Monday, December 21, 2009

Boomers: Get Out There and Take Classes Online!

Recently I've gotten a lot of interest from friends of mine who would like to go back to college to complete degrees or to get a Masters and are fascinated that some of the classes I am taking are taught online. I know this isn't a new phenomena. A friend of mine was going for her PhD online at least ten years ago. Her program involved some online courses and some on site coursework. I remember she flew out to her host university's campus to participate in some activities. However, recently some of my friends want to know: how does taking classes online work? So I'm going to try to answer their questions in this blog post.

At Pace University, and many other universities, online courses are taught through the website and a portal program called Blackboard. You access Blackboard with your university email address and password. When you open the program, you are given all kinds of options. I click on the one that says "Courses in Which You are Enrolled." That brings me to another page where the professor has made announcements for the week. On the left hand side of the page is a list of other options.

The majority of my courses include "lectures" from an instructor which are posted on the web site under the Course Documents section. Assignments include readings from the assigned books or outside articles which may be posted to the website under the Course Documents section. Sometimes a video clip or Powerpoint to watch is posted. Or students may be asked to find their own examples through the library web site. In one course which was being taken by Masters in Publishing students from across the US and even one on an army base in Germany, we were told to go to a magazine newsstand and select a relevant magazine for an assignment. In other words, while assignments may be online, students often use books, magazines and other materials to complete their assignments.

In many classes, much of the course work is done via the Blackboard Discussion Board. On the Discussion Board the teacher may pose a question, ask for a reaction to the reading, ask for questions on the lecture or lead a discussion on any number of open ended topics. Sometimes a professor says you have to respond to one or more of your classmates, but often the discussions are so interesting people tend to interact with many more of their classmates. Also, Discussion Board topics are much more useful when the instructors weigh in on the subjects with their expertise and points of view.

Key to keeping an online class interesting and engaging is the teacher's ability to be organized and to be available to students via e-mail and other communications options. Since you can't see your professor in person, you have to get good at framing questions precisely so that the correct question gets answered. Teachers need solid lecture notes to make this work.

Online learners are also asked to do group projects and collaborate. Sometimes they collaborate via Blackboard tools. Sometimes they use other collaborative tools like Google Docs, a free collaborative offering from Google. Papers are collected online too. Students create Microsoft Word files for their papers and drop the assignments into a "Digital Drop Box." Like the drop box at Blockbuster, once you put your paper there, you cannot retrieve it.

People may be surprised to learn that tests can be given online as well. Sometimes tests are simply questions that  students can take as much time as they want to answer, and then post the answers to the Assessment section of Blackboard. Sometimes there are timed tests that have to be completed within a time frame stated in the Assessment section.

I know some online Universities use videos of teachers giving lectures, but that hasn't been my experience at Pace. Nor do I have to tune in to a "live" class at a certain time, which I know is a staple of some other University classes.

While I take some of my classes on campus, I enjoy my online classes as well. Done correctly, with great care from the instructor, the student gets individual attention even though he or she is just a name and an email address. I can't tell you how good returning to school has made me feel, fellow Boomers. So I highly recommend that those of you who haven't tried this before, take a class online to see how it suits you.

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