Or So it Seems … Online Education – It’s Time To Change Your Mind

If you want to be somebody else,
If you’re tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind

“Change Your Mind”
Sister Hazel

I’ve just given up a long-held prejudice.

For years, when anyone mentioned online degrees, I rolled my eyes. Real degrees, I thought, came from real schools. The kinds with blackboards, stuffy brick buildings, and ivy-covered professors.

Like the place I work.

DE—distance ed—is not new. But starry-eyed advocates of of the virtual classroom saw it as a game-changer, allowing isolated, house-bond individuals to take classes and earn degrees. Supporters had a laundry list of benefits: It would reduce pollution, since students didn’t have to drive to school; cut down on heating an air conditioning costs; and save millions of dollars by eliminating the need for more classrooms.

“It’s a God-send,” the breathless enthusiasts proclaimed.

“And it allows quiet students to speak up,” others chimed in.

I half-expected someone to suggest that keeping students away from campus vending machines would prevent tooth decay.

At first it was all blue-sky upside, and Shasta College jumped into the movement’s forefront. I, too, was carried away with enthusiasm and gave online education a shot.

Then reality struck.

Initially the software was clunky, and it was aggravating to do something as simple as sharing a video. And there were other headaches. Documents had to be reformatted, test banks converted, and pictures scanned into files to be uploaded. Even the opportunities created by new, interactive media meant hours of programming and adapting material for Flash animation.

But, on the upside, the changes brought new and unexpected benefits to students—the high-tech excuse. Now, when they arrived empty-handed they could say “the modem ate my homework,” or “I caught a computer—virus and I have a doctor’s note to prove it.”

Still, it didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off in the face off all this. But most of all, I found that I didn’t enjoy teaching when it lacked the face-to-face interaction.

The final blow for me was when Shasta decided to switch to a different platform. This meant everything that had been so painstakingly formatted, polished, uploaded, had to be re-configured and re-entered all over again.

One of my colleagues made the observation: “How can you tell when software is obsolete? When it finally works.

He found this a lot funnier than I did.

So I opted out and got off the online bus. I snickered while I watched my more dedicated colleagues soldier on, being dragged from platform to platform as the school repeatedly “improved” it’s online technology.

This is nuts. I thought, and quit paying much attention to distance education.

Oh, I did put my teaching materials on the web, but I preferred to teach “real” on-campus classes. This gave me the best of both worlds. Fully online instruction demanded compromises I didn’t care to make.

Or so I thought.

But a few years later Karin signed up for an online master’s degree in nursing at CSU Chico. I watched as she did her work and saw web-based classes that were blended with campus visits. I realized that this hybrid approach had value. Better still, the software didn’t suck. Chico’s portal was a user-friendly platform called Blackboard.

Most impressive of all was that her degree connected her with nursing leaders all across the north state. The very nature of Chico’s program required Karin to reach out far and wide, and this proved to be a tremendous opportunity. Online education gave her resources she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

But the real eye-opener came when Karin decided to go for her PhD.

Karin opted for a degree in public health with Walden University, a fully online school. She shared the literature, and I realized several things at once.

Walden has no physical campus. No mascot. And shockingly, no baseball team.

How is this possible? I wondered, dumbstruck. Can such a school even be accredited?

My skepticism returned as I flipped through the brochure.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked.

“I’ve asked around,” Karin assured me, “and their program is quite respected.”

In our many years of marriage, I’ve learned that, nine times out of ten, my partner is right. But given my experience with web-based instruction, I thought that maybe this one one time at bat where she’d whiffed it.

But I didn’t try to stop her. And for the record, Walden is accredited. Just don’t look for them in the playoffs.

So she signed up. UPS delivered her books, and she went online night after night, pursuing her terminal degree in public health. Again I watched her study and work into the wee hours. I was pleased to see that her classes were substantial, well-organized, and academically rigorous. I was impressed, and I, too, learned something.

Distance ed has come of age.

It’s not been easy for Karin, nor the degree a bargain. But the Walden program has been the pathway to tremendous growth and opportunity. Her fellow students are, like her, dedicated and passionate about public health.

Their online interactions are lively.

So Karin learns from from her teachers and her peers. You can see her eyes twinkle with excitement when she shares their stories, drawn from online discussions. Her classmates live all across the US and around the globe, offering diverse life experiences. Would a “traditional” classroom offer such a breath of insights and observations? I wonder.

And this, to my surprise, wasn’t the only unexpected benefit of web-based instruction. What seemed to be a disadvantage—the lack of a campus—is actually an opportunity.

Once a year, we travel to a city of our choice for Karin’s week-long residency. There, she meets her teachers and classmates face-to-face, and she gets to explore the region. Her last residency was in Atlanta, allowing her to visit the CDC—The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, this wasn’t my idea of a great time, but Karin was thrilled. When you’re a public health geek, it’s like going do Disease Disneyland and riding the Hantavirus Express. The CDC even has a museum, with a real iron-lung and the actual electron microscope used in several important scientific breakthroughs. Spoiler alert—one of the most exciting exhibits has actual samples of the contaminated water that caused the 1976 Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak in Philadelphia.

Alas, the really interesting stuff isn’t for sale in the gift shop.

Still, to my delight, I had a good time, and I learned that not having a campus can be a plus. So by and by, Walden has won me over.

Part of what makes its program so effective is that it takes advantage of a myriad of online tools—and this technology has steadily improved. It’s now possible to have regular, face-to-face interactions with Skype, and YouTube has expanded—exploded really—the quantity and quality of video available. It’s now a snap to share. Electronic textbooks—ebooks—can be bought or rented on the cheap from companies like www.chegg.com. This has been a boon both online and in the conventional classroom.

And it just gets better and better.

Alert readers may have noticed that I’ve given up calling traditional classrooms “real.” That’s the prejudice I just overcame. Watching Karin’s progress has made me rethink my position on online education, and to rejoin the ranks of distance-ed instructors.

A few semesters ago I started teaching intercultural communication online. I’ve found it delightful. Like public health, intercultural communication lends itself to Internet-based instruction. Far-flung participants are a plus. Just last semester two of my students were traveling in Europe, and our class was able to discuss what our travelers learned as they journeyed afar.

Inspired by this, I’ve decided to teach a summer class “from the road.” Karin and I are traveling through Texas—her next residency—and on to the East Coast. I’ll be weaving my travel narrative into this blog and my classroom.

Stay tuned for reports from the road, or take the plunge into online education yourself and sign up for intercultural communication, CMST 20, at Shasta College. You, too, can be a part of the discussion.

I’ve changed my mind about the value of an online diploma. It’s true that the Internet makes it possible for students to get a degree when they otherwise couldn’t. But more than that, there are times when studying online is superior to the brick-and-mortar alternatives. When the world is your classroom, new methods, assignments and opportunities for interaction abound.

And I think that’s pretty cool.

So even though Walden U doesn’t offer me a chance to see their star student pitch a shut-out or a pinch-hitter nail a grand slam, I still give them a solid thumbs-up.

But I will miss booing the umpire.

Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reached at robb@robblightfoot.com.

Robb Lightfoot is a humorist, author and educator. He and his wife raised a family of four kids, a dozen or more dogs and a zillion cats. He has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to teaching at Shasta Community College, and his former column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the "Funny Times". His short stories have won honorable mention in national competitions. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-10 finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives and writes in Chico where he manages ThinkingFunny.com. He also hates referring to himself in the third person, and will stop doing so immediately. I can be reached in the following ways: Robb@thinkingfunny.com PO Box 5286 Chico, CA 95928 @_thinking_funny on Twitter
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