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Encouraging Engagement and Enthusiasm– One student’s perspective on online course design

Posted by on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 in Resource.

By Rachel Biel, Undergraduate Intern

My first interaction with the online classroom came in the fall of 2012, my senior year of high school. With my sights set on attending Vanderbilt, I enrolled in four AP courses, each of which my school only taught one section. This left my daily schedule completely inflexible: I had one hour open in my day. Nothing I hadn’t already taken was available for me to take in that time slot, except for wind ensemble, the advanced band. After my guidance counselor and I decided against me picking up a new instrument, she suggested I enroll in one of the online courses available through Michigan Department of Education. I chose an introductory physics course to give me a foundation for the college physics I intended to take as a pre-med student. The main benefit of the online course format was the flexibility it provided: I could complete the work during my free time and sleep in every day, arriving just in time for second period.

The course was divided into three sections, each consisting of readings, discussion questions, practice problems, chapter tests, and unit tests. I did my reading, completed my practice problems and participated in discussion, yet was disappointed every time I received my quiz and test scores back. So I studied harder. I completed extra practice problems. Reread the book. Still was disappointed. As I had always been a strong student, I was very frustrated to be receiving anything less than an A. In any case, I soon became very frustrated with my physics course. I felt like my time wasn’t paying the academic returns I was so accustomed to, and made me want to do the work assigned even less. My AP classes also required significant time investment, but with them I was receiving my normal grades and also earning college credit. I all but stopped working on my physics course. I had made up my mind that it wasn’t a good use of my time. On a side note, the students soon after received an email from another student in the course letting us know that the test questions were being taken from a specific website and the answers were there as well. I suspect that the test averages went up after this email. I elected not continue into the second semester of this physics course, and the band director found a spot for me making copies and cleaning instruments.

After my not-so-positive experience with online physics, I had a strong distaste in my mouth for online courses. At Vanderbilt I have never been presented with the opportunity to participate in a fully online course, but have participated in many hybrid courses taught, in my opinion, successfully. It never occurred to me that the way an online course was taught might impact the students’ success in said course. Saying that out loud makes my wonder why I never thought about it before. Can online courses be as or more effective as traditional courses? If so, what can be done to make online courses more effective? These are the questions Cynthia Brame and I set out to answer in our recent publication Traditional Versus Online Biology Courses: Connecting Course Design and Student Learning in an Online Setting. We synthesized the available literature comparing online and traditional biology courses at a variety of academic institutions. From there we were able to make three recommendations for improving academic outcomes in online courses. Through this process I was able to reflect on my personal experience in online education, and I hope our work can encourage online instructors to think more critically about their course design and consider implementing our suggestions for effective online courses.

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