Distance education: worth your troubles?

Online education is a balancing act of cost and student experience

Image courtesy of PhysioGuru

By: Anindita Gupta 

When I think about online courses, my mind goes into a little bit of a panic:  racing heart, breathlessness, a sense of terror. . . I think back to my terrible experience with the Earth Science course that had lectures that lasted an eternity, and exams and assignments that were more demanding than those of my three other courses combined.

The one semester where I had an online course was one of my worst semesters so far; therefore, I am a little negatively biased towards online courses. But does everyone that takes an online course feel the same way? I decided to do some digging and find out how online and distance education courses work here at SFU, and elsewhere.

At SFU, the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) handles the admissions and administration of online courses. After contacting CODE’s director, Brian Naicker, I found out that they actually act as a middleman between the faculties that wish to provide certain courses online and the students who take those classes. CODE is a base budget-funded operation, which means that they get a regular budget from the university to operate like any other department. Departments bring to the table courses they want to offer online, and CODE takes care of bringing them to students, modifying courses based on changing curriculums, and modifying classes in response to student complaints.  

An online course is just like a regular course, says Naicker, where “there is a maximum enrolment and tutor markers are assigned for grading and support.” In terms of exams, they are either held in classes at SFU, where they are invigilated by staff, or at selected locations off-campus, monitored by proctors. CODE also works closely with the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) to accommodate all students equally.

Based on all of this, the CODE staff seems to be helpful in every way. However, what do the students think of these courses that are said to be “more convenient?” I reached out to students from SFU and elsewhere with a survey, and had them share with me their experiences with online and distance education courses.

The first few responses that I received were from closer to home, and a majority of the respondents, unfortunately, did not like their online course experience here at SFU. The SFU courses which respondents talked about included (but weren’t limited to) PSYC 241, CRIM 301, and ENGL 207, and the students were not very enthusiastic about taking an online course again after their experiences. Students reported that they felt overburdened and as if they hadn’t learned anything. They disliked working online for so long, and being unable to get personalized feedback from their instructors, communicate with instructors directly, or discuss course materials, problems, and assignments with their peers.

One recurring reason behind anyone taking SFU courses online seemed to be that the courses were degree requirements, and doing them online was the only feasible way to take them. If left to choose, 45.5% of students would not take an online course in the future, and 18.2% of respondents would only take them if they had no choice.

One student, however, had a different and a better experience, for a change. Working toward a publishing minor, her experience with an online course was exceptionally good, wherein she was acquainted with helpful tools that made learning easier. So, if any one of you are out there looking to do a helpful online course, PUB 372 may be one of your options!

Non-SFU students had other, more positive opinions. In fact, a large chunk of them were so happy with their experiences that they would not mind doing their school’s online courses again. Though they were forced to take these required courses because no alternative was offered, they said these courses were easier than in-person lectures and courses. One of the most satisfied respondents was in fact a working executive who pursued his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree through an online course offered at Warwick University in London, while living in Kenya! Through him, I also found out how easy it is becoming for anybody sitting in any part of the world to choose online courses through online databases.

One such database is Courseroot, developed by Dutch student Valentijn van den Hout. I reached out to him over email, and he explained to me that Courseroot is very new in the field of helping prospective online students find the best suitable courses for their needs. Courseroot currently runs on commissions, but the database is trying to become self-sufficient. They hope to begin offering their own courses, rather than simply linking up students to other websites where their online education journey can begin.

Now, between the two of us, van den Hout is the expert of the field, and according to his time in the venture, some of the advantages to online education he identifies are the ones that both SFU and non-SFU students also recognized: choosing what you want to study (when your options are wide and plentiful enough), working at your own pace, and paying lowered prices. Van den Hout notes that when students choose what to study, “the motivation will, therefore, be so much greater because it is something [they] really want to learn.” At SFU, though, tuition for online courses is the same price as regular classes.

In van den Hout’s experience, he has found that online courses are starting to attract the same credibility regular courses have — in other words, that having an online degree, like an online MBA from an esteemed institution, is starting to be seen as equally valuable as a degree one may get by attending in-class courses. Van den Hout also noted that online and distance education courses are a bigger hit amongst graduate students who are looking for more niche courses to increase their knowledge, and amongst working professionals who don’t have the time and schedule to attend regular classes or night courses at colleges and universities. Additionally, many students living in countries that do not have good reputation for higher studies are thankful for online courses and universities that offer a variety of them.

So, are distance education and online courses worth your troubles? Unfortunately, not at SFU, according to most of the students to whom I reached out, but they seem to be popular through other universities and platforms. And if CODE and Courseroot can teach us anything, it’s that a successful education is tailored to what kind of student you are. So keep an open mind and give them a try.