The sun is just going down as she quickly walks to her car, lugging books under her arm. She remembers she still has to figure out what to do for dinner, as she had been stuck at work much later than planned. But this was not uncommon for Kathy. Her position demanded ongoing attention and her boss the same. On her way to the campus, she stops at a fast food place, but ends up literally ‘eating-on-the-run’ as she rushes to class. And as she scurries along she wonders what her family is doing for dinner. Kathy makes it to class right on time. The hustle and bustle from inside can be heard clearly through the door. She takes a deep breath and steps inside.
The classroom is dynamic! People are walking around talking about school and their personal lives. Kathy quietly slips into the back row and grabs a seat. On either side of her are several other people, sitting quietly. The instructor begins with a lecture and asks some questions. Confident students answer and others ask additional questions. Kathy, and the other “back row” group sit quietly, taking notes, and listening to side conversations taking place in the room. Kathy has great thoughts, but she simply nods her head in agreement and avoids discussion. Things are moving quickly, sometimes too quickly. Although there is little written text to support the topics, Kathy manages to gain some insights. However, she is not a part of the vibrant community of the class. At the end of the evening, Kathy gathers her things and slips out of class as quietly as she came. She is anxious to get home and see her family. Each day of the course goes about the same.
Because of work obligations, Kathy is forced to stop taking night classes. She is disappointed because she needs to finish her education to attain her dreams. Not long after dropping out of school, she discovers online learning. After doing research, she somewhat reluctantly joins an online university. She is nervous the first day of class, but no more nervous than in a physical class. In fact, she decides she likes the feeling of being in a familiar environment as she starts this new journey. She has many questions and all of a sudden realizes that she can not just sit back and listen to a lecture and other student questions to gain information. She cannot hear what they are discussing on the side, and only knows what others choose to discuss in the room. She has no idea what will come next. A hard realization hits that if she is going to succeed at this, she needs to take an active role in her learning! After all, she knows that part of the course requirement is that she gets involved in discussions. In a fearful manner, she writes that dreaded question to the classroom and clicks send.
Later that evening, after she spends time with her kids, has a cup of tea, and reads an article on that night’s topics, Kathy returns to her online classroom. She is amazed to see that a few people have responded to her question. As she opens the responses, she sees that other students have had the same question. People are also commenting on the forward thinking her question shows, her faculty member even thanks her for introducing the topic and answers the question. Kathy feels a surge of pride and she feels good. Kathy’s days continue like this for a few weeks, but by the time she reaches week four, she realizes she has moved to a new level. She is now responding to other student’s questions and is actively involved in the discussions. She is also working in a team of three and has struck up communications outside of the classroom with a woman named Jane. Kathy and Jane have a lot in common even though Jane lives on the other side of the U.S. Kathy feels a sense of support and friendship-community.
Kathy has even ventured into a debate of sorts about a controversial course topic, and the faculty member encourages her to go on. Kathy is glad she has time to gather her thoughts each time she leaves the room because she has never been a quick thinker. Kathy’s self-esteem soars, and so does her learning, as she finds she is commenting on several things each day. She feels good that she is adding value to the class and is playing an active role in what she and her peers are learning. Kathy has crossed over the imaginary line and is now a vital part of the classroom community. On top of all this, Kathy is able to be there for her family, is completing her education on her time, and is bringing things back to her workplace to progress in her career. In fact, Kathy’s online experience is building her workplace self esteem too. Kathy has become a strong community member of her online class and has a strong voice!
Physical classrooms offer an abundance of opportunity for face-to-face communication and student interaction. Students and faculty can have dynamic discussions, which feed the energy in the room. People watch each other, react, and listen to the side conversations that sometimes redirect the class. Physical classrooms can be exciting, fast paced, friendly, and places to find reassurance and support. However, physical classrooms often demand an outgoing personality and a person with high confidence in groups. While some students thrive in this environment, many students, such as Kathy, meld into the back of the room and become silent observers.
In a traditional physical class, which meets for one or two four-hour meetings per week, students may be unable to fully explore the wealth of topics offered because of the amount of communications taking place in a short time frame. In addition, the traditional passive educational process of lecture followed by question and answer does not serve to capitalize on the knowledge of the adult learner, nor does it offer other elements adults prefer. When students are limited to the information that the instructor provides in traditional classes, it reduces the course’s breadth and scope (Ko & Rossen, 2001, p. 105). In addition, passive students may simply select to refrain from involvement. It is easy for a passive person to get by with saying very little in a physical classroom because they’ve ‘met’ their responsibilities by being present. It is equally easy for them to feel alienated from the classroom community. Sometimes, this alienation comes from the individual’s own desire to refrain from discussions and sometimes it comes because they do not fit with the other students in the class.
The Online Classroom
Online education, although dismissed by some, is not only an appropriate method of education for today, but also a method preferred by many types of students, especially the adult learner and the passive communicator. The desire for online learning often stems from the sense of control the student gains. As offered by Rudestam & Schoenholtz-Read (2002) the student in an online world is a free agent able to make choices and direct his/her learning in order to gain the most possible. Of course, students in physical classes are also free agents, in a sense. But in the online classroom, the passive, silent student is really not even present until they speak up and take action. Here, the old adage “out of sight-out of mind” is applied.
Because the online learner must be involved to be present in the class, they are more inclined to become involved in discussions. The online environment also offers learners the ability to work as collaborative partners in the learning process due to the nature of the online discussions and the sense of equality that occurs with the void of visual and verbal cues (Rudestam & Schoenholtz-Read, 2002).
Furthermore, adults looking for additional education tend to be busy individuals with careers, families, and volunteer activities (Rudestam & Schoenholtz-Read, 2002; White & Weight, 2000). The asynchronous delivery of online courses presents a myriad of advantages in that adults go to class any time and from any place as long as they have Internet access. The online classroom also provides for a longer time to explore topics as well as for more in-depth discussions. Therefore, the online mode of education further answers the needs of adult students in that the courses allow adults to continue their lifestyle with only minor adjustments.
Adult Learning in a Social Context
The online learning environment provides an opportunity to gain knowledge within a social context in which adults learn best. This is an important element because adult learners continually look for both information and social interaction when they learn. As White & Weight (2000) offer, adult learners want “practical knowledge and meaningful social interaction” (p. 44). Social interaction does not come easily for everyone in a face-to-face classroom. Ko & Rossen (2001) add that a benefit of online education is that it opens the student to more information from all involved in the class.
The online classroom provides a “medium in which the self is readily constructed in diverse ways and in which students readily form different opinions and interpretations regarding the same reading material and commentaries” (Rudestam & Schoenholtz-Read, 2002, p.16). This is the medium in which Kathy was able to transform herself!
Email:Dr. Penny A. Wilkins
- Ko, S. & Rossen, S. (2001). Teaching online: A practical guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Rudestam, K & Schoenholtz-Read, J. (2002). Handbook of online learning: Innovations in higher education and corporate training . London: Sage Publication.
- White, K. & Weight, B. (2000). The online teaching guide: A handbook for attitudes, strategies, and techniques for the virtual classroom. Boston : Allyn & Bacon