This paper examines graduate student perceptions about the advantages and disadvantages of online instruction, also referred to as distance learning. An open-ended survey assessed information from 110 graduate students majoring in special education. We analyzed the data after coding it into categories of similar responses and summarizing it. We report the advantages and disadvantages and relate them to emerging pedagogy for online instruction.
Many universities offer online courses and distance education programs. Online instruction is a valuable teaching tool because it allows for more flexible hours, forces students and professors to be more organized and task oriented, and allows for more personal feedback. Online instruction expands the academic community as it enables a more diverse student population for universities as well as enabling student more access to universities.
But, what about its effectiveness? How does it compare to traditional instruction? Does online instruction create a need for different instructional pedagogy? The purpose of this paper is to explore these questions by analyzing information provided by 110 graduate students concerning the advantages and disadvantages of online instruction.
According to Weigel (2000), online instruction requires a new teaching paradigm. The elements that relate to traditional classroom instruction still apply to online classes, but the presentation of instruction is the main difference. Other researchers (White, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 2003) offer points of views about the difference in course presentation. According to these authors, online instructors need to be more deliberate and structure delivery around communication between the instructor and the student. Delivery requires a learner-focused approach because the instructor acts more as a facilitator of learning and provides meaningful activities and guidance for students to apply the learning.
According to Phipps and Merisotis (2000), online instruction is forcing a new pedagogy for instruction. Areas of importance in the new pedagogy include course development, course instruction, evaluation, and teaching and learning. The authors identify 51 competencies needed by online instructors and 24 benchmarks for quality Internet-based learning.
The competencies necessary for online instructors fall into two main areas: Roles of the Instructor and Roles of the Student.
- As with traditional courses, the instructor must establish an effective course syllabus. Within this course syllabus, the instructor must define the terms of the class interaction, the grading criteria, and the goals and objectives of the course. The instructor must also manage the course, provide prompt feedback, and translate content for online delivery and learning.
- Students carry the responsibility to respect assignment dates, develop critical thinking skills, and participate effectively (Smith, 2005).
The benchmarks group into seven categories:
- Institutional Support - having a technology plan, security measures, a distance learning infrastructure
- Course Development - standards used, design, and delivery
- Teaching/Learning - Interaction with faculty and other students, feedback
- Course Structure - skills the student needs to take an online course, resources available, expectations clearly stated
- Student Support - students need training in how to use the delivery of the course, access to computers
- Faculty Support - Technical assistance and training for instructors, help transitioning from traditional classes to online courses
- Evaluation and Assessment - use of several methods of assessment that apply to specific standards
This paper describes the effectiveness of online instruction from the student point of view. Information from the participants supports the idea of an emergent pedagogy for online instruction. Graduate students (110) completed an open-ended survey after taking an online course. The course was delivered through Blackboard, and the course content focused on using technology in the classroom setting to develop materials and strategies needed to teach students with disabilities. Students were given assignments throughout the course to create effective learning activities using technology with students in grades K-12. The course had no traditional tests for evaluation since the assessments were based on the products produced and the reflective experiences noted by the graduate student. The students also had to document 120 clock hours of practicum classroom experience using their products with actual students having various disabilities. PowerPoint presentations, Web-based learning, and Internet field trips are examples of the types of lessons developed and then presented to actual students during the practicum.
The students took an open-ended survey to evaluate the effectiveness of online instruction by listing advantages and disadvantages of taking an online course. Five multiple-choice questions appeared at the end of the survey. We coded the students’ comments into categories of similar responses and computed statistics for the multiple choice responses.
The graduate students reported many advantages as well as disadvantages for online instruction for traditional as well as non-traditional students. The majority of students felt online instruction benefited them by keeping them more organized, enabling receiving feedback from the instructor, and providing flexibility in taking the course. The most important area for making online instruction effective was communication between the instructor and the student. Students commented favorably on the rewards of announcements, Email, and chat/discussion parts of the course.
At the end of the open-ended section of the survey, students answered five multiple choice questions, using the choices: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, Strongly Agree. The results appear below:
1. The class content lends itself easily for an online class.
2. This class helped me learn new teaching techniques for students with disabilities
3. I had the opportunity to communicate with the instructor.
4. This class allowed me the opportunity to further my working knowledge of students with disabilities.
5. This class allowed me to proceed at an individualized pace.
Students expressed many advantages of online instruction. Some of the advantages presented included the ability for students who are very task-oriented and motivated to complete work at a faster and more time efficient rate than possible with traditional classrooms.
We ranked student responses by frequency of response, and the following is a list of some frequently expressed advantages in the order of most important to least important:
- Saves time and money
- Ease of Submitting Assignments
- Keeps Students Organized
The following disadvantages were expressed and are in the order of most important to least important:
- System and computer problems
- Having a good computer
- Lack of physical contact
- Not enough classes online
- Lack of time management needed by the student
- Self-discipline and structure needed by the student
The following actual unedited student comments are representative samples of advantages and disadvantages of online instruction:
- Saves travel/time/money not having to be physically there at class.
- Students are able to teach full time during the day and still take graduate level classes.
- Timely correspondence and grading of assignments is appreciated.
- The access to materials and links.
- Provides more opportunities for communication with the professor.
- Constant feedback about grades and assignments.
- Helps students to stay organized and complete their assignments in a timely manner.
- If it wasn’t for online courses, I don’t think I could have completed my graduate coursework.
- It is very individualized learning.
- You must be a structured, organized person who remembers to check in to the course each day and be faithful when documenting and organizing class work for completion. Taking an online course has really taught me to stay focused.
- At first I missed the visual learning and personal contact, but I replaced it with other forms of communication through the course.
- There are no disadvantages. I thoroughly enjoy taking online courses over traditional lecture courses.
- The only disadvantage I can think of is when the computer problems happen or the system shuts down.
- It has saved me a lot of time and it is much easier to communicate with the professor, check grades, and complete assignments.
- Online classes save students time and money. I have had difficulty in the past contacting instructors. However, online instruction has eliminated this problem. I do not see any disadvantages to taking online classes.
- I appreciate online classes. Traveling two hours to get to class and then two hours to get home is tiring. I appreciate all online classes.
- You can sit a home and pull up all of your assignments. You can also keep in contact with your professor. The only disadvantage I had at first was not knowing my password.
- Online courses are much easier for me and more accommodating. I loved not having to travel as much each week and being able to communicate with my professor by email or announcement/discussion posting.
- Some advantages of online instruction is receiving and printing out the information I need, using the assignment drop box, checking the grades to make sure I was on track. One disadvantage is not knowing how to navigate the program.
In summary, the students in this study found online instruction beneficial to them. The outcomes for this class required students to use the higher-order thinking skills of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Performance assessment replaced objective testing (e.g., multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank). The student had more responsibility for learning and for evaluation through the application of knowledge through assignments. This type of evaluation reflects a real-world environment with an instructor facilitating the progress through continuous assessment and supportive learning. This type of assessment is aligned with the constructivism theory which proposes that students will learn more if the theory is presented in relation to real-world applications, making the learning relevant to the student‘s situation. Online instruction provides a unique opportunity to capitalize on this approach to learning as students must apply the new knowledge in their own environments.
Another important component of this online course was the use of project-based learning. The projects students completed required the synthesis of many concepts. Students demonstrated mastery of skills and knowledge through project-based learning and allowed the instructor to assess the scaffolding of concepts. The use of student reflection papers helped students to internalize knowledge and thus retain it past the end of the course. The reflection papers provided the student opportunities to take time to reflect on their learning and provided the instructor with invaluable information about the students’ perceptions of the topic. Students frequently reflected how much they learned doing the assignments.
In project-based learning, it is beneficial to match the expected products that measure mastery with the level in Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy. The following table can be used to list products which measure learning outcomes.
Performance Based Products
KNOW - define, memorize, recall, relate, list, label declare, tell, state find, name
COMPREHEND - restate, paraphrase, explain, report, discuss, review, interpret, translate, predict, compare
APPLY - apply, generate, solve, intervene, demonstrate, use, illustrate, construct, complete, classify
SYNTHESIZE - compose, propose, design, create, construct, predict, propose, devise, formulate, imagine
Another important strategy during this online course involved the use of alternative assessments. Rather than by employing traditional assessments such as exams using multiple choice formats, it assessed students using performance-based activities. Since assessment guides instruction, one suggestion for using traditional testing measures could involve providing instructor feedback from items missed on quizzes or exams. The instructor can also look at the statistics for the quiz, locate areas in which students did not grasp the concepts, and post discussion for topics not mastered. Students could then be reassessed to determine mastery of the concept. Online instruction provides many ways to assess, re-teach, and provide important feedback needed to master important concepts.
Overall, students in this sample reported that online instruction for this particular course was student friendly. The comments reported by students support important issues found in the literature, such as:
- Communication between the instructor and the student is necessary in traditional courses, but it appears to be critical in online courses.
- The assignments given to students should demonstrate higher order thinking skills and should reflect real-world experiences.
The competencies mentioned by Smith (2005) appear in some of the advantages and disadvantages found by students in this survey. Although this is a very small representative sample, the participants expressed some important advantages and disadvantages of online instruction and support the need for different pedagogy in distance learning.
Further investigation into the pedagogy of online instruction is needed to examine the advantages and disadvantages on online instruction. Are all faculty and all students suited for online instruction? Probably not. However, online instruction appears to be the future trend in higher education.
Email: Sue E. Hoppe
Palloff, R.M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Phipps, R., & Merisotis, J. (2000, April). Quality on the line: Benchmarks for success in internet-based distance education. Washington, DC: The Institute for Higher Education Policy, Retrieved July 7, 2005.
Smith, Theodore C. (2005). Fifty-one competencies for online instruction. Journal of Educators Online, Vol. 2(2).
Weigel, V. (2000). E-learning and the tradeoff between richness and reach in higher education. Change 33(5), 10-15.
White, K. (2000). “Face to face in the online classroom: Keeping it interpersonal and
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