It’s midnight on a Saturday. Wearing pajamas and holding a sleeping dog on my lap, I collaborate with classmates about our final project. My unkempt appearance doesn’t detract from my opinions nor does Elmo’s snoring distract the others; we are all in different states working via Google docs. For all I know, my classmates are also wearing pajamas.
My graduate studies are a refreshingly different experience from getting my undergraduate degree, where I did took the traditional route of living on campus and attending classes full-time. Don’t get me wrong, If I could afford to move across the country to live on campus and be a full time student, I would; however, I’d still take as many online classes as possible, as learning online has been far more educational for me.
For the most part, my online classes have been asynchronous, i.e. recorded lectures and other instructional content are posted online for me to watch at my leisure, and only once have I been asked to purchase a textbook. Discussion forums and chat provide interaction with classmates and professors, but projects are often done independently. While this type of learning may not be for everyone, here is why it’s perfect for me:
1. I’m an introvert
The worst part of face-to-face classes is the expectation of instant participation. Even when I’m prepared for class, having completed the readings and such, I still don’t feel able to answer a professor’s question in the moment. I need time to process, synthesizing what know before applying my knowledge to answer the question. Unlike my extroverted classmates, I will never blurt out whatever answer comes to mind, even if I’m sure it’s the right one. Discussion forums, email, and other asynchronous communication allow me to craft thoughtful questions and responses.
2. Learning on my schedule
I’m a night owl. Classes are never scheduled during my prime working time from 10pm-2am, nor is it easy to find classmates willing to collaborate at that time. The flexibility of asynchronous online classes enables me to learn and work when I’m most mentally prepared. It also allows me to fit my education around a full-time job, board meetings, volunteering, and taking care of my dogs.
I mention asynchronous classes specifically, because this semester I have two webinar classes that require me to “attend” at a specific time in the evening. They may be online, but they’re extremely inconvenient. Two nights a week I get home from work with just enough time to let my dogs out and boil some ramen, before I have to log on to class; I’m usually tired and need time to mentally decompress – I’m definitely not in a good place to learn. I’ve also had to miss some class due to on-going commitments made long before I registered for class.
3. Less B.S.
Whether or not professors grade attendance and participation (another topic for discussion), it seems that face-to-face classes often result in too much time spent listen to unnecessary “contributions” from students eager to make a good impression or who simply like to hear themselves talk. If you’ve ever gone to a college class, you know the type – they sit front and center and always have a story from their life that proves the professor’s point or is somehow loosely related. Certainly participation and discussion is valuable in education, but some people just don’t know how to filter themselves or stay on topic.
Online classes often cut out this behavior out altogether, especially when lectures aren’t recorded live. When it does occur, it’s easier to ignore – I can simply scroll past the unrelated post with a an eyeroll, rather than having to waste time listening to a classmate name drop the famous people/companies they’ve worked with or ramble on again about that really cool trip they took abroad. Even in webinar classes I’m able to go get another cup of coffee or otherwise occupy myself until the professor comes back on.
4. No dress code
Did I mention that I attend class in my pajamas? While an accepted practice for undergrads, I’m sure it would be frowned upon in graduate classes, because we’re professionals, right?
5. Knitting is the New Doodling
Back when I used pen and paper to take notes, I was a major doodler, which studies show helps with concentration and memory. Now that I take notes electronically, I use knitting or crocheting to occupy my hands between notes. The zen rhythm of stitching helps me focus just like doodling did, but were I in a face-to-face class, it may be distracting to others. Plus, professors are annoyed enough at students multitasking with their computers that I’m sure most would not appreciate a student crafting during class. Even during my webinar classes, I can stitch away, pausing only when I need to unmute my mic to talk or to type out a quick note.
What I Don’t Like
Some people struggle with online learning due to a lack of social interaction, feeling isolated and alone. I am not such a person. An effective online teacher provides opportunities to students to interact virtually, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my classmates throughs blogs, discussion forums, video introductions, and chat rooms. That said, I have missed out on a few bonding and enrichment experiences that can only happen on a college campus. Take for example, the all-night hackathon where my on-campus classmates marathoned their way through final projects with the support of instructors, just-as-stressed peers, and a buffet of geek fuel provided by industry sponsors. So while I don’t miss the day-to-day interactions like small talk, I do miss the experience of being on a campus full of intelligent people passionate about learning, and the professors who create extraordinary experiences for them.