Cereal in the Classroom: The Joys of Being a Virtual Student


Adrienne Helgerman is senior manager of marketing operations at Digene Corp. in Gaithersburg, Maryland--a developer and manufacturer of genetic tests that screen, monitor, and diagnose human diseases. She is currently undertaking an MBA in marketing management that is taught entirely online through the University of Maryland, University College. Helgerman relates her experiences as a student forging ahead in the world of distance education. ...

The sun is barely up and I am already at the computer working on the assignment due in 17 hours. Textbooks on one side of the desk and cereal on the other, I log onto the classroom site to check for recent messages and last minute tips for completing the project. It was precisely because of this type of flexibility that I was drawn to the online classroom. Online education provides an element of control that enables me to decide when I will attend class. It allows me to achieve some balance in my life between work, school, and family. Life outside of school is hectic enough without worrying about commuting to campus, finding a parking spot, and wondering whether you will be back home in time to eat and digest dinner before going to bed. Now I can log in from anywhere at anytime and follow my own schedule. From the comfort of my home or office I can register for class, pay tuition, order books, download articles from the library, and participate in discussions.

The syllabus and supplemental notes are posted at the beginning of the semester, enabling me to work ahead to accommodate my schedule. The lectures are primarily text-based and the extent of graphics and links depends on the professor's preferences. I have never met any of my online professors but I have had the opportunity to meet a few local classmates. Each week the professor posts a lecture and my virtual classmates and I engage in conversation about the topic du jour and how it relates to real-world experiences at work. For the most part, the online format provides a degree of anonymity, and so classmates are more forthcoming about their experiences than they would be in a live setting.

Students are also more concise online. I can remember sitting in standard classrooms for close to 3 hours waiting for the session to be over. Just when I thought the professor was about finished, someone would remember that they had not participated in the discussions that evening. They would interject some inane comments with minimal relevance in an effort to secure their participation grade. You could feel the disgust ripple through the class as the session dragged on past the 3-hour-and-15-minute mark. This particular type of student can also be found in the distance learning format--I have had at least one of them in each of my online classes. In the online setting, however, you can determine who these people are within the first couple of sessions and ignore their mundane participatory comments. This frees up your time considerably to revisit the important elements of the class.

Content can sometimes be lost in handwritten class notes, but when you are online you can reread notes and lectures as often as you wish. This setting affords the convenience of focused repetition that you cannot get in a live classroom. Audio transmissions can also subsidize the written word. New initiatives are attempting to bring some of the benefits of the traditional classroom to the online forum. Students can send and receive audio messages amongst themselves and the faculty through their computers. Although I have only been a recipient of audio messages, I have found that vocal feedback takes the edge off the isolation you can sometimes experience online.

I hesitate to describe the format through rose-colored glasses, because it does have its drawbacks. Online classes take considerably more effort and dedication. Students must be disciplined and highly motivated to succeed in this format. The total class experience is reflective of the efforts expended by all of its participants. This is especially true when working on group projects, which are an integral part of each course in my program. Each person has a different commitment level and it can be difficult to coordinate team assignments online. I have taken four classes online and have only had one positive group experience. It is much more difficult to garner cooperation from people you cannot track down. It can be frustrating to play e-mail tag and wait for information when all you want is a quick response so you can move on to something else.

Many communication problems also occur in online studies, as there are no face-to-face interactions which traditionally convey more impact in the physical classroom. Due to lack of emotion, inflection, and body language, online learning can make certain concepts or ideas difficult to understand. Although the university is very specific about hardware and software requirements, communication problems can still occur because of technical difficulties such as file incompatibility, downed servers, incompatible user systems, and technologically illiterate students and faculty. In one class I had to send in the same assignment five times because my professor could not open my file. This was particularly frustrating because I could open the attachment with no problems from my e-mail outbox. I chalked that one up to receiver error.

Feedback and spontaneity between the professor and students, and between the students themselves, may be decreased because of delayed, one-way messaging. In addition, spin-off side e-mail conversations between students and faculty can cause those not included to miss important bits of information. If the exchange involves a team member or a friend you made in a previous class, you may be privy to the information but there are no guarantees. However, if the professor receives several inquiries on the same topic, the information will usually be shared with the entire class.

Assignments and grading policies vary with each professor. Students are expected to participate in conference activities each week to discuss current readings and assignments. This ensures that students keep pace with the class and do not fall behind. Most courses have a weekly individual assignment and several group projects throughout the term. A large final project is normally due at the end of the semester and carries anywhere from 25% to 40% of your total grade. All assignment grades are posted in the individual user's portfolio that can only be accessed by the faculty and that student. Most times the grade is posted as a numerical value with no other feedback. Rather than provide individual feedback, some professors provide general comments on the assignments to the overall class. In other situations, the professor might post an exceptionally good submission, with the student's permission, so the class can benefit from that student's good work. However, for the most part individual feedback is lacking.

Frustration can also occur because of the time commitment involved in the online format. One of the problems associated with not having a set schedule is that I must check the class site several times a day while waiting for an assignment or a grade to be posted. You sometimes feel as if you are always in class, but that is the price you pay for this level of flexibility. Regardless of flexibility, the online format still requires students to meet time-sensitive deadlines and submit assignments in a timely fashion.

Despite these drawbacks, I will always choose the online format over the traditional. Where else can you participate in class while still in your pajamas, discussing international business theory while eating Cheerios?