Online May Not Be Such a Lonely Place

Almost twenty five years after receiving my first Master’s degree and teaching English courses at the college level, I moved to the United States and joined two community colleges as an English Department part time faculty. Immediately, I started to weigh my options for pursuing another Master’s degree that would keep me current in the pedagogical field and support my work in the new environment. I thought I would be going to a university and meeting new people. I needed to know new people as I had been in the country only a short period, and I very much looked forward to that experience. But the only program that met my interest was an online one. I was nervous about the probability of this lonely experience. I was worried about connecting to my instructors and to my classmates. I was anxious about how I would be received without my smile and without eye-to-eye contact, which establishes impression and rapport.

But soon my nervousness turned to relief, and it all began with the first online instructor. Her introduction was detailed and trendy. She had an autobiography that brought her to life as a real human being: feminine, dreamy, yet hardworking, smart and ambitious. Then came the classmate introductions. I could not remember ever going to a class where students introduced themselves beyond their names the first day. But in the first week I learned not only the names of all my fellow students, but something about their lives, their achievements, and their aspirations. That was very inspiring. Then there were the responses and the welcoming notes that students wrote to each other. I felt surrounded by real human beings. Soon after the course started, we did some collaborative assignments and I was amazed at the cooperation and support that I received from the members of my group. More and more I felt part of a community as the course progressed and I participated in and responded to discussions, peer reviews, Emails, and more collaborative projects. By the end of the course, almost everybody knew everybody. However, when the time came to write the final paper, I dreaded the experience. I knew I could not perform without my instructor’s help. Had she had an office, I would have taken my paper to her for some guidelines and recommendations. I submitted my paper anyway, and awaited the results nervously. Soon my instructor sent my draft back with detailed suggestions and instructions for improvement. I wrote it again and again, until she was satisfied with the quality of my work. She answered my questions within forty eight hours. She was friendly, supportive, communicative, yet, “sticking to her arms,†insisting on high expectations. In addition, my communication with the instructor and classmates was not only through course material. The Cyber Café, or Free Discussion Area, allowed for more personal interaction among members of a class. We shared personal news and views. When the course came to an end, I looked forward to the beginning of the following one to reunite with my friends. Subsequent courses brought more interaction and ways of building communities as we were introduced to moos, chats, videoconferencing, wikis, blogs, etc. More and more, I felt the benefits of creating a learning community where students pose questions, think of answers, raise issues, contemplate possibilities, and dream about new inventions and potentials. Isn’t this the ultimate goal of education: to enrich the human experience through an interaction of minds and experiences? Unlike a local educational institution, an online one brings together people from a mixture of geographical locations, hence from a diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and quite often, values. Thus the outcomes can be more significant. In my face-to-face classes, I always asked my students this question, “What could college do for you?†Invariably, their answers included socialization. This does not worry me anymore. Now I know to what extent online courses can provide opportunities to realize this wish as students connect with each other, with the teacher, and with a larger community in the virtual environment. Online is certainly not lonely.

Email:Noha Kabaji