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Benton Summer Project: Reflections, Part I

By Peter Tschirhart on September 2, 2014

A small group of Benton Scholars took MOOCs during the summer of 2014. Participation was voluntary, and no Colgate course credit was granted. After finishing, we asked each student to write a response capturing their thoughts and reactions to this experience. Selected responses are reproduced below. Please note: the opinions expressed here are those of students–not the Benton Scholars program or Colgate University more generally.

Click here to find out more about the project behind these posts. Click here to learn more about the upcoming Online Education Symposium being sponsored by the Benton Scholars program.

Ellen Rodowsky ’15:

I had never taken an online class prior to this summer, so I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I’m admittedly skeptical about the idea of an online platform replacing legitimate classrooms and real-time contact with professors and other students, but I can’t deny that I was extremely impressed by the variety of courses available for free online. After much debating, I enrolled in a course called “Representaciones Culturales de las Sexualidades”(Cultural Representations of the Sexualities) offered by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

The structure of the course seemed pretty straightforward: four weeks, four different topics presented via powerpoints and reading assignments, one short quiz on each topic, and an 800-word essay that would be graded by our fellow classmates. There were also forums available for students who wanted to expand upon topics that were touched on during the lectures. The lectures covered a lot of material very rapidly; at times it was almost overwhelming how quickly we moved through complex topics. The idea that “the body is a representation of the body, and can be interpreted as a text” was covered in 10 minutes — I can’t even imagine how long that point would be discussed in a Women’s Studies class at Colgate! The benefit to a video/powerpoint style of class, on the other hand, was that I could take as much time as I needed to make sure I understood a concept before continuing on with the lecture. I could pause and replay a portion if I didn’t grasp the full meaning the first time around, or I could stop and look up a concept on Google if I wasn’t satisfied with how it was presented by the professor.

Despite the benefits to a video-style lecture, my most adamant criticism of online classes (or at least, of this online class) was the lack of critical and in-depth discussion. The forums, although they aim to create a space for class-wide discussions, fall markedly short of achieving this. In classes, if a student asks a question, at the very least one student or the professor will respond. Additionally, if an argument or heated debate breaks out during class, I believe there are a lot of skills that students must use to respond respectfully in that moment. Online, these types of discussions do not happen; many questions had zero responses posted, and although none of the forums I read had very heavy debates, I think the anonymity that comes with posting online to strangers and the ability to simply stop answering does not foster the same kind of environment as a classroom.

I would have much preferred to study this topic in a classroom setting, but that’s not to say that I am opposed to all online education. I very much enjoy in-class discussions and talking about complex issues with my classmates, but for some classes I can see how it might be preferable to do them at one’s own pace. Introductory classes, for example, might be a better place for an online course. Lectures can be slowed down and repeated as many times as possible, so what would be a 150+ person, one-speed-fits-all class becomes more accessible to people who may need to hear things repeated multiple times. Some of my friends whose universities offer online courses say their schools try to better bridge the divide between online courses and full-time student life. Their online classes include one or two in-person meetings, where students can discuss material that has been covered in the class and ask questions of the professor that may be complicated to address through computers. It is undeniable that online education is gaining popularity (largely due to its cost versus costs of college tuition) and legitimacy, but I believe that for them to be truly successful they must learn how to fill the space left by removing the physical, real-time discussions.

Jungmin Kang ‘16:

For my summer project, I decided to take a German language class. However, when I arrived at the place I was to do my [summer] internship, I realized I did not have a stable internet connection. But I was able to find the youtube version of the lecture videos and download them at the office where I worked. It was an interesting observation – that online lectures do not necessitate a continual internet connection, but rather only enough to get the videos loaded onto a device. Of course, this means there may be limited or no interaction between the maker of the video and the student, or between students. For my German classes, though, I didn’t find this to be a problem, as the largest component of understanding the videos was just me sitting in front of the computer repeating the phrases and trying to get the pronunciation right.

Another thing I noticed was that, since I had all the videos downloaded and in one place, I could view any number of them at one time. There were days when I went through several, but then periods of many days when I didn’t see even one. For a language, I found this a little problematic, because on several occasions after these long pauses I had to go back to previous videos to review basics that I probably would have remembered had I not taken such breaks. However, the fact that this going-back-to-review process was possible and easy says something, I think. Also, it was nice that when I felt into it I could go as far as I liked. It was motivating and exciting to know that my educational intake was not being limited by an external force. Of course, in reality, there were limitations (my limited time, having only certain videos and therefore content to choose from, etc.), but there was an illusion of freedom that was nice. I’m not saying this is totally different from what is possible with a conventional medium such as a book (I can read as much of a textbook as I like), but knowing there was not someone who would be verifying that I had done a minimum amount of learning was liberating.

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