Taking an online course may not be something you ever planned to do. However, online learning is becoming ever more present – and, with the recent outbreak of COVID-19, more and more schools across the country are putting their classes online. The College of Saint Rose is one of many schools taking this precaution to minimize risks to our community.
To understand the benefits and limitations of online learning, and pick up some expert tips, we spoke with Associate Professor John Avitabile, who chairs Saint Rose’s computer science department and has taught at Saint Rose for more than 30 years. He’s also taught online for more than a decade, and drew on his considerable experience to suggest ways to get the most out of your learning experience.
How does online learning compare with in-person classes?
Under normal circumstances, there are many benefits to learning online. You have more freedom, as well as more personal responsibility. Taking an online class means you can sit in the comfort of your home and learn at your own pace.
In times of uncertainty, such as when we’re worried about COVID-19, we may also be dealing with elevated anxiety or even anger – which can hinder our ability to absorb the class material. So, feeling safe at home while attending class can actually allow us to better take in the information.
Does technology help or hinder our personal connections?
Used improperly, technology can make people feel less connected. But it can also help us connect in many ways.
Conferencing tools can be very useful for holding live discussions, allowing students to be face to face with their professor and peers. Students can ask questions in real time and participate in discussions as if they were in the classroom. They can talk to the instructor, as well as with each other.
In addition, tools like Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, and Slack, and so forth can be great for project work, studying together, and basically any type of collaboration.
What about connecting asynchronously?
That’s another advantage of online learning: Rather than having only one opportunity to listen to a lecture in class, you can watch class videos as often as you like, whenever you like. Faculty often record their lectures and have them available for your whole class to watch. So, if you’re having difficulty understanding a certain point, you can go back and rewatch that minute (or 15 seconds) as many times as you need to understand the material!
There’s a lot of flexibility with these lecture videos, too – the instructor can display slides, whiteboards, lecture notes, or whatever materials might help the most with understanding the material. Some upload PowerPoint presentations, notes, and so forth. These are great resources for not only learning the unit while you’re working on it, but also reviewing for quizzes and exams, or for project work.
We’ve already been working on Canvas, so you’re probably familiar with downloading documents and clicking on links for supplementary reading. Online learning just takes this a step further.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve seen students face when taking an online course?
As I said before, with expanded freedom and convenience also comes greater responsibility. It is really easy not to do the work. Unlike attending a class in person, with the instructor grading you on your attendance, there is nothing that says you have to be at a certain place at a certain time.
Some people can experience a lack of perseverance, which could get in the way of being successful in an online course. If you take your responsibility seriously, however, and use the resources that we’ve put at your disposal, you can learn a lot.
What are some misconceptions about online courses?
Some people think that online courses are impersonal, with almost no contact between the teacher and students. At many schools, this may be somewhat the case, as each online class may be given to hundreds or even thousands of students, and is designed to let the instructor take a “hands-off” approach to teaching.
At Saint Rose, though, we have smaller class sizes, and each instructor is teaching a relatively small number of students, so we have the time to devote our attention to each student. As a result, we have a much more hands-on online experience.
Another major misconception about online courses is that the student is alone in the process. That’s not the case at Saint Rose. Our professors are here to answer any questions you may have, and to make sure they are a support system for you.
Remember that there is a live person teaching your class. And that person is there because they want to help you understand the material.
Your instructors will probably let you know about online office hours, discussion boards, and other ways to reach them. If anything is unclear, or if you require more help, always feel free to email questions or even ask if you can set up a phone call or Zoom session to clarify things you don’t understand. Our Online Learning Services folks are also available to help out.
What advice would you give to a student who hasn’t done a lot of online learning?
You can’t be passive about taking an online class. It’s very easy to passively sit, watch the lecture, do the homework, take the test – and nothing more.
You have to be a little more active with an online class. It also depends upon the nature of the class. You have to really set aside time in your schedule to do what is required. If it’s an asynchronous class, you need to make sure you are setting aside the time to complete all of your work. It makes sense to keep on top of things.
It’s really no different from in-person classes – there are students who just show up and do the minimum. They’re getting only a tiny fraction of what they could get from the experience. And then there are students who do extra reading, work through exercises that aren’t assigned, connect with other students to discuss the material, and take advantage of office hours to talk to their professors.
Remember: What you get out of the experience depends on what you put into it.
How can students build rapport with teachers and classmates while taking an online course?
Participate as much as possible. Your professors try to design their classes to encourage student participation. Within an online class, there should be group work. This may look like a discussion board, where students can ask and respond to questions.
Take advantage of the opportunities given within the class. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to your professors right away if issues arise, so the problem does not continue.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is having difficulty in an online course?
Know that there are people that can help you – especially your professor. Remember: It’s OK to ask for help. You are not being a bother to your professors! They would rather you ask for help and see you succeed than have you fail at the end of the semester.
By Sarah Uzzi G’21