More than ever before, students around the world are being exposed to various online learning environments. Many have no choice. Students are being thrown into a new learning environments brimming with technological bugs, limited interaction, and newfound levels of self-discipline. Some are thriving in asynchronous courses where they can set their own schedule and dictate their own pace. Others are struggling to absorb information and maintain schedules. All of these hurdles boil down to one question: do students learn online?
I think this question is incredibly relevant for science-based courses. Of course, an argument could be made for any discipline for in-person vs. online class results. However, in my experience, I feel that science courses are truly inhibited by online learning environments. Unique equipment for chemistry, visits to ecological sites for biology, and immediate assistance from lab instructors are all limited to virtual imitations. Many teachers are going to great lengths to make the information more accessible, but it can pale in comparison.
Although, do we know that students in virtual learning environments are actually learning less science? No. Of course, there are studies that try to answer the question, but there is much left to determine. This is something that needs to be rectified. The digital age in education has arrived early, and we need to be prepared to evaluate student learning and course value. Take for example, two students are applying for the same job. They both took a science-based course that directly relates to the job. The coursework is comparable and the learning objectives are equivalent. However, one course was in-person, and the other was online. Will hiring managers value the in-person course over the online? Should they?
Think about the same situation but for graduate school applications. These usually value coursework even more than job applications. Can we expect students to learn as much in an online course? I am not so sure. However, online courses have merit. Online courses create opportunities for more people to learn something: non-traditional students, people with busy lives, people who can’t travel to college campuses. It might seem altruistic, but the goal of an education system should be to teach as many people the most information possible. We are trying to implore people through education. More realistically, though, we want to prepare students for their next steps in life. Can we do the successfully online? I am not convinced that we can in science-based courses.