Online classes offer students new options

Mitchelle De Leon, Reporter

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Like many Bakersfield College students, Cynthia Allen, communications major, balances work and school. Instead of taking classes on campus, she opted to take online classes to accommodate an internship in Pasadena, CA along with a part-time job for this semester.

Online resources have changed the education landscape. They have given students like Allen more options while advancing their careers through education. Without having to go on campus and meeting at specific times, online education promises economic incentives by being able to reduce transportation costs and being able to work anytime. But it has its own set of challenges.

Although time flexibility can benefit students, it can also be a challenge. Allen considered scheduling her time effectively as her main challenge as an online student. Meeting times may not apply to online students, but deadlines still do.

In writing assignments for her health class, Allen found that she wrote more openly in an online setting. But on her economics class, she said that she would benefit more from a classroom setting. She added, “I think in-person communication would be more helpful.”

For many students, in-person communication is the main reason why they prefer classes on campus.

One of these students is Aaron Lopez, business major, who had never taken any online classes.

“I really like having teachers in the classroom because they can explain things in their own terms or in a way that you can understand,” he said. “When you’re online, they give you a set on how to do [the assignment]. I like the student-teacher interaction.

“I like that the teacher can get to know you personally.”

Daniel Flores, radiology major, also preferred the classroom setting.

“I don’t learn by myself,” he said. “I need someone to tell me how the subject is.”

BC computer science professor Phil Mesel, who has been teaching online classes for over 10 years, shared his perspective as an instructor on communication in online classes.

“Unlike a face-to-face classroom, where communication [is] to an entire room of students at one time, including questions and answers where appropriate, are mostly verbal, online classes are mostly text that might be directed to a class, as well as much more individual correspondence, again mostly text,” he said.

He added, “The week before the semester begins, I try and contact all online students in my classes to establish communication with them.”

In his first correspondence with students, he asked them why they took his online classes.

“Some of the responses are: they have scheduling conflicts, [such as] work, child care, and other reasons…[like] transportation problems, and health issues, such as pregnancy,” he said.

For students to succeed in his online classes, he said, “Students should be: self-motivated, be able to carefully and completely read and follow written directions, be disciplined in the use of your time, keep with the class schedule, have a basic understanding of computers, computing, and the Internet.”

He said that a common misconception is that online classes are easier.

According to him, the reasons for poor performance in his online classes are “about the same things that lead to bad grades and failure in any type of class, which would be to ignore recommendations…as well as failure to do well, or do at all, [on] all of the homework assignments, failure to study and do well on exams, or not take exams.”

Furthermore, although the teaching methods between online and classroom setting differed, students in his online classes did not differ in performance.

“In a quick comparison of the last semester face-to-face and online, the student success rates were about the same,” he said.

Beyond BC’s online classes, students have the option of exploring their interests through online education. Websites like Khan Academy, which has lessons on a wide array of subjects, offer students the opportunity to learn beyond the classroom setting. Even Youtube, known for viral videos, has a plethora of educational resources, such as Crash Course, which has videos on history, literature, and science. Through a massive open online course (MOOC), students can even take college courses for free without the need of even registering under one’s name. The catch is that students take these courses with thousands of people without college credit. Coursera.org is an example of a MOOC.

Founded by Stanford University professors, Coursera has been offering free online courses since April 2012. It now has over two million users. By partnering with 33 universities that include Stanford, Princeton and the University of California Irvine, the website offers a variety of courses in different categories, including Biology and Life Sciences, Business and Management and Humanities.

An example of the website’s courses that can benefit students is Duke University’s 12-week Introductory Human Physiology course beginning on Feb. 25, with a workload of six to eight hours per week. The course covers topics that the university would cover in its typical version of the course.

“In a typical undergraduate setting, this course would fulfill requirements for students applying to professional health science programs,” the course description indicated.

Certain courses have different recommended prerequisites. For instance, instructors of Columbia University’s Financial Engineering course recommended prior knowledge in probability and statistics, linear algebra and calculus.

Other courses do not have any recommended prerequisites. An example is a course from the University of Maryland called Woman and the Civil Rights Movements, beginning on Feb. 25.

The website offers students free access to online textbooks needed by its courses, but a number of courses rely entirely on lecture notes.

With thousands of students taking each class, students cannot communicate directly with the course instructors. Therefore, the website utilizes peer assessment for classes like literature, and instructors encourage student interaction in the website’s forums to improve the learning experience.

Many courses offer a Statement of Accomplishment after successful completion. In November of 2012, the website announced that the American Council on Education (ACE) began a credit-equivalence evaluation. Over 2,000 colleges and universities generally accept ACE’s recommendations. For a fee, students successfully completing select courses would then be able to get credit from the website’s partner colleges and universities.

Another MOOC, similar to Coursera, is Udacity, which also began at Stanford. Udacity, which has over 250,000 users, offers business, computer science, mathematics and physics courses for free as well.

It partnered with San Jose State University, creating a program called San Jose State Plus, to make it possible for students to get credit from taking its elementary statistics, algebra, and entry-level mathematics courses for a fee of $150. The program began in January with a limited enrollment of 100 students and priority for high school students, community college students, members of the armed forces, veterans and waitlisted SJSU students.

However, various reports indicated high dropout rates and low passing rates for MOOCs. The New York Times reported on July 2012 that out of the 154,763 students who registered for a course called “Circuits and Electronics” from a MOOC called edX only 7,157 passed. And less than half did the first problem.

Each individual has his or her own educational preferences. People can choose whether to pursue online classes or in-person classes, but utilizing these online resources to one’s benefit rests largely on self-motivation, as indicated by edX’s student success rate.

On pursuing education beyond formal classes, Mesel said, “From what I have seen, especially in the technology fields, many skills need to be regularly updated.”

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