Like School Online: No Class

When I made the decision to go back to school and study computer science, a very dear old friend asked me to let him know what I thought of online classes.

This old friend of mine (we’ll call him ‘D’) is something of a legend in my very small circle. He got his start in IT right out of college as a teletype boy for the local paper, and subsequently spent most of his adult life in the newspaper business, herding various publishing-centric computer systems through their daily paces. ‘D’ was one of the earliest civilians to be “online”: he participated in lengthy discussions on the early pre-Internet networks like ARPANET and Usenet back in the 80’s, at a time when there were only some tens of thousands of people in the world with access to those networks.

I’ve never talked with ‘D’ at any length about his early online experiences. I do get the impression that some of the more difficult or annoying things which we now routinely associate with online discussions were already present in those earliest iterations of the Web, for instance the tendency for people to feel overly-emboldened by the inherent disembodiment of the online social experience, along with the concomitant likelihood that any small disagreement might escalate into an aggressive argument. Then there’s the fact that the military and intelligence communities had their fingers in the online pie from the start, which is interesting in light of the recent Snowden Affair: we are shocked, SHOCKED by the idea that our intelligence agencies might be observing our online activity, without ever giving much thought to the fact that the Internet exists precisely because the military and intelligence communities were highly instrumental in helping to invent it.

But I digress.

So, my old friend ‘D’ has been a computer geek since before anybody ever heard of such a thing, and he still keeps his ear to the ground vis-a-vis all things computerized, even though he’s retired and living in the woods near our ancestral stomping grounds in the foothills of North Carolina. And, seeing as I have been taking several of my classes online as I pursue my degree in computer programming, he was interested to hear my take on the growing trend in online college courses.

To which I reply: compared to what? This whole college thing is very new to me, and I am reluctant to expound upon things about which I am so naive. I’ve had some online classes, I’ve had some classroom classes. There’s good and bad with both.

But I will say a few things:

1. It’s a lot easier to get to know people in person, in the flesh, in the same physical space. We are physical animals, and most of our social cues and signals are not linguistic at all. Using only the internet for all relevant, school-related communication, as I have done for entire semesters, is like trying to force a waterfall through a straw: spills are bound to happen.

2. Schools still seem to be figuring out just how much actual work these online courses require from instructors. My online instructors have generally seemed overworked and harried, whether due to juggling other classes or other jobs entirely. Of course, “overworked and harried” describes most adults I know, not just the teachers…

3. Online classes are generally considered a real test of one’s self-motivation and self-discipline. After all, it’s just you, your laptop, your textbooks and the instructors’ hasty notes and emails. But then, if you’re doing it right, any rigorous study regimen is going to be a whole lot of you, alone in a room, working like someone who is terribly afraid of idle time.

4. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’ll be driving to and from Gwinnett Tech this semester, one hour each way, three days a week, on top of a full-time managerial job in Athens and a very young son who I adore and want to enjoy while he’s still such a tiny, funny little man. All those hours I’ll spend driving this fall could be spent studying, or sleeping, or playing with my son. Online classes make this sort of adulthood-intrinsic scheduling a bit easier.

There’s one question that many college kids are not accustomed to asking themselves, much less answering honestly: why are you in school at all, and what do you aim to gain by being there? How one answers that question will certainly offer strong indicators as to how one might handle online learning.

If your primary intent as a student is to learn, then you’re going to have to study. A lot. And that involves thousands of hours of careful reading and reams of homework. The majority of my learning takes place in solitude, with my laptop and a stack of books in front of me.

But the other reason for attending school is to make connections, with instructors and with fellow students. That’s how you find jobs. It’s all about connections. It’s all about the impression you make as a person. Or that’s what I’ve always heard.

Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to make honest connections and good impressions in person than online.

I expect that future college students will become accustomed to a combination of both.

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