True Confessions of an Online Professor

November 12, 2010 4 min read

I confess: I believe that online courses may actually be better than those in a classroom.   This is not an easy conclusion for someone who has twenty years of classroom teaching experience.  The online courses that I’ve led in the last few years take what would normally be a multiple-hour in-class business case discussions and turn them into a week-long online discussion board. I’ve been surprised by the advantages of an online format in many ways:

Amount of time and effort

I figured students wouldn’t put in much time in these classes (often they have full-time jobs).  What I learned was that some students are commenting on the discussion board three to four times a day throughout the entire week.  In a traditional case discussion, no student would have time to “justify” their opinions — not enough opportunity during a class for anyone to make a really complex argument or to pour over the data to resolve a dispute.  In an online case, students take the time to prepare detailed charts and spreadsheets to support opinions – isn’t that better learning?

Social connections

I’ve always said one of the most important things about any professional education program is the people you meet.  On the face of it, it seems that you wouldn’t get to know anyone very well in an online class.  While there are definitely less late-night drinking sessions with their classmates, remember that “online friendships” are not a rarity these days.  Ten years ago, you’d be laughed out of the room if you said you were meeting people through an online dating service – today you’d be hard pressed to find a college student who hasn’t met important friends/romantic interests on Facebook (and many single 50-somethings don’t mind signing up for online dates either). 

Student Learning

As a professor, I am able to interact in a much more continual way with students throughout the week than I ever could during two to three hours of in-class time.  This gives me the chance to track progress and intervene regularly along the way.  And I find that I have to put more thought into this format than I would in a classroom.  In the class, a professor can gain “class cred(ibility)” by taking relatively easy pot shots at obvious student mistakes.  In an online environment, students usually correct each other long before I get online to comment; so I have to be more advanced in my advice.  In a week-long discussion (with lots of time for reflection), students develop more sophisticated solutions to problems than they ever would in a two-hour class.

Learning Applied

And the fact that many of the students are professionals with full-time jobs means that they can immediately apply the tools and techniques I’m teaching and come back with stories about how they work (or sometimes how they don’t).  This method of application and immediate electronic feedback is, increasingly, the way that global business is being done– why shouldn’t education reflect that?

Substance

Any honest professor will tell you that in-class education is at least partly about “entertainment.”  Those of us who have taught for years, know that the way to good student ratings is to find a few good case studies or lectures (no matter how many years old they are) that you can “teach in your sleep.”  Then put on a great show.  (This is not necessarily a bad thing because I believe students actually do pay attention better if they are well entertained.)  In an online course, my traditional methods of entertaining have flown out the window.  (Alas, if I were a skilled blogger, perhaps I could employ some of those entertainment tricks!)  Now I have to rely on substance– and thoughtful substance, at that.

Preconceptions and Democracy

In an online course I find myself more able, than I’ve ever been in a classroom, to disregard my impressions formed early in a semester and allow for change and growth in a student. For instance, one student who impressed me very little in the first few weeks of a course turned out to be one of my finest students. In a classroom where I had to call on students for their comments, I would have actively avoided his raised hand; on-line, however, he’s led the group into some really cutting edge discussions – places that I would never have led.

Innovation

Education has never been well-suited to real innovation.  Even courses on Creativity or Innovation are shockingly uncreative!  Professors are generally either Socratic or facilitative; meaning that the “conclusions” of an in-class case discussion either end up being professor’s personal favorite or some version of the majority view in the room.  But online, rather than “stage managing” the session in a direction that I’m comfortable with, I have to allow for new ways of thinking – ways of thinking that are often better than my own.  (This is a humbling admission…)   There is an opportunity for creativity online that really doesn’t exist in a classroom of 30 to 90 students eager to score “participation points” in a classroom setting.  And today, if there is one thing we need more of in the world, it is education that encourages innovative (yet well-considered) ideas.  My guess is that you’ll see more great ideas coming from online programs than you will from the traditional classroom in the coming years.