Coronavirus precautions have led many school districts to use virtual classes. Other families are looking at online courses to use as part of a homeschooling curriculum. Online courses have been around for quite a while, and can trace their lineage to paper-based correspondence courses and “school of the air” programs, where students participate using two-way radios.
Online classes can create a community of like-minded students, especially in less common subjects. They might allow students to work at their own pace or to work around obligations like sports, work, and travel. Sometimes they let a student work far above their peers in subjects like math and language. Online classes can also leave a student feeling disconnected and confused about assignments.
I have experience with online courses, both as a parent and as a student. It is possible to find high-quality online experiences, that allow deep engagement with the subject. Often, knowing what you are signing up for can help prevent a poor experience.
Online classes fall into three general categories.
Synchronous classes – These is a regular meeting period and all students in the class log in for a live presentation by the instructor. They might use a virtual meeting platform that allows for screen sharing, slide sharing, and voice conversations between the teacher and students. They frequently have a chat sidebar where students can ask questions or post answers.
In addition to live sessions, they are likely to have a syllabus that outlines weekly readings and homework assignments. They may have a class discussion board with required postings.
Pro: Synchronous classes help develop a sense of class cohesion and relationship among students and the instructor. They can offer deeper explanations immediately and provide real time feedback.
Con: Because the classes are live, synchronous classes can be hard to schedule around. Students who work or travel may find they miss classes and fall behind. Assignment deadlines might not be flexible.
Be aware of time zone differences when you pick a synchronous course. A class might be 11 am for students in Washington DC, 8 am for students in San Diego, and 5 am for students in Hawaii.
Asynchronous classes – These classes do not have a live class session, but still have a schedule to keep. Typically, over a week a student would have readings and/or instructional videos to watch, followed by discussion board posts and homework assignments. It’s common for discussion boards to take the place of classroom participation. Students might be required to make a certain number of original posts and replies to classmates each week.
Pro: Asynchronous classes are easier on students who have other commitments. They can still provide meaningful learning and even strong relationships.
Con: Because there are no preset class meetings, some students fall behind during the week and have to press to get everything done before the deadlines. Some students may feel more disconnected in these classes.
I did a multi-course graduate certificate that used asynchronous courses. I am still in touch with some of those classmates, years later through the email lists and Facebook groups we created to keep in touch outside of class.
Self-paced classes – This might be the most challenging of online classes, because there are not deadlines. Many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) fall into the self-paced category. You work through lessons at your own speed. That might mean speeding through a semester worth of work in a few weeks, or it might mean taking a year and a half to get through a course. Worse, it might mean never finishing at all. If this is a subject you need to master, create a schedule and stick to it. It might also help to team up with a buddy and hold each other accountable.
Pro: There is no one holding you back; you can get through a subject at your own pace. Good for credentials based on material you already know something about or subjects you just want to dabble in.
Con: There is no one urging you on; you have to maintain your own motivation to get through the course.
Studies have found that completion rates for MOOCs can be as low as 3%, but that paying to participate in a certificate program based on these self-paced online courses boosts completion by 12-12%. This might be good news for students working independently to meet graduation requirements, but bad news for students who don’t have an outside motivation to keep up.
You might find yourself unexpectedly thrust into online classes, because your school has moved to virtual mode. Take the time to understand how each of your classes is structured. Use the first days of class to get familiar with the online platform and what assignments and deadlines you’ll have.
I like to print out the syllabus, so I can physically check off each assignment when it’s complete. I find these are a little easier to quickly check than logging into the assignments section for each individual course. Find what works to keep you on track.