Does It Matter If You Meet Your Classmates Face-To-Face?

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Readers of my blog know that I’ve been interested in the extent to which online learners stick with their learning. The conversation got kicked off by a recent New York Times article that reported that less than 10 percent of people who sign up for a MOOC (massive open online course) finish it.

Katie Kormanik is a math education specialist at Udacity, one of the most prominent online learning companies. In a piece on the website EdSource, Kormanik describes the company’s efforts to make MOOCs more engaging:

“So far MOOCs have been an exploration of unknown territory, pushing the frontiers of how we teach and learn. A new pilot program between San José State University (SJSU) and Udacity, one of the leading MOOC providers, aims to determine the effectiveness of three specially designed MOOCs compared to the university’s traditional classes.

. . . Many people still doubt that online education can equip students with skills and knowledge as well as or better than traditional in-person schooling, especially in the absence of direct student-instructor interaction. However, ‘interaction’ takes many forms. MOOCs provide constant quizzes, which keep students thinking; instant feedback, so students know immediately if they understand the material; dynamic visuals, keeping students engaged; guest lecturers (via video); and the ability to collaborate online with thousands of peers, some of whom may choose to meet in person to learn the material.

Students can ask questions about the coursework on Udacity’s online forum, and popular questions will be answered in supplemental videos. SJSU students taking the course for credit also have direct contact with the SJSU professors and myself, as well as Udacity staff who are available 24/7.

The SJSU-Udacity pilot statistics course began last week with more than 3,000 students registered. In regular MOOCs, around 5 to 10 percent complete the courses (but this percentage does not include the additional tens of thousands who benefited from pieces of the course and who were not intent on completing the whole thing).

With this pilot program, we hope that completion rates will be equal to or better than those of the in-person versions of these courses.” (Read more here.)

Perhaps this is an arcane interest of mine, but I’m really curious about whether the very different experiences of attending a class in person and taking a course on one’s computer will yield different levels or kinds of learning.

One model I’ve read about recently, for example, has students meet in person as a class several times before completing the rest of the course online. Research suggests that encountering one’s instructor and classmates in person even just once or twice facilitates the connections among them for the remainder of the course.

What do you think—does it make a difference if you meet your professor and your classmates face-to-face?

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5 Responses to “Does It Matter If You Meet Your Classmates Face-To-Face?”

  1. John T. says:

    The choice is not between in class or on line class but rather in class with average professor at high cost that usually does not inspire or on line with superior professor at nominal cost that inspires and engages.

    I have one son in college that spends about one thousand per class and have to work very hard to find quality teachers. He usually has one or more classes per semester that do not inspire and he has to take for credit. He is trying out MOOC classes this semester without credit and turned on by the professors.

    Those that criticize the MOOC effort are part of the political interests are trying to protect their interests.

  2. Monica S. says:

    Having recently graduated from an online university, I can say that interacting with team members online generates fewer distractions than in-person classes have.

    There is less of a tendency to form judgements about people when you have to rely exclusively on how they represent themselves verbally. I know the classes were quite diverse—in age, nationality, gender, culture, etc., but that mattered less online than it did in the traditional classroom. There was no gravitating to those who looked like me. It was good to learn in an environment that was a bit uncomfortable. I realized how unconsciously biased I was and others were too. Why did it matter what we looked like anyway?

    In the end, I found the experience to be enriching because we had to learn how to work together on a level playing field.

  3. John says:

    Looking back at my college years (quite a ways back for me, but I still remember), there is a social component to college life that cannot be replicated in a strictly online experience. The commons, or whatever building is used for students to get together and socialize, to me, is an important learning experience in and of itself. The dormitory experience that a lot of young people get, or even renting a house with a group of other kids, can be a valuable step between living at home and becoming totally self-sufficient. For these reasons (and I’m sure a lot of others that I’m missing), I don’t think that brick an mortar learning institutions can ever be completely displaced by online learning. That being said, the flexibility and convenience of online offerings are a better fit for some people. In my case, I’m much older than the typical full time student. Online content offers me the opportunity to tailor my learning experience to best fit my individual needs. Since credit toward professional standing or certification is not my primary objective, completing a course is not necessarily important to me. I may only need a fragment of the material covered in a 15 week course, online courses afford me the ability to sift through lectures, text and student forum threads to find what I’m looking for. By traditional definition, I have not completed the course. By my standard, the goal has been reached. These are not methods that I recommend to others, because I know that I am missing a lot of important content. For me it works, because my focus is emerging technologies and I need to be very agile about what I am learning. All in all, I believe that online education and the traditional classroom have, and will continue to have, individual and complementary roles in the scholastic spectrum. It is a huge, diverse and amazing world. I don’t believe there can be such a thing as too many options available to learn about it. Whether people are completing courses or not, the fact that so many are enthusiastic about the idea of learning is very encouraging. I think it’s all good.

  4. It’s going to be very hard to compare retention rates with MOOCs vs. in-person college courses if you’re comparing MOOC courses that are ungraded and earn you no progress toward a credential vs. a college course that is graded as part of a permanent GPA and earn progress toward a respected and important credential.

    Until you control for that factor I don’t think you can easily make any valuable comparisons.

  5. Merry Melvin says:

    I have always loved learning so I was excited to learn that I could study the neurophysiology of learning through an online certificate program at John Hopkins University while still teaching full time. I had had a good experience participating in an online seminar about math coaching a few years earlier so I began my course work full of enthusiasm. The reading and posted videos were informative but the lack of contact with the professors was extreme. They merely posted the week’s assignments and wrote generic remarks to all 60 of us enrolled and left the interaction between us to fuel our learning. Theoretically, that should have worked but the demands of reading the entries of all theses students and the requirement to respond to a certain number and then be ready to re-respond quickly made the workload untenable for me. I was spending 40 plus hours a week online and I already had a 60 plus hour a week job. And half the time, we were all scrambling just to figure out how to coordinate our group projects, since we were all in different time zones. I stuck with it for 2/3 of a year and then had to bail, with a bad taste in my mouth followed by a sustained sense of disappointment. I wish there could be a way for me to continue the course work but I think I am better off pursuing that learning on my own. The professors weren’t giving us any feedback, and maybe since I always saw teachers as mentors and coaches and individuals who were “there for their students”, I was longing for the old face-to-face days. It could just be this program and these professors but it has discouraged me for a couple years now. Fortunately, these days there are many ways to generate and continue one’s learning, which is why I read your blog, among other things. I am glad there is energy for collaborative inquiry and learning and spaces for it too, but I always want to meet the authors and speakers and talk to them in person! I guess I am old-fashioned but then again, it is hard for me to believe that learning wouldn’t always be better through the medium of a relationship (and by that I mean a face to face one). In fact, I know neuroscientists have already studied this and continue to do so……Cyberspace offers an infinite number of potential connections but there is still an emptiness to it all without the handshake, face-to-face conversation and body language.

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