EDITOR, Daily News:
The front page story “Coronavirus pandemic interrupts college students from Ketchikan” contains statements by recent Kayhi alums about online learning that are inaccurate and misleading. While I am empathetic to the way recent events have upended college study for young people — my daughter and son-in-law spent the last two months of their senior year finishing their classes here in Ketchikan, and had their commencement exercises simulated virtually — to dismiss online learning delivery as generally inferior is wrong.
Full disclosure: I am professor of English at UAS-Ketchikan Campus, a leader in University of Alaska distance education, or “e-Learning,” for more than two decades. Do online classes fail to measure up to the rigor of a traditional classroom? If this were true, UAS would not be reaccredited year after year; our faculty must demonstrate that expected student learning outcomes are the same for all classes, online and face-to-face. As more and more learning migrates to the online environment, and especially now in the era of pandemic quarantine, our local campus finds itself offering over 75% of our classes in an online or blended format. And we’ve gotten really good at it.
There are of course differences between the experience one has in a traditional classroom and one that meets online. As Largim Zhuta says, “I’m not just paying to learn math. I’m going there…to meet people, go places, try stuff out…” Nikita Burnett expresses similar frustration that what she paid for is not, she feels, the type of instruction she ended up getting. However, the error comes in claiming as a fact, as Ms. Burnett does, that “…online classes are less effective than in person…” Their teachers may lack the training needed, but no empirical proof exists that shows online learning is less effective than traditional learning.
Students who have experienced both formats tell me there are times they feel much more connected to their peers and instructor in an online class of 20 people than they do in a lecture hall that seats 100 or more. Those who are shy about contributing in class discussion and might never do so in person are often able to express themselves persuasively and honestly on a discussion board. It might be argued that having the time to craft a response advantages the online learner over her hand-raising counterpart in the traditional classroom, who has to settle for sharing ideas in a spontaneous, semi-coherent way because it’s in person and he doesn’t have time to write them out.
My guess is that given the current cultural climate, demand for quality distance education will only accelerate, and it is important the public knows that although online and traditional delivery formats diverge in many ways, there is no reason one should be seen as “less effective” than the other.