My experiences with online and distance learning: The good, the bad, and the ugly

This seems like an especially well-timed blog topic, given that I missed last week’s class while traveling for a conference and am catching up via the class recording. (Note for Anurag: I also prefer to leave my shoelaces tied in between wearings. There are dozens of us!) I’ve had a few experiences with online and distance learning, and would like to share some of the highlights and lowlights in this blog post, and some general thoughts on online teaching.

The Good: This class and Preparing the Future Professoriate’s online recordings

Due to conferences and work-related travel, I have had to miss a few of the evening grad classes and catch up afterwards by watching the class recordings. Although this approach lacks the in-person interactions and ability to chime in on discussions that being in the class offers, I feel like I still got all of the material and information.  It helps that the class is already designed in a way that allows for easy online sharing and participation. Having an actual voice recording and video feed allows for a personalized feel, as opposed to just an online Powerpoint. It also helps that the instructors are dynamic and engaging, posing questions and working to get people engaged.

The Bad: Finishing up a traditional statistics class from afar

As part of my dissertation research, I have spent 5-7 months of the past 3 years living in Long Island, New York, conducting fieldwork and collecting data. This has been great for my research, but has made it a little tricky to fit in all of the classes that I need and want to take for my degree. During my first field season, I got permission from the instructor of an introductory statistics course to take the class in-person for the first half of the semester before I left, and finish it from afar while I was in New York. This entailed going through the posted slides and recorded lectures, and completing and emailing the homework assignments and tests within a specified time period to match up with the class schedule. I did great during the in-class portion, but as soon as I started field work, my performance in the class tanked. I was very busy with field work, and the class soon became an afterthought on my priority list. The professor would record lectures, but I found myself just flipping through the slides and only half-absorbing the materials. While the professor was always responsive to emails, I rarely took the initiative to ask for clarification when needed. I would cram-study before tests, then forget the information almost as quickly as I had learned it. Tests and homework were squeezed in between long nights out trapping foxes and long days conducting sign surveys and getting data downloads from our GPS collars. I passed the class, but ended up having to re-learn most of the material later on when working on analyses. Since then, I have learned not to attempt taking classes from afar during field season.

The Ugly: The Virginia Tech Math Emporium

During my freshman year of my undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, I had the joy of taking introductory calculus at the Math Emporium. This news articles summarizes the pros and cons of the “Empo” much better than I ever could:

Long story short, the Empo is a massive alternative learning system for introductory math classes. When I took the class, material was split into online modules with a short lesson and practice problems that could be completed online, and quizzes and tests were proctored in an off-campus computer testing center. It was a disaster. The online modules were tricky to navigate and often glitched, and the practice problems were way easier than what was on the quizzes and tests. The physical environment was miserable, with hundreds of computers set up in a large converted retail space. Interaction with an actual human being was limited to a handful of TAs that would roam the Empo and could be summoned to your work station using a red Solo cup placed on top of the computer. Despite having completed a high school class series that covered calculus, differential equations, multivariable algebra, and other more advanced topics, I struggled to earn a “B” at the end of the semester. Overall, it was a terrible learning experience, and the following semester, I was relieved that the other calculus class I needed for my degree was offered in-person.

Based on these experiences, if I ever end up teaching a class with a significant online or distance learning portion, I aim to:

  1. Record and share videos of the actual lectures (not just post the slides)
  2. Incorporate regular opportunities for student-teacher interaction, via chat room “office hours.” If there are students taking the class from afar, they would be required to check in each week via chat or email, to discourage repeating my poor approach to distance learning.
  3. Facilitate student interaction using collaborative technology, such as Google Docs, online discussion boards, etc.





2 Replies to “My experiences with online and distance learning: The good, the bad, and the ugly”

  1. I love the breakdown you give here of your good and bad experiences! I’ve also heard awful things about the Math Empo, and I’m glad I never had to experience it as a student. I agree with the tips you gave at the bottom too. Providing students of you actually giving the lecture (preferably face to face, with captions) and an opportunity to talk to you via video chat would definitely make online classes worthwhile and more engaging!

  2. Reading your Blog, I felt like you were more up for incorporation of the in person class and online sessions. It does seem like a good combination. Like many other posted in their blogs and comments, online classes have their drawbacks which makes in person class much more desirable. Meanwhile now for our research and other purposes we have more dynamic lifestyle as students which needs to be considered as well. Having certain resources of in person classes be made available online is a good example of this collaboration. As much as I appreciate the notification on the board in our class, I would miss half the work without the online (Canvas -syllabus/notifications) resources.

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