A Letter from an Online Student

A friend shared with me a letter that a friend of his wrote, since he knew that I would soon be teaching a course online. Because I am persuaded that this individual’s experience is not unique, and that educators and institutions of higher education can learn from this, I am sharing the letter, with the author’s permission.

Dear ……
I am a Post Graduate student presently studying for an MA in Theology. This is my first experience of study at University, all of my previous studies having been undertaken as a Distance Learner.

Prior to accepting my place at this University I studied for a BA (Hons.) in Theology as a distance learner at the Open Theological College (OTC), at the University of Gloucestershire UoG). This means of course that I am now in a reasonably well informed, though not unique, position to compare distance learning with its Taught Course sibling.

During my period of study at the OTC I was a Course Representative at all three levels. As such representatives attended Course Board meetings at which departmental Action Plans, reports from External Examiners and other matters were discussed I became somewhat acquainted with the problems and possibilities facing the Course (and indeed the department). In addition I was asked to provide student centred information to the Periodic Review Board who were assessing the viability of the distance learning programme. However the main thrust of my role was of course to act as a conduit between staff and students regarding student concerns with OTC. I mention these matters only to establish my small, but core, experience in the matter I now wish to raise with you.

During recent meetings and discussions with various staff and student members of the University it has become apparent that there are concerns about the direction the University may be pursuing in relation to Taught Course Provision. In particular the belief that Distance Learning courses are to grow whilst Taught Course provision is reduced is causing some concern and I merely wish to present my own thoughts on the matter from what I have previously described as my reasonably experienced position (although not unacquainted with the advantages to an Institutions business model from distance learning I am here only speaking from the student experience position).

There are of course advantages for the student (particularly mature students such as myself) in a distance learning course. Work/study/home-life balance is an obvious one, as is the greater flexibility to pace one’s study or change it as necessary. There are no accommodation expenses, nor travel costs and one is able to study in the well known surroundings of one’s own home. Course material, assessment and information can now be delivered electronically, whilst modern technology means that it is even possible to have some interaction with fellow students and tutors (though I would suggest that many of these advantages are equally of use in Taught Course provision).

There are however disadvantages too and two in particular stand out. First the sense of student isolation must never be underestimated. If peer group pressure can be difficult to negotiate peer isolation can be an academic disaster. No matter how much self confidence one has, the nagging doubt about what others are making of this issue saps it. Just a few months in a class of fellow students has reinforced my belief that ‘wondering what others think or are doing’ is a necessary and desirable condition in all students as much ‘learning’ takes place in informal discussion with fellow students (and even more so with staff) in an unthreatening environment. An email simply does not perform this function, even if one is fortunate enough to receive a reasonably fast response (not too likely to be the case in my experience).

It would be possible to add further to these points about lack of student cohort identity but they pale into insignificance when place alongside the second disadvantage; that of only ever knowing or meeting your tutor via the pages of a module manual or a computer screen (in ten years of distance learning at various levels I can recall only some five or six telephone conversations with a tutor). The single most common complaint from my fellow distance learners at OTC was the unavailability of tutors (interestingly they often described it to me as ‘uncaring’). Whilst some were merely tardy in replying to questions or advice seeking many were simply unwilling to engage with students outside of introduction and assessment. It must be admitted that this was especially the case when tutoring was outsourced away from college staff, but it remained a problem throughout the tutoring body. Yet even when a tutor was ready and willing to engage, for the student there was the difficulty of ensuring that one’s question was fully understood immediately to prevent a week long ‘dialogue’ ensuing, whilst this was equally true of course in case of the answer from the tutor.

One of, perhaps the greatest, of the delights I have enjoyed at my current University has been to (politely) interrupt the tutor to exclaim, “I’m sorry I just cannot see that” or “could you explain that again/more fully/differently”. Of equal joy has been the obvious willingness of tutors to do so! As I mentioned earlier – much learning takes place in the interaction around core topics and this is simply not available in a module book and is very difficult via email. I must also mention that one thing which I did not realise was missing from distance learning, until I met it at this University, is the effect of the sheer love and enthusiasm for the subject which a tutor can and often does bring to the subject. Once again this cannot be delivered via a module manual and I strongly doubt that it can be via a screen (who is themselves in front of a camera?)

This is not simply an aesthetic quality but provides genuine inspiration and encouragement for students – in truth encouragement is an unknown luxury to distance learners except perhaps at assessment time when of course it may be too late.

I could continue for there are indeed many more real advantages to face to face tutorship and of course I have not even mentioned the joys of using the wonderful resources of a University such as this, though I accept some of those too can be made available online. However I will content myself with making this plea on behalf of students desirous of enjoying those advantages. Please do not allow market pressures alone to drive what you have described in the University magazine in this way; “developing our online presence further can, I believe, contribute greatly to our educational mission and the fulfilment of our institutional aims.”

I have many reasons to be grateful for the opportunities which distance learning has afforded me and it is clearly not an either/or situation for an Institution. I note your suggestion that ‘blended learning’ may form part of the University’s strategy and, whilst I also believe that this has a place in the portfolio of Institutions, it has (at PG level) proved unattractive to the public at UoG.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    Thanks for sharing.

    I am a doubter of online education, for reasons similar to what the student expresses. It seems to me that there is more to knowledge than an accumulation of facts.

    I think my students gain something from informal discussions, and from seeing how I tackle questions that come up. I think they even learn something when I make mistakes on the blackboard. And I suspect that discussion between students is also important, partly for its motivational role, but perhaps for more than that.

    Much of my own knowledge was acquired through my own reading. But this is not the case for many students, so I worry that something important will be lost if we move too far in the direction of online classes.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    My theology degree was largely done via distance education. The material is fairly old and was all delivered by mail. At the beginning of semester I’d get a big pack with the course materials and readings. There would be a page with assignment instructions on it.

    The problem I had is that there was no provision made for human contact throughout the semester. Assignments would come back with a grade and a few red scribbles here and there, and a three sentence summary of the assessor’s overall thought. I would rarely find out who the assessor was. One assignment had some fairly ambiguous instructions so I emailed the generic address listed in the materials. After a couple of days I finally got an email back from the principal of the college steering me in the right direction. (I should add that I think he missed ‘real’ teaching. His email turned into a fantastic explanation of stuff I hadn’t asked, and his offhand comments—he didn’t actually have anything to do with that particular course, but it was his area of expertise—gave me a lot of the answers I needed. It was quite difficult completing the assignment without plagiarising the email he sent.)

    There was one improvement made just before I graduated. Assignments could be emailed rather than posted. The university would print them, add their twenty words of wisdom and post them back. So all that did was save my costs and make for more reliable timestamps. The human element was still missing.

    Staff and student seemed to agree: we need some form of human contact! Nobody did much about it though.

    I didn’t really have much choice though. I lived about 8 hours away from the university so distance education was the only real option. Discussion boards and the like would have made a big difference. It’s probably why I hang around theology blogs—it’s the only place I get to ‘try on’ different ideas and discuss them in close-enough-to-real time. Being able to discuss some of the course material before writing about it would have been very useful.

    My point is this: online education has disadvantages, but done well it is still an improvement over older ‘correspondence’ type methods. And done well it certainly is part of the answer to giving people without access to university campuses a shot at education.

  • NACS InfoSystems

    Good latter format…