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Notes from the other side
kudos and complaints from my first e-learning experience

By Anonymous / June 2008

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Editor's note: I met Anonymous at a lunch—no cloak-and-dagger stuff here. He told me about his experiences as an online student and agreed to tell his story again in the article below. Because he is pursuing a position with the online faculty of the school at which he earned his master's degree, he asked to remain anonymous.

Two years ago I sat back and enjoyed a soft, cool breeze on a warm spring day and asked myself the question that started it all: "Well, why not get a master's then?"

This question took me on a quest to obtain a post-graduate degree, and ultimately to my first experience with online learning. As the father of three small children, I balanced work, childcare, and personal life responsibilities with a growing realization that a post-graduate degree would be a worthy addition to my knowledge and resume. Of course, the continuous balancing act of these responsibilities leaves little time for commuting—cue the appeal of online learning.

Initially I made a list of bricks-and-mortar schools in my area I'd like to attend. I was no more than 30 miles away from any of them, but the time spent commuting in the busy Boston area meant that I would be seeing much less of my family. Online learning never really occurred to me as a viable alternative until I saw that some of my short-listed schools offered classes online. This seemed an exciting solution to my time constraints and commuting woes.

The next question was key—are online degrees valued or held in high regard? The ugly truth be told, there is a stigma associated with educational qualifications earned by any non-traditional means. And this stigma can be difficult to avoid. If you've lived and worked in Boston for the last 10 years—yet obtained your degree in the last year from the University of Ulaan Baatar, Outer Mongolia—aspersions may be easily cast. Fortunately, I came to a happy compromise: I found a local school that had relatively good academic standing but is not widely known as an online learning school, yet offered the post graduate degree course I wanted entirely online. Further, I could physically go to the school to take my exams. This assuaged my fears regarding time and commuting, and gave me hope that my post-graduate degree would not radiate the words "online learning"—at least not too obviously.

After completing the application and providing an essay about why I wanted to obtain the particular qualification at the school, I was accepted. I must admit, I felt pretty good ("Hey, someone wants me! They really want me!). I was ready to begin my online academic adventure.


My experiences with online learning hardly matched my preconceptions about it. No, I didn't expect holographic 3-D images or flashing lights. But based on my online experiences, I anticipated Web conferencing, video feeds of lectures, interactive models, dynamic diagrams, and maybe even the wizened wise face of an eccentric professor speaking with a clipped foreign accent staring sternly out from my flat-screen monitor.

But it was clear from the beginning that the school had contracted out a third-party solutions provider for the Web interface. The interface itself was nice—similar in some ways to a Microsoft Outlook interface—and I found it straightforward and intuitive to use. After navigating through various pages about academic standards and conduct (more on that later) my first realization hit me—lectures were presented in a static non-video format much like a book of lecture notes with the occasional glossy photo thrown in. Any kind of dynamic or interactive features would be very few and far between. At first glance, I was disappointed. But then I remembered that I could actually "take" the class lecture at any time during the week I wished. I was not tied to any rigid weekly timetable—so long as I completed the required reading and passed the weekly tests, my time management was my own.

Not immediately obvious was the fact that the online learning environment embraces—in that strange and virtual way of the Web—active participation by students, who are responsible for discovering and learning more about a subject and communicating in writing. Another important asset was the weekly message boards; they provided relative anonymity and a familiar setting for interaction. The message boards in which I participated bloomed with almost every student's opinion or experience. And because these interactions occurred mostly in written form, I often found that communication was clearer between myself and the professor/assistants, who all seemed to agree on this.


At the end of almost every class there was a timed final exam. In my opinion, this is where online learning becomes somewhat open to criticism. Unless I sought out an official contracted testing center with its independent third-party oversight or went to the school to take the exam, I was responsible for finding a proctor (librarian, police officer, member of the clergy, etc.) to oversee my exam efforts. On a couple of occasions I arranged my own exam proctor—a work colleague who had previously been a professor. The opportunities for cheating were obvious: Students must take final exams on a Web-connected computer, and the temptation to Google for help is always there. I consider myself honorable and most certainly never cheated, but I wondered if some availed themselves of this opportunity.

Some experiences made me question the integrity of the online school I'd signed up for. I was positively shocked at how many content, test, and exam errors plagued almost all the classes I took. I don't expect 100 percent perfection, but the sheer quantity of issues was not acceptable. Some professors seemed content with presenting sub-par content. Basic proofreading of text clearly had not been done. But after talking with others who have recently attended various online and traditional schools, I suspect that this problem is fairly widespread and not necessarily the sole domain of online learning.

Also, I experienced an interesting problem midway through my online career—plagiarism. Another student copied entire paragraphs from my posts (which contributed to the overall grade) and others', and pasted them into her own posts. This happened many times. I don't normally like to make waves, so I sent a personal email to the student suggesting that she made a mistake (obviously she hadn't!) and stating that from that point on, she should credit me accordingly or cease copying parts of my posts. All the students in the class had been asked to sign anti-plagiarism pledges.

A week passed by, and she started copying parts of my posts again. I then resolved to inform the professor, sending off a comparison between my time-stamped posts and those of the plagiarizing student. The email I received back from the professor really shocked me. It was brief, to the point, and for me, unforgettable: "What do you want me to do about this?" Well, I thought, how about applying the accepted standards and ramifications for this public act? And why should the onus be shifted to me in deciding how these standards are applied? To say I was surprised and disappointed would be an understatement. The student did stay in the online class and completed it.

Despite these negative experiences, I now consider online learning to be "different" from the traditional classroom variety, but equal in its potential nonetheless. It offers advantages that on-location learning cannot, and vice versa. Online learning is especially well-suited to students who are self-motivated but face the constraints of time and distance, as well as to those who tend to avoid in-class participation but are made more comfortable by the relative anonymity of email and posts.

However, from my experience I believe the online learning industry has four major problems it must address:

  • the stigma associated with online learning, in terms of both real education quality and suspicion about "diploma mills"
  • the potential for students to cheat
  • stricter adherence to high academic standards
  • suitable investment in interactive technologies—text and a few diagrams will not do

Would I take another online class? Yes and no. Overall, I did enjoy my online learning experience and the benefits it has afforded me, but I did not appreciate what I perceived to as a lack of academic due diligence. Much depends on which institution is chosen and which degree sought, and on how one believes that degree will be perceived in the marketplace. As the cynic I know I am, I now believe I should have thought, "Hey, someone wants my money! They really want my money!" when I was first accepted to that online program. And that's something that has to change.


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