Does Online Learning Make the Grade?

Photo-illustration of a student frustrated with online learning.


There are two sides to every story and the fast switch to online learning during the spring semester is no exception.

The switch was problematic for students, faculty and college administrators. Students battled connectivity problems. The faculty struggled to learn the online environment and incorporate their lesson plans. Administrators scrambled to train faculty and move classes online, even those requiring ingenuity to meet course requirements.

Eliud Chuffe, a Spanish instructor, was concerned about the difficulties his students faced. Students who had not signed up for an online class experienced connectivity issues due to unreliable internet service or computer models with slow connectivity. Some students found linking to their computer’s camera or microphone was tricky.

Chuffe also found a lack of observation and interaction with his students a drawback.

“I do feel the need to teach face-to-face when teaching language classes. As an experienced teacher, you notice when students are having a hard time understanding new culture or grammar concepts,” Chuffe said.

The importance of observation in the classroom cannot be denied. Early educational psychologists like Alfred Binet believed that it was crucial to train teachers in observation so that they saw individual differences and gradually adjusted the curriculum to the student.

Jennifer Cloney, a Spanish 101 student, faced this hurdle. She came to appreciate what face-to-face contact meant in her ability to learn Spanish. She relied on the instructor’s body language and facial expressions. She also felt student interactions were frustrating due to connectivity, time lag, hearing issues and that the classroom platform was restrictive in time.

“While we’re all doing the best we can under the circumstances, no one was prepared to have classes remotely and it’s a work in progress. In the meantime, it’s been more challenging and stressful,” Cloney said.

Some Pima Community College students take to chatrooms and video conference calling to interact with peers. Students in the college’s nursing program used technology to form study groups to help them succeed in a course not entirely conducive to distance learning.

Amanda Ward, a first-year nursing student, said she meets with classmates in Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger video chats and they study together like they would in the library or at Starbucks.

Ward believes that PCC has made the transition as student-friendly as possible. She credits instructors for recording lectures so students can access them as schedules permit and for hosting Q&A sessions.

“The program has set up virtual clinical simulations to meet our clinical hours’ requirement. Overall, while not an ideal nursing school experience, I am very grateful for the work done to ensure we can continue our program without interruption,” Ward said.

Some experiences were not as satisfying. Kandis Angeley, a fellow nursing student, found transitioning was harder than she expected. She felt that the skills and clinicals were ineffective because they left her feeling she was not learning them without hands-on practice. Still, she did find the ability to review and relisten to lectures beneficial.

“The ups and downs have been challenging, but it is what we have to do to not delay graduation, for which I am grateful,” Angeley said.

Anthony Wilhite, a clinical nursing instructor, feels that PCC has done an excellent job of transitioning to a not-so-traditional way of learning.

“Though I must say, it is a struggle for us very passionate instructors who love to be around students, socialize, and provide hands-on training that strives to make our students successful in every way,” Wilhite said. “(For me) the traditional way of teaching in person can never be replaced.”

According to an email dated May 1 from Pima spokeswoman Libby Howell, courses that require face-to-face instruction like medicine and technology are a competition between maintaining safety and meeting accreditation requirements.

“Our deans are considering various possible tactics that might allow that balancing act, ranging from very small class sizes that will allow folks to remain separated from each other, installing portable plastic shielding, or providing upgraded personal protective equipment to students and faculty in the class,” Howell said.

The bottom line is that online learning works best for students who are self-motivated and self-disciplined. Those students with good planning and organizational skills will succeed and are usually the students who sign up for distance learning. Their positivity carries them through.

It may not be the best choice for students who want ample peer and instructor interactions. Nor for students without reliable access to technology or who lack computer literacy. Students who tend to procrastinate on assignments struggle with the challenge of distractions in their less-than-ideal learning environments. Missing for these students is the bonds and camaraderie based on common work and goals that in-
person classes offer.

From its origin in the 1960s, distance learning has been maligned for a lack of quality control, including an ability to misrepresent or falsify information and especially a scarcity of trained, high-quality teachers that damage the value of the online experience.

A research study done in June 2011 entitled “Transforming Online Teaching Practice: Critical Analysis of the Literature on the Roles and Competencies of Online Teachers” published in Distance Education addresses important issues for training and enhancing the skill set of online instructors.

Trained faculty trails the demand for online learning. Online instructors are now facilitators, not providers of course content. Currently, roles and competencies are created by the“experts” in online education. Research suggests that this creates the potential for instructors to lapse into passive roles.

There must be student interactive elements incorporated within online courses. Thus, innovative teaching strategies, course design specific to online education, and the development of good online teaching skills are important components of quality online education.

Extending or increasing the delivery of online courses, according to Howell’s May 1 email means the college must plan for all possibilities. The unknown factor of the coronavirus leaves the college at a disadvantage for planning.

“The college’s eventual goal is to offer no more than half of its courses via hybrid and/or online,” Howell said.

In a thesis published in March 2017 in the International Journal of Development and Educational Psychology, author Uddin Akther, M.D., lists the psychological deterrents to immersion in online technologies.

Introversion, the emergence of self-anxiety, emotional detachment in communication, lack of empathy, a tendency to conflict, self-centeredness, narrowing in the range of interests, autism, a transformation of identity, lack of development of social intelligence, degradation of the social component in communication and lack of responsibility can be observed among people with high interactivity with computer technologies. Currently, it brings with it the danger of being too informal, empty of personalized meanings, “devaluation” of knowledge and alienation from it, fading of self-determination, and the anger caused by “dehumanization.”

“It remains unclear whether a computer has attracted people with certain traits, or we are dealing with changes of personality in long-term contact with the computer,” stated the paper.

Dr. Erik Erikson’s “Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development” shows social
interactions are imperative. We see the anger and mob mentality behind anonymity. These psychological changes will eventually take a toll on individuals who have a conflicting time applying personal learning styles and maintaining individuality online. These inner struggles are prohibitive to success in academia and life.

Research shows that a multitude of concerns must be addressed before determining the efficacy of extending online engagement. It is not a pro or con decision; it requires more than that. Discourse around competing philosophies is essential considering what is at stake.

The eventuality of dealing with mental fallout from excessive online immersion is looming. The future of staying connected depends on our ability to balance benefits against damages. Above all, a solitary world of electronic interactions further diminishes our humanity.