the few who took advantage of the online class, choosing not to take them seriously, professors have stepped up their game. They realized it is impossible for the information to be shared properly if students are contributing twenty minutes before deadlines lock the discussion forums. Some classes are coming with regulations that mandate the student to post within a certain time frame after the forum opens. Professors are also realizing that if a student is completing all of their mandatory assignments in one hour on one day, chances are, they aren’t checking in to see what other students have posted. For this reason some are asking students to post on various dates throughout the learning unit. This is where those spiral bound paper planners truly shine.
All in all, online classes are like any other class; they are what you make them. To be successful, the student must take it seriously, be organized, be committed to deadlines, be willing to learn, and most importantly be very near to a giant can of Red Bull; because chances are on top of the overwhelming work these classes bring, the average community college student will also be juggling a job, family, friends, and real time classrooms. When starting, take one online class to become acquainted with how they work, don’t forget your trusty planner, and most importantly hang in there, because in the end, class in your pajamas isn’t so bad.