What was missing in my online classes?

Thought bubble
Over the past few years I had been taking Library Science classes at IUPUI. Like many library school programs, the classes were all offered online. I got great grades and enjoyed learning the material. However, I can compare those graduate classes to the graduate level math classes I took at IPFW. The math classes were in person on the university campus.

Reflecting on my experiences, there were important things missing at IUPUI. I believe that the problems are relevant to any online courses and not my specific experiences. Here are a few things the online classes lack:

There is very little interaction between me and the other students. We couldn’t talk in the hall before class to encourage each other or ask for help. There wasn’t a library with study rooms and a cafeteria to visit. There wasn’t a “I’m studying” place to contrast with a “I’m making dinner” place. That leads to poorer learning through distractions and interruptions. By missing these intangibles, the classes become sterile and mechanical.

Although the online classes had forums to ask questions or have a discussion, those can’t replicate the quick back and forth in a lecture. It isn’t possible to raise a hand and stop in the middle. In a conventional class, when someone asked a question, it could lead to follow up questions by someone else. The questions allow the instructor to switch gears if their presentation wasn’t working.

Unfortunately, the online system is a communication bottleneck. Language becomes a barrier as some students may not express themselves easily or be self-conscious of using bad spelling or grammar. In the math classes, I could ask a question that was confused and not feel intimidated. By the next week, everyone would have forgotten my clumsy explanation. In an online classes, the discussions are saved forever.

A limitation on the online classes is that all activities need be evaluated in points. If a task can’t turn into points, there is no incentive to do it. If it doesn’t affect your points total, extra work that would improve comprehension is unlikely to be done. The focus is continuously “what grade am I going to get?” Although that is present in the conventional class, it is front and center in an online class, You can see it every time you log in.

It is easy for the instructors in an online class to overwhelm themselves with too much material to grade. This is discouraging students when the work isn’t returned promptly.

Although I got good grades, it’s not clear how much of the lessons “stuck.”

There are lots of trade offs between online classes and those that are in person. For younger students, I think that the risks should encourage concern that an online class might be inappropriate. What is needed to compensate for these risks? What are best practices for online schools?

IPFW Hollerith Card

Punched Card


Wow! I was cleaning up a drawer with 10,000 old warranty and instruction manuals and found a pile of these cards. I knew I’d kept them, I just didn’t know where until today.

It’s from a bygone era 35 years ago.


IPFW (was) Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. It’s become a victim of the two parent organizations who treat the school like a second class technical school. They decided that most of the curriculum isn’t profitable enough for IU so they’re splitting the university down the middle. In addition, the liberal arts programs don’t feed the coffers of wealthy (modern) robber barons quickly enough so they got slashed too.

I surprised myself in knowing that the card’s technical name is Hollerith, also known as IBM card or punched card. This one was from a summer project with a professor at IPFW simulating epidemic propagation using the language SimScript, a simulation language.

They’re based on a system where the pattern of holes in each column of the card represent different letters. In a way they’re an ancient form of SMS because they only old 80 characters, like a text message’s 160. They would be created with a punch card terminal that one would type on a keyboard and the correct holes would be selected. A program would be a stack (deck) of these cards and heaven help you if you drop them!

They’re similar in concept to Florida’s voting punched cards from the 2000 US presidential election. However, these cards never have “hanging chads” because that would cause data errors which weren’t acceptable in the world of technology.