Friday, March 11, 2011

Reflections on an Online Master's Degree - The Stuff That Could Have Been Better

In early February I wrote about the positive aspects of obtaining a master's degree online, and although I feel very accomplished in my studies and I'm very glad that I completed my master's degree, I think it is only fair to also write about the parts of the experience that I wish had been different.

Before I begin, a couple of side notes.

First, I intentionally did not name the university where I obtained my degree in the positive aspects post, nor will I be naming it in this post. My purpose is neither to recommend nor to critique a specific program, but rather to share my own expeirences and perceptions of obtaining a degree online. If you are really curious as to the school where I completed my program, a bit of poking around my blog will reveal it, since I had to complete some assignments as blog posts.

Second, I feel it is fair for me to publicly share "the stuff that could have been better" here because I have also already shared these observations/suggestions in end of course surveys throughout the degree program.

Now, on to my wishes for improvement. They are numbered for convenience but not necessarily in order of importance. Well, except maybe #1...

#1 Wish for Improvement: Professors Who Participate in Conversations About Subject Matter

I believe the program would have been vastly improved if the professors were more actively involved in the learning experiences of students. At minimum professors should participate in the discussion boards so that in addition to learning from their peers students can learn from the instructors' experience and instructors can learn from their students who are out in the field.

With few exceptions, each of our courses required us to complete weekly readings and post reactions to those readings on course discussion boards. We were then required to respond to the posts and ideas of our classmates. I can only remember one or two occasions throughout the eleven regular courses I took when the professor or an instructional associate (IA) posted their own thoughts on the readings or any reactions to the students' thoughts.

A few courses into the degree, the professors began offering live web conferences, and these conference opportunities became more regular as I progressed throughout the degree program. Attendance on the part of students at these conferences was rarely required, and they primarily boiled down to a question and answer session about the assignment or project expectations for the week. Other course subject matter or content was never a topic of conversation.

Having done my undergraduate work at a small university where professors personally taught our classes, I had greater expectations for interaction with my instructors. I wanted to ask them questions about course content, and I wanted them to question and challenge me on my learning. We were, in fact, discouraged from directly contacting professors in most circumstances and instructed to only contact our IAs who acted as go-betweens.

I also feel that interaction on on a deeper level would keep the professors more informed on the real-world job circumstances under which each of us were trying to complete our coursework. Staying in tune with the environments their students are working in can only serve to help the professors keep the content of their classes realistic and relevant to the K-12 world.

In the final course of the degree program, which was the culmination of an internship/capstone experienec, the professor was very involved in the discussion boards. The primary purpose of those boards was answering questions about the internship portfolios we were finalizing as we really didn't cover any new content in this course. Due to the high level of interaction with the professor, I felt like the professor truly cared about what I was doing.

Interaction between students and instructors is a key component of pedagogy and learning.

#2 Wish for Improvement: Authentic Feedback on Assignments

Every assignment we were given, including in some cases discussion board posts, had an assessment rubric attached to it. While most of the time I understood exactly what was required of me on an assignment, I never received any truly helpful feedback beyond a grade and comments like "Thank you for completing Week 3 Assignment" from the IA. Grading stopped with the rubric. I started my degree in June 2009, and I blogged about my frustration with rubric-only assessment at about the midpoint of my degree program. Unfortunately, it never really improved.

Why was I bothered by not receiving more individualized feedback or a few comments? There were several reasons it bothered me. First, I felt like I was just completeing activities on someone's checklist, and they were just being glanced at and checked off. When I put in several hours of work on an assignment, there wasn't any evidence that it had been thoughtfully assessed. Second, I didn't know if my ideas/approaches to completing the assignments were practical/useful/real-world possible in someone else's opinon. It's fine that it met a rubric, but could it translate to a real-world application? Third, no one is perfect. Even if I scored high on an assignment, I needed reasons why someone thought it was good (so I could replicate it in the future) or ways it could be improved or expanded. It did not help that when points were missed, I often had to email the IA for an explanation as to why; this information did not come automatically with the grade.

Again, in my final course, I had an IA who gave specific comments/compliments on different components of my internship requirements. The specificity she provided gave me a sense for the first time that someone on the other end of the "upload" button was really looking at my work.

#3 Wish for Improvement: Professors Should be Familiar With the Courseware/Learning Management System (LMS)

More than once during my classes when we got questions through to the professors via emails facilitated by IAs or web conferences, the professors admitted to not knowing how we (the students) were supposed to upload assignments or where something was located in the courseware. They frequently pointed us back to the IAs or even the technical help contacts for the courseware. Through information shared during the degree program and research I've done since completing the degree, I believe a third-party company was uploading all course content and the professors may not have had direct access to administrative features of the courseware.

Having been through training in the use of an LMS and having had to turn around that training to others, I understand that LMS's can have a steep learning curve. I also believe, however, that to maximize the effectiveness of thier pedagogy, an instructor needs to be familiar with and comfortable in whatever environment they are teaching in, whether it is a physical classroom or an online environment.

Concluding Thoughts

I am very thankful that I had the time, resources, and opportunity to complete my master's degree online. As I stated in my "Good Stuff" blog post:
Overall, I am glad I completed this degree online and I definitely see where I have grown professionally as a result of completing it. My perspectives on education and educational technology have been broadened. My interest in online teaching has also been piqued, and as a result I hope to find ways to facilitate online professional development courses for educators in the near future.
I do wish, however, that I had been able to interact with my professors more and glean more from their perspectives and experience. The interaction with my peers was exteremely beneficial and broadened my perspectives, but the lack of instructor involvement definitely left me with a "missing piece" feeling throughout my degree program.

Because of the way the courses in this program were delivered, I also have an overarching concern. I am concerned that the program is turning out graduates who may be in charge of online or e-learning initiatives in their schools and who may think limited involvement on the part of the instructor is quality practice because of the model they experienced while completing the program.

I believe based on my limited interaction with the professors that they have good intentions, and I realize I was in one of the first cohorts to complete the program. I sincerely hope that the feedback given by myself and other students throughout the program will lead to continuous improvement in the instructional delivery of the courses.

Have you or are you completing a degree online? What are your concerns about the experience (if you have any)? Post comments or blog about them and post a link below. Most importantly, make sure you are sharing your concerns with your professors/school when you are asked to do course evaluations.
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