Learning at arm’s length

They may talk too long and they may wander off topic. Nevertheless, some students still prefer their professors in the flesh rather than across the Internet.

The spread of the Internet and the increased use of broadband have allowed educators to design increasingly sophisticated distance-learning courses. In comparison to the textbook-and-TV format of the 1970s and ’80s, educators can use video and sound files, links to other sites, e-mail, discussion boards and chat rooms.

Yet for some students, the face-to-face interaction of the classroom remains the best venue for learning.

“You get a lot more out of the face-to-face because you are sitting in a classroom with all your fellow students and the professor,” said graduate student Sarah Miselis. “There are discussions; you learn a lot more that way.”

Currently pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Library and Information Science, Miselis was dismayed to find the program was only offering nine face-to-face courses in the spring. With one of the classes she needed already full, Miselis decided to wait rather than take the class online.

Studying in the same program, John Stevens reluctantly registered for two online classes.

Stevens said he has found it is more difficult to retain information in online classes than traditional classes. Finding out he would have to pay a $105 fee per class to pay for adjunct professors added to his dissatisfaction.

“If I had an option, I would not be in an online course, not just because of the money but because of the satisfaction I get from the course,” Stevens said. “I’m doing it because I have to.”

As one of only two library and information science programs in the state, the school relies on distance learning to serve students from as far as Jacksonville and Miami, according to Associate Director Mel Pace.

“In our environment, we couldn’t possibly meet the needs that we do across the state without Web-based courses because we would never have enough faculty members,” he said.

The program’s drop from the 13 face-to-face classes offered this semester was due to an increase in the number of its faculty only teaching two courses this semester, Pace said. Senior-track faculty members typically teach five courses across fall and spring.

Pace said although students tell him they want more face-to-face classes, Web-based classes fill up more quickly, usually within a day and a half. With around 80 percent of the program’s 575 students working fulltime, the courses provide the flexibility many non-traditional students need, he said.

But Pace said he understands the concern of some students that the method is inferior to traditional teaching.

“There’s a whole lot of research that says there’s really no difference,” he said. “My gut says ‘how can it be?'”

With so many different formats and subject matters, gauging whether Web-based teaching is less effective than traditional classroom teaching is difficult.

Lou Carey, a professor in the department of educational measurement and research, has developed Web-based courses and, as a member of an evaluation team for the Innovations in Technology and Teaching Project, evaluates other courses.

Recording students’ achievements in a college of education course, offered both face-to-face and on the Internet, Carey found that online students performed marginally better than those in the classroom.

She attributes the small difference to online classes containing a higher percentage of more independent and mature learners.

“There’s an assumption that face-to face learning is good, but how many classes have you had that were pretty bad?” Carey said.

But Carey’s findings do not tally with some professors’ experiences.

Last fall, geology professor Eleanour Snow taught an Internet oceanography class for 940 students. The failure rate of nearly 1 in 9 was significantly higher than her 400-student classes, where typically only 5 or 6 students fail, she said.

The approach also brings other problems, Snow said. With all work done away the classroom, she said plagiarism is more of a problem in Internet classes. Snow uses Turnitin.com, a Web site that allows professors to crosscheck papers against databases to detect copying.

But with little face-to-face contact, knowing whether students are getting help when taking tests or writing papers is almost impossible, Snow said.

“I really can’t be sure who’s doing the work and whether or not (students are) truly getting it, and I think that’s the main problem,” Snow said. “I don’t know for sure that Joe Smith did the work that gets turned in under Joe Smith’s name.”

But that same anonymity is one of distance learning’s advantages, according to Carey.

“When (professors) are evaluating their students’ work, none of their biases get to come through. All you see is the person’s work,” Carey said.

The anonymity works in both directions. Carey said her gender-ambiguous first name has often confounded her students.

“They have no clue who I am so they can’t make any judgments about me,” she said.

Additionally, Carey said distance learning prevents classroom discussions from being dominated by more vocal students, giving teachers a more accurate impression of all their students.

“Students don’t see you as a mentor but they work more professionally; they act like adults, not like a gang,” she said. “It’s a colleague instead of a sea of people in one-armed bandit desks.”

While he recognizes the value of distance learning for his program, Pace said he would not like to see the library and information science program consist of nothing but Internet classes.

“We don’t think it’s the right thing for the students; we don’t think it’s the right thing for the profession,” he said.

But Pace admits that for some students, the teaching method makes little difference.

“It seems to be that A students are going to be A students no matter where they are,” he said.