Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Perks and trade-offs in online learning

It's very strange to think that I will be graduating in August with a degree I earned exclusively by taking classes online. When I talk about the program I'm in, I always have to explain that it's a distance education program, because people still tend to assume that graduate-level programs take place in traditional settings. Their first question is usually, "So how does that work?"

Depending on how interested I think they are, I either just say that all the classes are online, or I start to talk about the different tools professors have used to structure the classes ("Some teachers have recorded lectures, sometimes there are discussion boards or blogs, sometimes they just post assigned readings and you do them on your own time..."). After listening for a while, they usually give me one of three reactions:
  1. You must be very disciplined.
  2. It must be nice to set your own schedule.
  3. It must be weird and kind of hard not to ever meet anyone.
I would laugh #1 off, except that I think I actually have gotten more disciplined (go figure). #2 is a mixed bag--yes, it is nice to have the flexibility, but it also means (for the most part) that there's no set schedule telling me when to be in class and when learning is "supposed" to occur. If I want a structure like that, I have to create it. Mostly, though, I've just let my education casually entwine itself in my life. Yes, it can be difficult sometimes to not have a clear differentiation between my school life and my personal life, but it just means I've needed to learn to set my own limits. (Maybe that's where the discipline came in. Sneaky!) I have had to learn to navigate different class setups and schedules and decide when I was going to work on assignments for each class, given a set of due dates. It helped me understand how I work like no other experience has.

So far, so good. Point three is the kicker, though. It is difficult not to meet anyone. It's hard to get to know people in an online environment, even though I am comparatively tech-savvy and have a lot of experience with online communication. I still have to go out of my way to meet other people in any kind of social setting, much less a physical one. I keep in touch with some classmates over Google chat. I go to conferences. Even so, many of the people I meet are not nearby. I envy my roommate (also currently in grad school) who brings her friends from school over to the house. She confided in me that she had considered the SLIS program here, but had decided not to enroll because she needed the structure and social environment of a traditional classroom.

I am very happy with the academic aspect of my education. I just wish I had gotten to know a greater number of people as more than words on a page.


  1. When I first started at SLIS, I wasn't really concerned about not meeting people--I'm not the most social person. Now that I'm looking at graduating in December, I'm really interested to try to meet some of my teachers, people I'm working with on the Student Research Journal, and my classmates, particularly those I've worked with in a team and know a little better. It's not the same as getting together face-to-face, but I have gone back through some of my old teams and tried to find the people I knew best online and connect with them via LinkedIn. It isn't much, but I feel like its something. While reading your post, I was considering how the whole social/networking aspect really didn't bother me until only recently. And even then, though I want to meet people, it's still really hard to find the time to do so.

  2. @Kathleen and Kimberly,
    I could not agree more! I wish I had been able to get to know my other classmates along the way. This is one of the few classes where I actually can differentiate between people and remember their opinions (mostly because of this blogging group)! I know much of it is my own fault. Since I'm so busy, I often just have to "get it done!" and move on. But a traditional classroom gives you more opportunities to interact, even if it's just during the classes.

    This is tangential, but I am a huge fan of a podcast from NPR called Pop Culture Happy Hour. They were commenting a few weeks ago about their Facebook friends, and how hundreds of them are either librarians or in library school. I had this moment of utter relief as I realized, "Wow, I am in the right program! These people are just like me!" I probably would have figured that out a while ago if we could hang out in person!

  3. Awesome Casandria! I haven't heard of that NPR podcast, but, I'll have to check it out. Personally, I love the NPR Planet Money podcast. :)

  4. Oops! Sorry Kathleen, I got confused! This isn't your blog...

    Kimberly, me too! They explain things really well.

  5. Hi there,

    Yes, I can relate to the comparison that you make with your roommate. My partner is a doctoral student, and there are times that I envy the seminars, the bumping into classmates and professors on campus, the close friendships that she's formed. But this is a different path, and it has helped me get to know myself in ways that I might not have otherwise. I now know that, much as I am happy to curl up with a book for hours and turn inward, I am fundamentally a person who enjoys and needs companionship. I'll have to make sure sure that I maintain the right balance of both as I move forward.

  6. It's encouraging to hear that you're graduating in August-congratulations!I admit that no face to face contact is odd, but I specifically sought this route because of family obligations.It's a trade off and so far I think it's the right decision for me, but I'm very conscious of the communication barriers one confronts in this virtual environment.

  7. @Kimberly: LinkedIn is nice, although I'll have to start actually taking advantage of its features.

    @Casandria: This is definitely a good way to get to know your classmates better, even if their names are confusing because they all start with K. ;) I may have to check out the podcast you mentioned--it sounds like fun!

    @Queen Ida: This program has definitely helped me learn more about myself than I think I would have in another setting.

    @evole: Thanks for the good wishes! I hope you have a good career as well. I didn't realize you were just starting out. Feel free to hit me up for advice from time to time. You definitely find ways of communicating with people, and there are more tools out there for doing so than there were even a few years ago.