Despite the stereotype that university students are beer-guzzling spendthrifts, the reality is that most students today have to take on one or two part-time jobs just to make ends meet.
When you add up the hours, going to lecture, writing papers, preparing for exams and working part-time it can be incredibly difficult to maintain a flexible and balanced schedule.
This is probably the most attractive aspect of universities offering more online courses. It gives busy students the option to free up their time and devote a greater portion of their week to their studies.
While some online courses require the student to log on at specified times (class discussions or exams), this is often not the case. In the majority of online courses I’ve taken, you go online when it best suits you. In other words, you can view course material, watch video lectures, and contribute to class discussions according to the time constraints of your own schedule.
Now, I know for many of you that this seems like a silly and immature argument to make. Admittedly, there is some logic behind it. We are after all adults. We should be able to handle the demands placed upon us without complaint. Balancing our personal and professional lives shouldn’t really factor into it.
While this is certainly true on the whole, if our prime concern is the ability of students to devote themselves to their course studies, we have to look at the bigger picture. It is simply an economic reality that if you want to study at university one has to strike the right balance between school and work.
This is what makes online courses appear attractive to students. It frees up time that would otherwise be spent travelling back and forth between lectures and seminars. Moreover, the onus is still on the student to meet deadlines, participate in class discussions and complete assigned readings and assignments.
Unless your parents and a generous amount of student loans are taking care of all your costs (housing, groceries, tuition, books, travel and more), with the average cost of attending school today around $85, 000, if I wasn’t working part-time on campus and working nights at a convenience store, there’s no way I could pay the bills, buy my books and live somewhat comfortably.
In a recent Toronto Star column, Dana Flavelle wrote that “most students are well aware of the high cost of getting a degree or diploma and one in four say finances are their top source of stress – higher than doing well at school.”
Flavelle was referring to a number of recent surveys by Canada’s biggest banks who wanted to find out whether students were really aware of the costs of attending university. Although this doesn’t come as a surprise, it does mean that many students are looking for alternatives to offset the economic constraints placed upon them by the high costs associated with attending school.
These costs translate roughly into 16-30 hours per week working part-time on top of another 30-40 hours per week attending lectures and seminars, completing readings and writing papers.
As Abhishek Karadkar, a correspondent for The Technician, the student newspaper for North Carolina State University, said recently, “The main advantage of online course work is the flexibility the courses provide. People have the choice to enroll for whichever courses they like and can either continue or opt out of them if the courses don’t interest them.”
I mentioned above that students don’t have the greatest of reputations in the eyes of the general public. In some respects we’ve earned that reputation. We’re not seen as productive or hard-working and the vast majority of our time and money is spent on frivolous things unrelated to our schooling. This isn’t new stuff.
Some of the stereotypes are perfectly accurate, but for many students their commitment is to their studies and just want to earn their degree and start a career like everyone else.
Thus, for those who do work hard and are committed, online courses do speak to those students who are struggling with the heavy burden of working while attending school full-time. Some even have families and children which only raises the demands that much more.
If the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is correct that todays university students have to work nearly five months at minimum wage just to pay for a single year’s tuition or twice the time our parents generation did when they attended school back in the 1970s, it would seem apparent that some type of change in how schools conduct lectures and seminars needs to be considered to reflect this reality.
“This proves my generation does have a tougher time paying for post-secondary education, and the extraordinary lengths students have to go to pay for it that previous generations did not,” said Alastair Woods, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, Ontario.
Online courses just might be one helpful way out of this problem.
With online courses, you aren’t constrained by lecture times, bus schedules, gasoline costs or parking passes. These economic and time constraints, entrance barriers that block student success at university, can be easily remedied by an open access approach to higher education.
They are open 24/7 and for any student with a computer and access to the internet, one does not have to worry about missing a lecture, getting to the bus on time, or scrounging for money to pay for parking. In other words, they can be incredibly convenient and far less time consuming than traditional courses, especially for students who live off campus.
While there are many benefits to offering a greater range of online courses to students, they also come with some significant drawbacks. Perhaps the first and immediate problem that comes to mind is the loss of social interaction.
Lectures and seminars mean that the professor and the students are meeting face-to-face to study and debate the material. One isn’t provided the luxury of sitting behind a computer screen at one’s leisure. And regardless of how you feel or how tired you are, you have to pay attention and engage yourself critically. If you aren’t alert and staying abreast of what the professor is saying it’s your loss. Of course, you can always ask someone for the lecture notes but you know that when you walk into that lecture room you have to be prepared, know what you’re talking about and ready to discuss the material.
Moreover, it is difficult to develop and hone your critical thinking skills through online courses. Seminars can be intimidating to some, especially when you encounter students who love to debate and engage in intellectual arguments. Many will simply shy away or say nothing in seminar at all to avoid having to argue.
Sometimes, maybe most of the time, those students in seminar who are silent simply didn’t finish the readings or the assigned work. But for other students, the opportunity to be seated across from someone with a different perspective, who is willing to defend their position passionately and intelligently and isn’t afraid to voice their beliefs, to see their body language and hear their voice demands not only a little bit of courage and self-confidence but it teaches you to rely on your critical thinking and reasoning.
In this environment, you have to speak and communicate your ideas and beliefs clearly, coherently and intelligently. While many students are eager to see more online courses, I think this one trade off is something that we have to bear very strongly in mind.
According to Bruce G. Charlton, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Medical Hypotheses, there might be some scientific evidence that lectures are and will continue to be the most effective learning environment for the vast majority of students.
“… lectures are ‘spontaneously’ easier to learn from than are written or electronic media, and the reason is probably that they exploit evolved human psychology. In other words, lectures are better suited to ‘human nature’ than solitary study from texts. There is a natural tendency for humans to learn by hearing and in social situations because this is the medium and context in which human ancestors (hunter-gatherers) did most of their learning,” said Charlton.
Part of the reason for this is that online education is a very recent development whereas the physical presence of an older, much wiser, and more experienced individual teaching younger and less experienced individuals is ingrained in us and has been a part of human civilization for millennia.
“… learning by solitary reading or from electronic media are a modern cultural artefacts, skills that must themselves be learned; they are not universal and require more effort,” said Charlton.
“While some people manage to reach a stage of cognitive development where they can self-educate from impersonal media, many people require a human situation and benefit from being part of a class being lectured by a real person.”
While the loss of human interaction is a serious problem to consider in adopting more online courses, we also need to look at some of the problems associated with the technology itself. I’ve taken a number of courses online over the years and for the most part they fail to live up to the hype.
The courses I took were great in terms of freeing up my time for studying and working on papers and other assignments, but in terms of a challenging learning environment they weren’t what one expected going in. They were often disorganized, had numerous technical issues and simply didn’t offer the same demands and expectations that one finds in a traditional lecture or seminar.
Moreover, students who were enrolled didn’t seem as motivated to participate. The discussion forums weren’t alive and often resembled your average Facebook post. Students seemed only interested in completing the minimum requirements. The professors and TAs were usually great in making themselves available and answering e-mails, but aside from that it is obvious they need some tinkering.
As Dhirendra Kumar wrote in a white paper for North Carolina State University, “Online methods of education can be a highly effective alternative method of education for the students who are matured, self-disciplined and motivated, well organized and having a high degree of time management skills, but it is an inappropriate learning environment for more dependent learners and has difficulty assuming responsibilities required by the online courses.”
Ultimately, while expanding online course offerings at university uses pedagogy to combat economic inequality between those who are forced to work during school and those who aren’t, it is admittedly hard to imagine what an online O-Week might look like. Albeit, there would be a lot less luggage to pack for the ‘move-in day’.