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Whether you're planning on taking or teaching an online course -- or pursuing an online degree -- you won't want to miss this Teacher Team article, in which our resident experts talk about their online teaching and learning experiences.

Congress recently passed a bill that ended the requirement that colleges deliver at least half their courses on campus (as opposed to online) in order for their students to qualify for federal student aid. Surely, that change is a sign that online learning finally has achieved a certain degree of legitimacy -- at least among lawmakers.

And yet, many others still are suspicious of online degree seekers -- often regarding them on the same level as those who've attended "matchbook" correspondence schools or mail-order divinity schools. "How do you know," the skeptics ask, "who's doing the work, if you can't see the student?" "How do you grade class participation?" "How committed can a student wearing slippers and pj's be?"

To find the answers to those questions, we went to our resident experts -- the members of the Education World Teacher Team -- and asked: "What are your online educational experiences? Have you taken any online graduate or continuing education courses? Were they harder or easier than you expected? Were they worth the money? Have you taught any online courses? Were the students motivated? Did they cheat? Would you do it again?" This is what they told us.

LEARNING ONLINE

"I've taken several online courses through Penn State World Campus," Robin Smith told us. "The courses were educational technology courses and one special education course.

"The cost for the online courses was basically the same as for on-campus courses, but for me the opportunities and quality of instruction were higher online. If I had had to travel to a campus, I doubt very much that I would have taken the courses; the time spent traveling would have eaten up whatever time I had to devote to a class.

"I found that the amount of work I did for the online classes was equal to or more than that required for on-campus courses," Smith added. "And, as a commuter, I felt much more a part of the online class. Everyone in the class was online and had the same access; when you're commuting to an on-campus class, you sometimes don't have the same library time, evening hours, and so on to devote to class projects.

"I found access to the instructor was greatly increased in online courses. Typically, the instructor would log in several times a day to answer questions, provide guidance, and so on. That was great compared to on-campus courses, where you might see an instructor for an hour twice a week and have no access at other times.

"More importantly," Smith said, "I felt that I worked harder and learned more than I probably would have in a traditional class. I could see what others were contributing, and I knew where I was in relation to expectations. It was much easier to plan my time accordingly. I also could work at any hour of the day or night to complete my assignments. Because I had a small child at that time, being able to work on assignments from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. was helpful.

"Taking online courses does require a certain amount of self discipline. If you get behind, it's hard to catch up, and the instructor can tell quickly -- by what you are contributing online, the times you log in, and so on -- that you're falling behind. Some people very much need an instructor in the front of the room to keep them motivated.

"I'm currently planning to pursue a doctorate, and I'll take as many online courses as I can. To me, it's the best option -- one that eliminates hours of travel time, and increases the amount I learn and my chances for success. I'll most likely do a bit more work than if I take traditional classes -- but I'll learn a lot more as well.

"I think traditional classes slowly will become a thing of the past," Smith concluded. "Sure, those who are fresh out of high school and want the 'college experience' will maintain a need for on-campus classes, but those in the working world will make online courses more and more popular."

"I want my time and money to be rewarded with a quality program."

"I've taken two online professional development classes," said Cossandra George. "One was a technology integration course offered through Berrien Intermediate School District as part of Michigan's Freedom to Learn (FTL) program. The other -- which I'm taking currently through Michigan Technological University (MTU) -- is Learning Materials and Assessment.

"Both courses were free for me. The tech integration course was offered free to any teacher in an FTL school. The second course was paid for through a grant program I'm involved with, but it would have cost the same as standard MTU graduate credits had I paid the tuition myself.

"The tech integration class -- which was delivered through Blackboard -- was outstanding," George said. "I found the assignments, the discussion, and the support of the professor outstanding. We did numerous projects, which we shared with other students in the class. I ended up with a supply of outstanding projects and lessons that I can incorporate into my own classes. I also learned about many useful online tools. The class was a lot of work, but I felt as though every moment devoted to the class was rewarding.

"The learning materials and assessment class, on the other hand, has been frustrating," George noted. "It's a fairly traditional learning setting -- read a chapter, take a quiz. There is a discussion-board component through WebCT, but the professor simply posts a vague guiding question at the beginning of each week and leaves the discussion to the students. Although I've learned some new things in the class, I feel as though the gain has not been worth the effort required. There also have been issues with changes in assignments, quiz glitches, and so on that have been frustrating.

"As more classes are offered online, I anticipate spending more time learning in this manner. The nearest university with quality grad classes in education is 100 miles from my home, so attending those is often a problem. I like being able to do assignments at home at my convenience. I can squeeze in a few minutes here and there to complete assignments easier than I can drive two hours each way to attend a class.

"I have high expectations for grad courses," said George. "I want my time and money to be rewarded with a quality program. I want the interaction among my fellow students, the instructor, and myself to be enriching. I think that is the only way for online learning to be effective.

"Online courses make it easy to put off work until crunch time."

"I'm a high school teacher and our students have the opportunity to take online classes through area colleges," Suzanne Wargo told Education World. "We've found that since the initial push for students to take the courses, interest has dropped off. Taking an online course requires not only commitment, but time management skills, which I think elude many of today's students. Without an instructor whom you see each week, or a class to attend, it's easy to put off the work.

"About two years ago, I took an online class through a local community college. The course required a series of face-to-face meetings, and then the bulk of the work was done online through the WebCT interface. Because it was a novelty, I was motivated to make it work, but I also found that if you're a procrastinator, online courses make it very easy to put off work until crunch time. If I had to account for every moment, and compare the time I put into the online class to what I put into on-campus courses, I'm not sure they would be the same.

"I liked my professor, and knowing that at some point I would have to meet with him about my product, made me more accountable when I was on my own, but as a teacher, I'm still concerned about security and the integrity of online courses. How does one prove in an online class that the work is being done by the person who signed up for the class? I can see the potential of a poorly performing student asking a friend or family member to do the work for him.

"Ultimately," Wargo noted, "having more courses available to younger students has not made a difference in our region, but it has mattered in the area of staff professional development. They are the ones most likely to take online courses because they can be done from home or school and in their own time."

"I've only taken one online class," said Diane Mentzer. "It was a University of Iowa class on Web page design and creation. I liked it because it was hands on, and being on the Internet was very relevant to creating Web pages. I liked working at my own pace, interacting with others from around the country, and getting immediate feedback. I tend to get bored listening to lectures; I work better by jumping in and doing. I think that's why I enjoyed the class so much. There were times, however, when I had to make time to work on the class, and if you can't force yourself to do that, then an online course could be very hard. I enjoyed the class a lot, however, and will gladly take another."

TEACHING ONLINE

"I've never taken online courses, but I have taught many," said Camille Napier. "With high school students, the online course experience was all or nothing. Students either 'got it' and were able to manage their time well and make the virtual classroom a uniquely worthwhile experience, or they were terrible at time-management and -- because they didn't have to face the teacher daily -- took it for granted that their work would be easy to make up.

"I think that high school (and college) students who take a course online thinking it will be easier are in for a shock. They also must ask themselves if they are cut out for an online course. If they are procrastinators or lack skills to prioritize and self-manage, they will likely be unsuccessful.

"The courses I've taught to adults were educators' professional development courses through Pulaski Technical Community College. Again, when participants kept up with the work (especially with discussions), the class was worthwhile and fruitful, and we learned from one another in a new way. Students who were less successful were those who tried to breeze through discussions without completing and referring to assigned readings.

"I plan to take a few online courses this summer," Napier added, "and I'm happy that they will give me the freedom to work according to my own schedule. I live about 40 minutes (through terrible traffic) from most of the universities near Boston, so the online courses will save me from spending precious time finding parking -- and I can wear my pajamas while I'm working!"

"Online learning is an absolute godsend for folks with disabilities."

"I haven't yet taught a fully online course," Bernie Poole told Education World, "although I would love to do so in due course. But let me tell you a story about someone who has.

"I have a friend named Yvonne Singer. She introduced herself to me in an e-mail a little more than a year ago. In her note, she asked if I would help her find a paying job. Yvonne is 37 years old and holds a master's in psychology. So, why couldn't she find a paying job?

"Well, Yvonne was born with severe cerebral palsy. She has little or no control over her body from the neck down, and her speech is severely compromised. Her mental acuity, however, is fine.

"After courageously and doggedly working her way through primary, secondary, and tertiary education (She has to type everything using a pointer attached to a hat on her head.), Yvonne discovered that no one wanted to give her a paying job. She applied to many companies and schools for such work as Web site development and maintenance, and finally found a job -- although it was not as fulfilling a position as she'd hoped to acquire.

"Yvonne really wanted to teach online. She had applied to many schools for just such a position, getting lots of polite rejections in response. Hence, her e-mail to me. I honestly wasn't sure she could cope with such a challenge either; but I wrote a reference for her, pulling no punches about her disability. Finally, John Gutowski, a division chair at Middlesex County College in New Jersey, reached out to Yvonne and offered her the opportunity to teach an online intro to psych course.

"That was last fall. Yvonne spent months assiduously preparing for the course, assisted every step of the way by Gutowski and his support personnel. She began teaching on February 20 of this year. She's taken to it like a duck to water and, according to Gutowski, is doing a wonderful job!

"I guess the point I'm making is that online learning is an absolute godsend for folks with disabilities such as Yvonne's. The world of learning (and of professional opportunity!) can open up for them, provided they have access to the technology that makes it possible for them to succeed."

With regard to his own online learning experience, Poole noted, "I love teaching my courses in what is called a hybrid mode. I see my students face-to-face every week, but I make all my materials available online and I communicate with them outside of class using e-mail. Students submit almost all of their assignments as attachments in e-mail.

"Furthermore, for my lab classes, where students work on practical projects related to instructional technology, I often start a class session by showing students what I want them to do, and then giving them the opportunity to leave early if they prefer to get on with the assigned work on their own time. Most of them do leave early, because they have their own computers at home, along with high-speed access to the Web.

"My students love this hybrid mode of learning," Poole noted, "because they get the best of me without having to put up with more of me than they absolutely need. It's a win-win situation all around!"

A LITTLE OF BOTH

"I have both taught and taken online courses," said Dan Swadley. "When it comes to taking classes in an online environment, the quality of my classes has been superb! I'm working on my specialist/doctorate degree through the University of Missouri, and I can take all my classes online and never have to step foot on campus. The instructors have been extremely high quality; the assignments and class work tough, but geared toward the educator who has a life other than taking classes. Another feature I especially appreciate about MU is that I pay the same tuition online as do those in on-campus classes. I personally feel that those studying in an online environment should pay the same price as on-campus students. The pay for the teacher is the same, and students should pay the same rates as well.

"As for teaching onlinethere's something wonderful about teaching a class where you never meet your students; where a student could be the clerk at the local grocery clerk or someone halfway around the world. In the classes I've taught, the students were very conscientious and excited to learn. You still face the same problems -- like cheating -- as you do in a seated class. I once had a married couple send me the exact same assignment, and I had to deal with that issue just as I would in a regular classroom."

"If we want to increase the academic level of our nation," Swadley noted, "we have to make the educational process as easy as possible. So when a person decides to 'go back' to school, she won't have to stand in line for hours, pay for a parking pass, go across town to buy books, and arrange her schedule around that of the school. We need to be able to study, learn, and acquire information in our BVD's in our own time and at our own pace. Now, the only thing left to address is motivation!"

"The best thing about teaching online is that you can log on and work at your convenience!"

"I've been involved as a writer, a student, and an instructor in online learning for the past several years," said Kathleen Cave. "My first experience with online learning was a 'train-the-trainer' course run by our local PBS affiliate in which about ten of us learned how to use an online learning environment developed by TeacherLine.

"During the course, we found out not only how to use the tools, but also how to be effective online learners and instructors. We learned ways to 'seed' discussions so participants would become actively engaged, and we found out how to give feedback and constructive criticism without the benefit of being face-to-face. We discovered that the hardest part of teaching online is keeping participants engaged with the group; that facilitators must make the environment welcoming and respond promptly to questions and concerns.

"Since that time, I've written online courses using both Blackboard and Desire2Learn. I've found that in order for an online course to work, the facilitator must work very hard to also make the Web environment comfortable and easy to navigate. It requires a great deal of time to make a site attractive and navigable.

"Today, I co-teach a course for our school system that I also helped write," Cave added. "It's called Integrating Technology into the Science and Math Curriculum. That course, which has 17 participants, is a hybrid; just over one-third of the sessions are face-to-face meetings, and the rest are held online. Participants tell us (and I agree) that the online environment is great, once you know how to use it. But we have found that there should be at least one face-to-face session per course. It gives a human face to the names they will be seeing for several weeks and months, and it allows the instructors to make sure participants can navigate the online space effectively.

"All in all," Cave concluded, "I love the online learning environment. It's actually harder than face-to-face sessions in many ways because of the intrinsic motivation required to stay involved, but it's well worth it! And, of course, the best thing about teaching an online course is that you can log on and work at your convenience!"

Who Are They?

The Education World Teacher Team includes more than 30 dedicated and knowledgeable education professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following educators contributed to this article:

* Kathleen Cave, fifth grade teacher, Sparks Elementary School, Baltimore, Maryland
* Cossandra George, 7th grade math teacher, Newberry Middle School, Newberry, Michigan
* Diane Mentzer, library media specialist, Bester Elementary School, Hagerstown, Maryland
* Camille Napier, English teacher, Natick High School, Natick, Massachusetts
* Bernie Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
* Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
* Dan L. Swadley, technology integration specialist, Republic R3 School, Republic, Missouri
* Suzanne Wargo, director of media services, Millbury Jr. Sr. High School, Millbury, Massachusetts

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