A student sita in the Marriott library to work on her online class, Monday, August 31, 2015.

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A Realistic Route for Non-traditional Students

Elyse Jost

Online classes are in many ways, like the vegan option on a menu. Everyone knows that it serves the same purpose as a traditional dinner and that there are even certain aspects of the vegan meal that are better for everyone. However, unless you have to do it (either by choice or because it’s the only option available), not too many people are going to willingly give up their greasy, cheese burgers (or for the sake of this metaphor, brick-and-mortar classroom settings) for the veggie patty in a bed of arugula, topped with vegan cashew cheese (or, online courses — in their driest form).

It is a rarity to find a student passionate about online courses. Spotty internet, self-created work schedules (all leading up to one, overarching conglomeration of assignments being furiously submitted before midnight on a random Wednesday in December) and a lack of the in-person, human connection millennials so desperately need, are all factors that add to the overall consensus that online classes are the less-preferred option. Nevertheless, there are many students who double major, work part-time or full-time, have families or have too far of a commute for brick-and-mortar classroom experiences for whom online courses is the only sustainable option. For these students, online classes are saviors and the reason they are able to graduate anywhere near the time they should.

Online courses offer a way for students of all lifestyles and career paths to complete requirements without overloading their daily schedules and taking on more than they can handle. For example, my major in modern dance requires me to be in the studio for 12 or more hours per week, attending the one, specified time slot that is offered for my class (due to the specialized set-up of my major). That being said, I am forced to combat those hours spent engaged, in the studio, with all of the other requirements for my English degree — general education courses, major classes, advanced seminars, etc.

Sure, I am able to take that 6 – 8 p.m. French course, but only because I decided not to audition for Performing Dance Company, which rehearses from 3:30-6:30 p.m. — but I do have Student Concert rehearsal from 7 – 9 p.m. on Mondays… See where I’m heading with this? When there are only so many hours in the day, online classes are sometimes the only way students can conceivably double major. This university makes it incredibly easy for students to double major, but a majority of that accessibility is due to the amount of online classes offered, as well as their efficiency and successful set ups.

As generations carry on, we continue to attend university to think outside of our societally-constructed frames of mind, to gain essential knowledge required to be the most successful we can be in our chosen fields and to develop meaningful connections with people who are both like-minded as well as extremely different. We learn from shared experiences as we go. But why should this require a classroom to achieve? Online courses use tools such as video chats and group messages to further connect students in visually stimulating, convenient ways. Even at their base, however, core content is often fueled from discussion-based dialogue, an effective process for allowing students to converse with and feed off of fellow students. Online courses provide better opportunity to develop new trains of thought based off of shared content. Whether you have a small child to attend to, three different majors to fit into a five-year plan, or merely don’t feel like making the 40-minute commute from Sandy to Salt Lake City, online courses offer an exceptional route for the non-traditional student.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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Not Ideal for Real Engagement 

Sean Williams

The internet has certainly made many aspects of our lives easier. Here in the 21st century we can watch movies, shop, interact with friends and even apply for jobs right from our living rooms. Naturally, college classes are but one of many things made more easily available with technology, and the U offers hundreds of online classes in subjects ranging from chemistry to visual arts. There is no doubt that online classes at the U are easier and more convenient than brick-and-mortar classes scheduled to occur at specific times and places. Unfortunately, the convenience often comes with a loss of some of the main advantages of college education, ones that come through the interactions between the professors and students that can bring the material to life. Although online classes are good at introducing concepts, they are for the most part not a good substitute for a traditional class experience.

Online classes do have their time and place, of course. When it comes to introductory material that can be understood pretty easily from just assigned readings, online classes are a good tool that can help students learn the basics. In some classes, especially electives or those that are required for general education, the purpose might be more of an introduction to the material rather than a deep understanding of the concepts. On this front, online classes do fine and provide the necessary structure to guide students through the topic.

So why can’t online classes be just as good for the more challenging stuff? It’s true that they can have the same reading material and course schedules as their physical counterparts. Sometimes, online classes even contain video lectures and comment threads for student-teacher interaction throughout the semester. Sadly, the reality is rarely like the ideal. It is hard to create a back-and-forth conversation when each participant could be on and off at any time, not there to pick up the discussion and say what they want to. In my experience with online courses at the U, the teacher would ask a general question and then require every student to write both a response of their own and a further reply to another student’s response. Though this seems to mimic the value of conversation, it failed to establish a true back-and-forth sharing of ideas. The students almost never replied back to the other students’ comments and the teacher did not reply to most of them, instead just grading them for completion.

Ultimately what sets physical and online classes apart is the social aspect. Conversations you have online with someone you don’t know feel clunky and impersonal. Unfortunately, conversation and dialogue are some of the most important tools in any educational environment. Though you can read something and decide what you think about it on your own without any issue, a great education forces you to talk about your thoughts with others and compare them. Though you can see one side of any topic and cling to it easily, a great education forces you to engage with the other side and ultimately see where they are coming from. Through group projects, class questions and open-ended discussions, upper-level traditional classes at the U do a good job of creating this type of engagement.

Many of the subjects taught at the U are not yet settled matters and we see constant debates and new ideas within the humanities, the sciences and the arts. It is in these areas — tough not only for students but also for the policy-makers and scientists of today — that we can fully understand the benefits of a traditional class experience. Nothing is better at expanding and sharpening one’s understanding than a communicative activity, and upper-level classes often excel in that description. It is not enough to just read about ideas to truly get a grasp on them. Students should be encouraged to engage them as a group, to hear other students’ interpretations to better inform their own. Because, in the end, isn’t that the point of a higher education?

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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