Getting the inside scoop on online/distance learning

By Joanna Fitzpatrick 

Photo credit: Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash


The busy lives lived now-a-days make it hard for some people to manage their time accordingly. There never seems to be enough time in the day to get what is needed to be done, done. From running around to work, to running errands, to going to class, and all the extracurricular activities that fall in between, making time to go to and from class at certain times throughout the week has become less appealing and very challenging to some. 


With the current pandemic, people have all had to make major adjustments in terms of their daily lives. The traditional in person classes have come to a halt. Learning across all populations has changed drastically; from kindergarten students, to students trying to get their PHD, online learning has become the only avenue for learning. One of those major life adjustments has been education and the way in which people learn. 


Online/distance learning for some has been something they have been choosing over the traditional in-person class learning for some time now. Online/distance learning started becoming popular in the 1990’s. Many people across the world found online classes appealing because it allowed them to create their own schedule that was more accommodating to their daily lives. Many colleges throughout the world offer online learning for most majors. 


Kevin Aly, an online only student who is a senior at George Mason University says that “I chose online learning due to my choice of major (Health Fitness and Recreation Resources with a Concentration in Therapeutic Recreation). There are less than 40 students with the same major as I in all of George Mason University. Because of this some of my major classes will have anywhere from 20 people all the way down to 10 or even 5. Due to the low enrollment in these classes most of them are online as classes with higher enrollment occupy the classrooms on campus. Even though it wasn’t a choice I necessarily made on my own, online classes have provided me with being able to make my own schedule to stick to and I’ve succeeded thus far.” 


Many college campuses throughout the country offer a variety of online classes for their students. In cases like Aly’s, the classes that have the greater number of students get first dibs on the traditional in person classes. While some students greatly enjoy the choice of online learning, Sarah Tamul, a 2016 graduate of Public Health at George Mason University, says she took all her classes from freshman year to her last semester of grad school only in person. “I feel I am someone who greatly benefits from the in-person interaction and teaching styles, like many others. It was always a challenge for me to stay on topic and learning in a classroom almost forces you to stay in the moment, where as if I had taken online courses, I feel like I would have been distracted, and put other things first and would have really procrastinated on my work, or simply just not have done it at all. In person classes have a certain accountability that comes with it and also provides more help because most professors have office hours where you can go and meet with them,” says Tamul. 


Online learning is different for students than it is for professors. There are some professors that greatly enjoy the idea of online learning, and others who aren’t as fond of it. During this current time, as stated earlier, online learning/teaching is the only avenue for education. The entire world has had to shift their ways of learning and teaching. 


On the transition to online learning, Yathrib Ragsdale, Electronic Publishing professor at Marymount University says, “surprisingly the transition has been relatively smooth. Most of the course work was already housed on Canvas so the transition into online learning hasn’t been an issue for me.” 


Hailey Colman, kindergarten instructional assistant at Mantua Elementary school says, “The transition to online learning has given me the excitement to be able to pursue a new avenue of learning for young children; however, it has created worry regarding my at-risk students. Not all students benefit from online learning the way others do. Students who benefit more from an in-person setting may be having a troubling time right now with this latest form of learning.”


 Obstacles faced for college professors and elementary school teachers vary. Ragsdale says that “the only obstacles that I’ve encountered have been some students struggling with using tools and technology from home. Adobe Creative Suite is a robust tool that takes up a lot of power and can seem complicated to new users.”  With Ragsdale being a professor, a lot of the work done in class is already offered on platforms for students to access at home. The transition isn’t as difficult with so much material already readily available to students. 


Colman says the obstacles faced are different as an elementary teacher. Colman says the obstacles she faces include “student/family communication and collaborating with grade level teams. Some families may not have computer or internet access, some parents may have enrolled their students in a daycare facility if they are still working or have other caregivers, and some families may have other worries to be more focused on during this time. Ensuring that the education we are now providing is equitable and available to everyone is a big obstacle we are facing. Grade levels are now expected to work even more synchronously which is difficult to do when you can only communicate through a screen or over the phone.” With these obstacles at hand and elementary school being such an impactful time period in a child’s life, Colman worries about the students who can’t access the appropriate materials and the students who have a difficult home life, with less present/busier parents. 


Online learning has advantages and disadvantages just like everything else. One advantage to online learning is the convenience that comes with it. Lives are so hectic and it’s hard to find the time to do all the things that need to get done daily. Online learning allows for people to create their own schedule that is most suitable for them. 


Ragsdale says that “online learning allows my students to work at their own cadence. They have more autonomy to create their designs at their own pace.” Having the ability to structure your day however you please is very appealing to many students. 


Aly says some advantages of online learning are “being that the courses are very accessible, students with other obligations such as work, family, etc. have a better opportunity to complete their work from the comfort of their own home or local library. Not everyone’s life and weekly schedule allows them the time or ability to drive to a campus and sit in class. Online learning allows these individuals a tremendous opportunity to fit their education into their own schedule, which I feel is extremely important more than ever.” 


Online learning for college students has many advantages. Online learning for elementary students is different, yet also has many advantages that come with it. For elementary students, Colman says, “online learning provides students with the ability to access material at a time of their choosing throughout the day that is best for them and may provide some students with the comfort of going at their own pace. Students have many resources to now utilize at the kindergarten level and may feel they have more of a choice when it comes to their learning and the ways in which they learn best.” 


According to Elearning, some advantages to online learning are that students can learn at the pace they choose, in a setting that is comfortable for them, and oftentimes courses offered online are lower in cost. For a college student, they are able to possibly work full time while still getting the education they desire, and elementary students have the ability to learn at their own speed in ways that could be very beneficial to their overall mental growth. 


While there are many advantages to online learning, there are disadvantages that students and teachers face as well. Some of the disadvantages of online learning that Ragsdale has been faced with due to the sudden change to online work are “some students lack the motivation to work on their projects without the instructor’s physical presence. Also, it’s difficult to troubleshoot software issues when we’re not in the same room.” 


For students that are younger, Colman says that “there are many disadvantages to online learning that can have a major impact on closing the achievement gap. Lower SES students may not have the resources to provide the support necessary if they are struggling with a subject or may not have access to material at all online. Some students with older siblings may have a larger need to have access to the laptop; therefore, limiting the kindergartener’s availability to online material. English language learner students may not have access to help at home due to language barriers. Finding ways to remedy these issues is a major consideration when it comes to successfully executing distance learning on an elementary level.”


As an online only student himself, Aly says “some disadvantages I find in online learning is that I don’t have regular face to face contact with my professors or fellow students. Because of this it is more difficult to network and make connections with others as you never actually met them, and communication is always delayed because it needs to be done through email. Also, I think online classes can take away from the overall learning experience. For certain majors and classes I believe there is a lot more to be gained from completing a course in person versus online.” 


While there are some cons to online/distant learning, there are many pros as well. With online learning being the only avenue for education and learning currently, once things resume as normal, or as close to normal as they can be, should online learning be something that is offered more?


 Ragsdale says “Yes. Even though it has its challenges, I still believe that it is a great method of learning for self-motivated students, and professors who are willing to over-communicate and leverage multiple tools. Perhaps a merge of both; where the class meets twice a week, once virtually and once in person.” 


Colman feels similarly to Ragsdale, “I think that online learning is a great option and now that teachers are learning how to provide more online content there should be more availability for at home learning and reinforcement moving forward.”  As a student, Aly says “I think online learning should be offered more. For some degree seeking individuals (adults with full time jobs, parents with kids, etc.) online learning is the only reasonable way for them to obtain a degree due to their life situations. I think this is of tremendous value as it provides an opportunity to access higher learning to individuals that otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I know there are schools such as the University of Phoenix that offer entire degrees online regardless of where you live in the country. I think that is amazing and opens doors for many.”


There will be many emerging trends based on the sudden and significant increase for online learning and because of the current pandemic, people have been forced to pivot and change how they live and learn. There is a high demand for tailored experiences, and in many ways online learning can offer that. Online learning could soon be the new norm of teaching and learning.


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