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eLearning challenges students

Students and professors discuss pros, cons of online classes

By Kristen Mott

Dec. 1, 2011

With advances in technology, online courses have become increasingly popular amongst college students. Online classes have vastly increased in terms of popularity over the last few years at Cleveland State.

For the 2005-2006 academic year, eLearning courses accounted for 2.1 percent of total semester credit hours, whereas in 2010-2011 that number jumped to 11.7 percent.

“We’re continuing to grow, without a doubt,” said Pete Rottier, director of the Center for eLearning at CSU.

Students sign up to take online courses mainly for the ease of convenience -- they can learn from their own bedroom and log on whenever they choose. This is especially true during the summer, with online courses accounting for 30 percent of the total summer credit hours.

Grades between online and traditional classes are quite similar. Data from spring 2008 to fall 2010 shows that the average GPA of undergraduate students in face-to-face classes was 2.78, whereas the average GPA in online classes was 2.85. For graduate students, the average GPA in face-to-face classes was 3.67 and 3.66 for online classes. Rottier noted that the differences are not statistically significant.

Still, online courses are not without their shortcomings. Rottier said the biggest disadvantage with eLearning is the attrition rate. Students will sign up for an online class and be more likely to withdraw at some point during the semester than students in a traditional classroom setting.

In fall 2010, 13.9 percent of undergraduate students withdrew from their online courses, as compared to only 9.3 percent of undergraduates who withdrew from traditional courses.

“Students who take an online course must be able to organize their time so they don’t fall behind in assignments,” said Diane Steinberg, a  Philosophy professor at CSU. “Generally, they need to be able to take responsibility for their own learning.”

Rottier noted that CSU does a considerably better job than other universities in this regard, considering the national attrition rate is about 30 percent for online classes.

Professors at CSU are also been split between the pros and cons of online courses.

Kenneth Mayer, a professor in the Marketing department, is pleased with the amount of optimization when it comes to teaching online courses.

“I’ve been amazed and heartened that student interaction and performance are just as good, and sometimes better, in my online sections due to the variety and quality of Blackboard learning tools which can replicate classroom teaching/learning techniques in an online environment,” Mayer said. “If you can do it face-to-face in the traditional classroom, there’s an analog available to use in the Blackboard online setting.”

Nevertheless, professors have found the Blackboard format more difficult to use.

“Getting used to the online format has been challenging for me, but not terrible,” Steinberg said. “I expect it to be easier the second time around since I will be revising, not creating, materials.”

Students have also been split with their opinions on online classes. While some find online classes more convenient, others find them frustrating.

“It depends on how the online class is set up, but usually online classes are worse [than traditional classes] because it’s easier to forget due dates for assignments,” said Diane Furlong, an Environmental Science major. “You don’t have the direct, in-person instruction from the professor. You can’t just raise your hand and ask a question like in a classroom.”

Amanda Perusek, a Communication Management major, agrees with Furlong.

"eLearning is a very independent learning set up in which the student is really their own teacher," Perusek said. "My experience has included delay of response from professors, lack of clarification pertaining to assignments and lack of feedback."

To alleviate problems, Furlong suggested adding a feature to Blackboard which would send out notifications via email to remind students of upcoming deadlines for assignments and exams.

A major issue that professors face when teaching online courses is ensuring honest test-taking. “A big challenge is maintaining academic standards in my online sections and guarding against academic honesty in group assignments and online testing,” Mayer said.

Once again, the Center for eLearning is working on tools to discourage students from relying on dishonest practices in taking exams and submitting assignments.

Rottier said a faculty advisory committee formed this semester to encourage professors to teach and address their online classes differently. They want professors to focus less on high-stake exams that make it easy for students to cheat, and more on building exercises that will continue to increase the students’ knowledge of the class topic.

Another way to reduce cheating is to set up designated rooms for students to take a proctored test. Rottier noted the Chemistry department has certain rooms in which graduate students will proctor tests for students.

In addition, Rottier said the Center for eLearning has been testing a new program called ProctorU this past year. The program freezes the monitor of the student’s computer so they cannot navigate away from the test screen. The professor can see and hear the student, which allows them to see if the student is looking up answers in a textbook or asking their friends questions.  

“We’ll be adding this to more courses this spring to see if this is a viable solution,” Rottier said.

Students should also be cautioned from taking only online classes. “I would be skeptical of an online degree,” said Fran Mentch, a librarian and Social Work lecturer at CSU, “and I wonder how employers feel about the people they hire with these degrees.”

The Center for eLearning is working to bridge this gap by discouraging students from signing up for an online course just because they think it will be easier than attending a regular class. To the contrary, Rottier explained that online courses are often more demanding and rigorous, and students must be made aware of this fact.

Cleveland State is working on a plan to use online classes to reach out to non-traditional students. Rottier explained that instead of typical college students signing up for online classes, he would like online courses to serve as an opportunity for people looking to come back to school, or as a way for students to take graduate-level courses or complete certificates.

Although online classes may be convenient, they are not always the solution to the easy “A” that students are looking for. Signing up for online classes should be a thought-out process, just as with traditional classes.