Learning online

September 24, 2009

According to USA Today, about 1 in 6 students enrolled in higher education registered for an online course this semester.  Growth in such classes surprises some experts, but as online teaching tools become more refined, students and teachers are finding advantages to this form of learning.  Geographical freedom is one advantage of online courses.  This fall I plan to teach a math course to American students all the way from France.

Distance learning is new for me.  Initially, I was skeptical about the effectiveness of the learning environment.  How does the teacher establish a rapport with the students?  How does one explain complex concepts over email?  How can the teacher tell when an explanation didn’t really make sense?  Fortunately, the university that I’ll be teaching at has put me through a four-week online training program.  During this course, I’ve been asked to participate just like a prospective student, completing assignments meant to teach me how all of their online tools work.  It has been an eye-opening experience.

Through discussion board participation, live videoconference “office hours” and prompt email responses I really do feel a personal connection with my instructor and classmates.  Detailed tutorials and relevant web links have also enabled me to get up and running with the complicated software.  Plus, I feel much more responsible for the quality of my education.  As a teacher, if I don’t do all my homework and make sure that I understand the concepts, that first course could be as difficult for me as for the students.

Degreed professionals might also benefit from online learning.  The required breadth of knowledge for civil engineers is constantly increasing. At the same time, a shrinking economy makes it difficult for employers to offer in-house training.  However, for companies and individuals to remain competitive in the marketplace, this knowledge must still be obtained.

Some organizations are beginning to offer free tutorials, marketed to specifically to professionals in need of upgrading their skills.  The Be Employable program, offered by the Bently company, provides “outplaced infrastructure professionals” free access to software and training. Meanwhile, Autodesk users can take advantage of free Civil 3D training by Engineered Efficiency, Inc.

Other companies have gone further, building on the lessons learned from online universities. Retrieve Media Inc has developed unit-based courses that combine educational videos with practice problems and online help.  In the demo videos that I viewed, the instructor is visible standing in front of a live screen shot of the program window that he’s operating, simulating a live classroom environment.  Their complete lineup ranges from cooking lessons to information modeling tutorials.  Clearly they understand the needs of the engineering demographic. ;)

Given the potential for online education, an MSN Money article goes so far as to suggest that this current generation of students may be the last to attend college in the traditional sense.  Do you agree?  Is that good or bad for the profession?  What online courses would be immediately beneficial to you?  Post your thoughts.  One lucky contributor, chosen at random, will receive a free vBooks subscription from Retrieve Media.

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