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In my travels around the state, I’m often asked questions about distance learning. The most frequent questions usually have to do with online courses—what are they? How do they work? Why are they important? There seems to be a lot of myths concerning online courses as well, because the term has been applied to everything from course syllabi on a web page to listservs to computer-based training modules.

With more teachers and students taking online courses for the first time, I think it’s important to take a look at what online courses are, and what they do. Let’s see if we can debunk some of those myths while we’re at it.

What are online courses?

For the purposes of this article, let’s assume a few things are true of online courses. You may hear the term applied to tutorials or training modules that don’t fit this definition, but all of the courses at LEARN NC meet these standards, so it seems like a good place to start the discussion.

Online courses are instructor-supervised, student-driven units of instruction delivered via the Internet.

The first key component in this definition is that the course is instructor-supervised. This means that for the duration of the course, there will be a knowledgeable instructor who actively participates in the students’ learning. Instructors will participate in or moderate discussions, engage students one-on-one, evaluate student assignments and assessments, and facilitate student interactions.

Several studies indicate that an instructor’s participation greatly influences the student completion rate for online courses: the Commonwealth of Learning reports that less than 25% of students completed online tutorials, while close to 80% of students completed online courses when an instructor was assigned to an online course.

However, as in a face-to-face classroom, learning occurs in an online course through student exploration and participation. Courses should be student-driven, and should include a wide range of activities that students can participate in. The instructor’s responsibility is to guide students through the process of meaningful learning, responding to their individual needs in a timely fashion. But ultimately—and this is one way in which online courses differ from face-to-face instruction—the learning is in the hands of the student, who will need to be self-motivated and independent to a degree that the traditional classroom often does not demand.

Many online courses (including the ones from LEARN NC) are asynchronous, which means that they don’t rely on all the students to be online at the same time. Students can work at their peak learning times. “Morning people” can participate in their course before work or school, and “night owls” can work after the rest of the family has gone to bed, and each will get the same rich, interactive educational experience.

The terms units of instruction and delivered via the internet may be responsible for some of the myths surrounding online learning, so let’s take a closer look at those.

Myth #1: Online courses are just online textbooks.

I’m not one of those students who can learn from a textbook. It’s a nice supplement, but I need to have demonstrations, practice, and I have to apply that knowledge with projects and teamwork.

It’s true that some online courses just provide the same materials a textbook would, but those are, more often than not, the least successful online courses on the Web. A good online course provides the complete instructional package, and is heavily committed to collaboration among students and applying knowledge to develop skills.

A complete online course goes well beyond just text and pictures; it harnesses the best that the Web has to offer. It is constantly changing, being updated, linking to new sites. It may include audio, video, or animation. Students may interact through e-mail, threaded discussion, collaborative Web spaces, chat clients, or in person, which leads us to the next myth…

Myth #2: Online courses will keep students glued to the computer.

In the traditional classroom, we’ve always encouraged students to think beyond the four walls. We utilize other resources in our school, have students investigate from home, or participate in field studies. An online course is no different—just because a course is delivered via the Internet doesn’t change the educational mandate to have kids exploring the world around them.

A good online course asks students to conduct interviews or case studies, take samples from the field, read great novels, or practice the skills they have learned. Teachers in online professional development courses might be asked to use the skill they are learning in the classroom and report their findings. An environmental science student in an online course might have to collect data from her yard. Students in a language course might be expected to meet with other students or a facilitator for speaking practice. In some cases, online courses don’t even happen entirely online. Some courses use a blended or hybrid method of instruction, where some of the learning happens online and some of the learning happens in short face-to-face sessions.

Myth #3: Online courses are easier than face to face courses.

People often worry that an online course can’t provide the same educational experience as a face-to-face course because they simply can’t see how the same wide range of activities could be delivered online. And they’re partially right: not everything that can be done in the classroom can be done online. However, the converse is also true; online activities often open up a wide range of educational experiences not available in the traditional classroom.

Instructors report that designing an online course is much more difficult and time-intensive because there’s so much less room to improvise in an online course. The entire curriculum and all of the directions have to be devised and tested for clarity before the students even begin the course. The instructor has to anticipate any problem areas and create supplemental activities in advance, because developing content is time-consuming.

Students have to work harder as well, because in addition to the learning the content of the course, they must continue to write more clearly than they may be used to doing. When the majority of the communication is written, students are consistently practicing the art and process of writing for a variety of purposes: academic, social, formal, informal.

Myth #4: Online courses are isolating and lonely

It’s hard to imagine that a course that takes place on the Web could possibly provide the same rich social and collaborative experience that the traditional classroom does. But they can. In fact, online courses may be more interactive for some students.

Luckily, we live in a time where communication is changing. Think back ten years, and you probably remember a time when you didn’t have e-mail. Your primary modes of communication over a distance were letters and the telephone. But now, you often use e-mail because it’s easily archived, quick, and doesn’t even require the other person to be present when you send it.

Communicating in the digital age is getting easier and easier, and more and more of our K-12 students are becoming proficient with instant messaging clients like AOL Instant Messenger or chat applications. Teenagers have a very active presence on the Internet, through online games, chats, and Web pages, and that participation can also be leveraged into a learning environment for synchronous or asynchronous learning.

Consider also that the classroom can be isolating and lonely. Do you remember a time when you gave the wrong answer in class? When people may have laughed or made faces, or even made comments to you later? That kind of negative reinforcement didn’t make you want to participate much the next time a class discussion rolled around. And you probably had to give that answer quickly—the classroom often doesn’t give you a lot of time to think before you have to give an answer. Or what if you had the right answer? You might have still gotten laughter or dirty looks for being an “egghead” or a “nerd.” You may have refrained from talking the next time, or “dumbed down” your answer.

In an online course, you are free to research, to think, and to edit before you post your comments. You won’t hear any immediate response, so while it may be a while before anyone answers, you won’t get any laughter or dirty looks. You’re more likely to get a well-reasoned, well-researched response from a classmate or instructor. Isn’t that a more comfortable learning community? And because students have so much more leeway to open up, to express themselves, and to articulate things just the way they wanted to, instructors in online courses report that they know their students as well as or better than students in the traditional classroom.