Online Students: What Do We Want?

I’m finally going to write a little a bit about my studies. It seems that not only do a lot of people still feel that online learning and, by default, external learning, is a bit of a cop out, but they really don’t understand what it is that I am studying and how it can lead to anything in the future. Also, I would like to start documenting my intentions for this magical piece of paper I’ve been working towards, and noticing when or if those aspirations change.

First things first: What is it I am studying?

Head of Internet Studies Dept. Prof. Matthew Allen at the Curtin Uni Open Day. For license and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tamaleaver/6064211772/

I am currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in Internet Communication through Curtin University (and I’m not supplying these details for kudos or cash FYI). As it stands, Curtin University is the only Uni in Australia that has a dedicated Internet Studies department, which I find particularly strange considering the ubiquitous nature the Internet has these days. I started my line of study through Open University Australia, because it offered a delivery system that I could work around the rest of life. Also, I have to admit, the university system, to one who hasn’t wrangled it is daunting and more than a little intimidating. Given that OUA offered a HECS-style payment system, it also worked in with my available cash flow (ergo: nil), meaning I could study towards getting an awesome job (as yet to be decided upon) and then pay it all back, which I am cool with. Other students find that the more flexible study times, due to the delivery system, are the key to their choice. It allows them to work their study in and around parenting and work commitments.

I am learning about interactions online, why people have flocked to it (and continue to), the issues surrounding online practices and privacy concerns, how writing for an online audience is a little different to writing for an offline one, and how society can find balance between the two “worlds”. It may not sound like much, or its relevance may not be immediately apparent to you, but it is these kinds of studies that will allow people such as myself to develop better practices for the future world in which we all become cybermen, symbiotically attached to our tech… wait a minute! 🙂

I still have just over a year to go of my BA at which point, depending on my grades, I will think about Honours. And, just because I’m crazy and have obviously taken leave of my senses, a PhD application may be thrown in for good measure. Because I can… Or might be able to… Hopefully…

What do I hope to achieve with all of this?

I want to keep researching what is making people tick. Ever since I was a young’un, I’ve been interested in why people like what they like, why they do what they do and what can be done to make people happier. Some days, this comes from a kind of altruistic intention to make the world a better place… If only for myself. I want people to stop their whining (myself included) by aiding them in finding what it is they want or need out of life. Also, realistically a virtual world is only going to become more integrated with “reality” (whatever that is these days) and, as such, if I want to have a place in that multi-world, I need to carve a place out now. I’m not super smart, or a massive tech head. I’m not an engineer and I don’t have a really good head for creative coding (plain and simple stuff I could probably deal with, if I could be bothered updating my language skills, which I can’t), so it’s not likely that I will be heading a development team bringing you the latest installment of what Google Glass aims to be in the future.

What I will be able to give you (at least once I’ve finished all this study) is an in-depth analysis of why your ideas (or their ideas, or that platform for interaction, or … whatever!)failed and what you can do next time to get people to flock to them. I will be able to tell the world why they need to assess what it is they aim to gain from electronically-delivered engagement systems (because the phrase “online worlds’ be become obsolete – stay tuned for my book on that in a few years’ time), in order to spend their precious time, effort and cash in the right places. I will be able to authoritatively show people why employing current slow thinking (as in it takes more than a few months to get an idea out there and have it accepted – look at pressure start-up groups and their success if you don’t believe me) for a world that is changing so fast is a dumb idea (this may also involve revolutionising the way we peer-review stuff, but we have to aim high, right?).

So, online learning vs on-campus learning. Is there even a contest?

Firstly, let me dispel the myth of online learning being easy. It is NOT. Plain and simple. You have to be self-motivated. You have to search out your own community groups if you want to really engage with the material and ideas presented. You have to maintain that level of stamina, all without the scheduled-out-for-you, spoon-feeding that on-campus learning can give you and you have to do so all by yourself. If you don’t have that drive, you’ve got no hope. If you can’t find it in yourself to keep going when you have to do a unit with a university that hasn’t fully understood what it means to provide an online unit, then the chances of you completing your studies are very slim. More on this later. If you can’t handle being interrupted by people who don’t see your head in a book or you typing on a computer as “real study” (I’m talking parents, children, partners, friends who drop in, everyone!), and you can’t tell them to please respect your study time, then you’re going to fail. No sugar coating it. You will.

Using online tools are only useful if they actually offer students something that they need or want from their study. Online tools are only as good as the education they offer. If tutors are not engaging with their students or if the unit materials are not accessible, then what good is the delivery system?

Just waiting for the Quickening. For license and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurelfan/46008993/

Too many times I have heard from students studying units with various universities. That the tutors don’t answer questions sent to them either by the internal mail system or through discussion boards which serve for many as online tutorials. That some units relying on web-based materials, meaning digital copies of papers or articles, have broken links or resources that just cannot be found at all! Simply copying a paper-bound university unit to a digital format does not making an online learning environment. An online student is, unfortunately, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding resources that are not published in a digital format. If your unit still relies on bound text books that an on-campus student would be able to check out of a library, you are doing your online students a dis-service. If you don’t have reliable checks and balances to make sure that your students are receiving the education they have paid for, then you are failing your students. I’m not talking about providing customer service for students. I think this opinion that universities are no longer the bastions of education and research they once were, is a little misguided and black-and-white. So what if students are expecting some kind of a ROI (Return on Investment) in regards to their education? This doesn’t mean that the primary role of a university can’t still be research and attainment of knowledge. It just means that those who help invest in that gathering expect a little something for their investment. The world isn’t as Highlander (“There can be only one!”) as some people would like to make out.

Soooooo… what do students employing online methods of study want?

Candy? Medals? A shiny pony? Not really. Although, having said that, I’d never look a gift horse in the mouth (sorry, I had to).

We expect a system that values us as students. As GENUINE students. We want tutors and lecturers who actually care that we can get and understand the material they are using to facilitate our knowledge. We aren’t expecting our degrees or diplomas to be handed to us on a silver platter. We expect to have to work for them, but no more than on-campus students. By undertaking externals studies we accept that we need to think and act differently to on-campus students, but we still want to be awarded the same level of engagement that on-campus students expect. Though, in saying that, I have heard a LOT of complaints from on-campus students saying there’s a decline in the amount of teachers giving a crap about classes… That may be a rant for another time.

We expect that when we are told that there is no text book required for the unit (as in my experience often happens) that we will be able to access all of the required readings for that unit online.  It’s no fun to play if we can’t get our hands on books or chapters because they don’t exist online. And, as a tutor, please don’t try to tell us it isn’t your responsibility to make sure your students have the resources. If a complaint is made that students cannot access the resources from anywhere online (the university’s library, Google, Amazon and the network of resource pirates out there), then it’s not that they don’t have the resources, your resource list needs revision. You need to make sure your students can actually find the resources so they can understand your lectures and complete assignments.

Which brings me to another point. When studying contemporary issues, such as politics or even Internet Studies, we expect that the topics being covered are from the past four or five years, and even then, it’s a stretch. Ultimately, we’d like within the past two to three. History is history and contemporary is now. Now, I understand the peer-review process is what universities and researchers live and die by, but it is long in the tooth and takes oh so long. I don’t have the answer. I wish I did, really, but the current peer-review process takes far too long to get actual contemporary resources into the hands of students. Think about it this way. It takes up anywhere in the realm of five years to research a PhD. Then it gets submitted for review… Now, I’m no mathematician, but that sure does add up to a lot of time in my mind. Not to mention that a lot may have changed in the world in that time. Now, if you’re doing a science (excluding computer sciences) or mathematics line of study, it’s fairly certain that you’ll be fine. Not much changes quickly there. 1+1 will always equal 2 … unless it doesn’t, in which case it’s already been proven and you can read up on it. If you’re in the Arts, some fields stay moderately constant while others change incredibly fast. My particular field of study looks to be changing and growing at a pace that the peer-review system can’t stay in step with. This causes problems for those of us looking to only use peer-reviewed articles and publications for our work. I am sure you can understand the frustration built up by trying to find something relevant written in the past two or three years when everything written in that time frame is still under review, or not widely accepted yet.

We ask that universities don’t try to charge us for services we cannot use. Yes, we are glad that should be able to we can use the physical library, or the student services centre or any of the wonderful services your on-campus students have access to. Personally, I am in something of a rare position amongst my external study peers, in that I am able to get to my university’s campus. Most of the other students I know who have been studying through external studies live too far away from their university to make use of the facilities. Some don’t even live in the same state! I think there needs to be more work done into as to what services a university might actually provide their external students that will benefit them, rather than assuming they require the same services as on-campus students.

A silly cap, a smile and a piece of paper. License and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/willfolsom/5702452656/

We really really really (as in “cannot stress this enough”) need a checks and balances system outside of individual institutions, making sure that the level of education, educators and materials is sufficient to facilitate learning. We aren’t asking for our learning to be spoon-fed to us. We want to have to seek our own understanding, but we need to know that the help will be there if we simply don’t understand a concept or ideology. Universities and providers like OUA do their best with regular surveys asking how we felt the particular unit was delivered. Sadly, these do not seem to make a lick of difference when the same units receive the same complaints, or the same tutors receive the same complaints made against them, study period after study period. It’s not that we want studying to be easy, but we need to know there is some degree of accountability for our educators. I suspect this is a universal issue, rather than an online-specific one.

If you are in education, please understand that the world you may have learned in is changing. This means that older methods of thinking also need to change, in order to keep the pace. If you are a student or are considering undertaking online study, be patient with your institution. They may not understand the “game now. They may never understand it properly but unless you give them the chance and  provide them with appropriate feedback, they will never understand how to provide properly for the brave new world.

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8 comments on “Online Students: What Do We Want?

  1. tatjarnova says:

    Hi Melissa,
    Thanks for sharing this and I absolutely agree with you. Long distance learning is actually harder than going to normal Uni. I am doing the same course as you do, just started actually, the only frustrations I have had so far is that some lectures are behind in time and need updating but I guess i only started and have a long way to catch up to you:) Was a great read! Thanks!

    • nephthysnile says:

      Hi there,
      While I think distance education may indeed require a different set of skills and perhaps some more dedication to making time to study, I’m not sure I agree with your statement that it is necessarily harder. If I were attending classes on campus, I would have probably dropped out by now. The ease of setting my own schedule to study by (well, to some degree at least), has meant the ability to still keep my family life going AND my studies.

      If you have only just started on your journey, welcome to the path! So long as you keep at it, you will be fine. Remember, only you are responsible for what you make of the opportunities presented to you. At the end of the day, it is only you that you have to answer to.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Fellow unsatisfied customer says:

    Honestly I agree with all your points. Some universities and specifically some tutors need a right royal rousting out over the way we as online students are treated.
    Once when asking about the delay in returning an assignment grade I was informed I had to wait as ‘real’ university was back, how utterly insulting.
    As for another unit contempory politics lectures from 2005-2006 how out of touch.
    Oh and may I add the material that is in lectures which is of no relevance, such as where the student services is and their hours, or the raffles being run, different assignments etc.
    I have to say I love your style ‘nephthysnile’ as perhaps now universities will see us as more than the preverbial cash cow.

    • nephthysnile says:

      Hey there!
      Firstly, thanks for reading. I am glad that you have found my style readable. There’s little worse out there than all the noise of the available blogs that simply don’t engage.
      Secondly, I would be very interested to hear what experiences others have had with unis who just “don’t get it”. We don’t seem to be the only ones that have encountered issues. I wonder if there might be a paper in this for me at some point in the future?
      I am repeatedly disappointed when I hear stories from my fellow students who are bemoaning the fact that their tutors do not make any effort to engage with their students through the various platforms the universities spend thousands of dollars maintaining. It really does seem that while online students may have a better deal in the community they have, it is only because they themselves have created that community.
      Thanks again!

  3. Paul says:

    Online study is only as hard as one makes it. The foolish students who pay all that money then don’t discuss issues lose out. As for current learning, I agree, I liked it all but the Actor-Network rubbish, that should be dropped. Who cares about flashmobs. So I agree with you except the it is hard, yes I like face-to-face discussions but I also in my undergraduate degree I went to classes where people were total morons and if you discussed issues you got dirty looks.

    • nephthysnile says:

      Hi Paul,
      I couldn’t agree more with your view that you only get out of your study what you put into it. I am not sure what you mean by the “Actor-Network rubbish” but with the developments in discussion platforms such as skype, google hangouts and others, that online only students can have those face-to-face discussions that we seem to miss out on.
      I have heard similar to your story from other on campus friends, that any real discussion or playing of the devil’s advocate is frowned upon in tutorials, but that is not to say that the same does not happen in an online framework. There are definitely subjects which are welcome for discussion, and some which various groups shy away from. I think it is not exclusively an on campus, or online problem, but rather a universal one that plagues students from all disciplines.
      Thank you so much for reading, and I hope to hear from you again soon.

      • Paul says:

        Oh yeah sorry I did not make that clear. I assume you studied Internet Collobration in your Internet Studies degree? In that unit you are subjected to Actor-Network Theory, which is not the best theory to explain online behaviours.

        I do agree regarding tutorials, but I feel that if one is paying such high expenses, and it is not like school where people will make your life difficult as you are only there for 13 weeks, then if one wants they should give their views. I always remember Society and Gender when the football jocks were asked questions in the tutorials about treating women they would go red with guilt because you knew their behaviours. Still as you say it happens everywhere a subject can be not talked about depending on who, what and where.

  4. mattysplatty says:

    Sort of on topic, regarding online learning in the 21st century and the introduction of MOOC’s. There is definitely a need for change. http://www.theage.com.au/small-business/managing/blogs/the-venture/the-online-learning-revolution-20121022-281×3.html

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