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?

IUPUI Capstone

This weekend I went down to IUPUI for the first time.

I’ve been taking LIS classes for a long time, but since they were all online, I didn’t have a need to head down there.

This semester I was had an internship at the Auburn library’s William H. Willinnar Genealogy Center. One of the requirements of the internship is to participate in the Capstone program at the end of the semester.

I got my presentation ready in time for the event and headed down. It was a good experience. I would have liked to have seen what other people had presented, but I didn’t have anyone to spot for me and watch my display so I couldn’t wander off.

I did my best to use some artistic expertise in putting together the display of “Growing a collection through donations and loans.” I had some cream colored cardstock that I put the information on. It took a while to decide what to say and get all of the parts designed and printed up.

I have a bunch of colored paper from the past and I had some that was a nice light green that I put offset from the main text. With the black background of the display, the green really set off the design and made it attractive. I also managed to use color in the text effectively I think. At first I wanted to have a spectrum of colors, but I ended up just using red, blue, green and black which was a lot easier to look at and less busy.

When I got there I felt really inadequate and out of place. Before everything started, I was talking to another Library Science intern who was also there and that helped me feel like I belonged.

One of the people who was taking pictures for the event took several pictures of me talking to people and of the display. Of the people in my room, my material was the most colorful. I’ve been told by family that I’m pretty photogenic, so I hope the photos come out well. Maybe they’ll be up on the Capstone website soon.

I really like the director of the Capstone program. He is really energetic and really funny, in a good way.  I hope I didn’t look like I was laughing at him because I thought he was charming and genuinely entertaining. I couldn’t help but smile while I was watching him in the room where us 4 LIS students were presenting. He showed me his interest in steampunk and his drawings which were a cool surprise.

When I got home, I felt really energized by the experience. I think part of it was being on campus and being around a new group of people.

I had dinner after the presentations with the instructor of the internship, Kym, the department chair, Andrea, and her partner. For some reason, he seemed really familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where. From the conversation we had at dinner, I still couldn’t figure out if I had met him somewhere before and I was too shy to ask.

I’d like to go down to IUPUI more often this semester. I think participating in the university experience in person will enhance my enthusiasm and creativity. Being around other students in person is a lot different then having conversations with them on the course websites.

During the event, I met the professor, Kyle, who is leading my independent study class on privacy. That was nice too. In the past we’d only spoken on the phone or thru email.

For me Capstone wasn’t a high pressure event. However, for all of the other students in the SOIC department, the computer scientists, human computer interaction students, and design students, the Capstone had to succeed or they wouldn’t graduate. For me, it was more an opportunity to promote the library and information science department and try something completely different.

I hope to go to Capstone in the spring as an audience member instead of as a participant. Mathew (the director of Capstone) said there’ll be around 100 Capstones in May. Awesome!