These days we can get a lot done from the comfort of our computer chair. We can pay our bills, get a degree, find a job, find our soul mate or simply buy another computer chair.
Modern society has chosen to do these activities online in the name of convenience. Unfortunately, these activities decrease face-to-face human interaction thus we run the risk of becoming less social. This risk now spreads to the education system in the form of online classes. We can complete a whole college semester in our favorite slippers. But are we gaining as much as we would from a physical classroom environment?
Online courses are here to stay and they have their niche. However, it is unlikely that they represent the future of education. History is evidence of that. Film, radio and television were once considered revolutionary for education, but that didn’t happen. While the development of the printed book did (slowly) change education, it didn’t substitute for face-to-face learning.
Online classes are being widely used by many colleges around the country. If you browse the class catalog here at USM, you will notice an increasing number of online classes. Some of these courses are available both online and on campus, while others are solely online. I believe it is important for a university to provide students with options, but online classes should be considered a plan B.
For students who are signing up for classes, it can be disappointing to find out the class they want is only being offered online. Alicia Pyle, a social work major at USM, told the Free Press earlier this year the frustration she felt when she went to sign up for her classes and found out that the courses she wanted were all online courses.
Online classes can be very convenient, especially if you have kids, work full time or if you live far from campus (assuming you have Internet access). And though there is not a great deal of data on the subject, online classes may also help lower student dropout rates by providing students with a degree completion alternative.
On the other hand, online classes are a relatively new way of learning and I don’t believe we have yet found an optimal set up for them. “The current state of online education is effective in delivering content but is incapable of delivering the classroom experience,” says Joan Bullock, professor of Law at Florida A&M University
Though we can certainly get a lot of information online, learning is essentially a social process. The purpose of a classroom is not simply for students to retain information. We also create a small world where we interact with fellow students, learn social skills and pick up on nonverbal behavior. I will be graduating next spring and a big part of my college experience involved interacting with people, stretching dollar bills for the vending machine, going to the library and spending time on campus.
Direct contact with others is crucial for the development of public speaking skills. Thanks to dozens of presentations I no longer fear speaking in a crowded room. Shy students might voice their opinions more often in an online class, but they fail to refine their people skills. Group projects help us learn to deal with very different personalities and collaborate. These skills will come in handy in the future when we want to move up in our careers.
Some students are also under the misconception that online classes are easier, but online classes require a lot of self-discipline and a different type of responsibility than traditional classes. Like a correspondence course, you don’t go to a classroom and you don’t get immediate feedback from your professor. “Teachers are sort of like personal trainers. You can diet and train on your own, but it’s a lot easier with someone to guide, evaluate and help motivate you” said USM professor Matthew Killmeier.
Though online classes give us flexibility, the experience and the skills we miss out on will be needed sooner or later in our lives.
Roberta de Sousa is a student of Professor Matthew Killmeier’s Writing Opinion: Editorials and Columns class.