The Benefits and Challenges of Online Learning

Expert Q&A

The Benefits and Challenges of Online Learning

June 18, 2020

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The spread of the coronavirus has forced colleges and universities to turn to emergency remote learning, but teaching online isn't new to everyone — many instructors were already conducting online classes well before the global health crisis.

In addition to being able to speak to the strengths and challenges of online education, these instructors can help students leverage their online learning experience to land better jobs and find professional success in their chosen fields.

For this article, we interviewed Marcus Ellis, an online data science instructor, to gain insight into the process of online learning, including its greatest strengths, what students can expect in an online course, and the value of forming relationships.

Interview With an Online Professor

Marcus Ellis

Marcus is an experienced leader who has taught for more than a dozen major and small universities teaching and developing courses in the data science, business analytics, and finance space. Marcus completed his doctor of business administration with a concentration in financial econometrics at Sacred Heart University and also holds a master's in predictive analytics from Northwestern University, a master of finance from Boston University, and a bachelor's degree from High Point University. Marcus served on the Data Science and Business Analytics Advisory Board for Merrimack College, and is a member of the r4 Leadership Council.

What do you believe are the greatest advantages to online learning?

I think there are two big things. One is the flexibility of the schedule. With that comes a certain level of discipline because you have to decide when you're going to watch the lecture, when you're going to log on and read the content, and when you're going to do what's outlined in the syllabus. If you miss something, you can easily go back and rewatch recorded lectures.

“[O]nline learning opens up a much broader network, allowing you to meet people from all walks of life.”

Everything is packaged for you in an online program. It's just a matter of being disciplined about when you're going to go in, pull out the material, and figure out how you're going to apply that to whatever the assignment is.

The other piece is that online learning opens up a much broader network, allowing you to meet people from all walks of life. While it's not uncommon to find students from all over the country, you might have students in the military who are stationed in the Middle East or Africa. Or you might discover students from China or India are in your program whom you otherwise probably wouldn't have had exposure to.

Have you experienced any challenges with teaching online courses?

I think the biggest challenge is helping students understand that they have to focus on scheduling and stay on top of their work since they're not being forced to go to a classroom with an assignment; rather, it's just a date that's been posted.

Especially for students who are just starting out online, they might think, "Well, that due date's not until some point in the future." But ultimately it's up to you to know when to start working on the assignment and to make sure you have enough time to finish it.

For students who are new to online classes, it's all about coming up with a schedule, spending time with the portal and syllabus, and looking at your own personal calendar.

Whether you've got a job, a family, or an upcoming concert or vacation, you need to figure out when you're going to dedicate time to your schoolwork. Once a student has done this for two or three online courses, that's when I typically see them start to hit a groove.

Do you feel you've been able to form personal relationships with your online students?

Absolutely. I still get emails from students who either want help with a project they're doing for work or want a recommendation for a job or grad school. I personally know — having sat in their seat myself — how important it is to be able to get in touch with your instructor, particularly for homework.

“If you hit a roadblock and can’t move forward until you get a question answered, contact your professor.”

If you hit a roadblock and can't move forward until you get a question answered, contact your professor. I give students my cell phone number and tell them to text me or shoot me a screenshot if they're stuck on something.

I also encourage students to keep my contact information. Just because the class is over doesn't mean we can't stay in touch. I get questions from previous students all the time asking a variety of things. It's gratifying and nice to see what they're up to once they're done with the class or program.

Are your online students mostly working professionals and career switchers, or are they more traditional students?

I rarely see traditional students. Most, if not all, of my students are working professionals. They have jobs and are looking for new skill sets to add to their current role, or they're looking to transition into something else.

A lot of companies have found themselves behind the curve when it comes to competing on analytics, so they're in a bit of a stretch to find people qualified to do data modeling, data wrangling, data visualization — all the skills taught in a data science curriculum.

Rather than building from the outside, many companies are trying to find people internally who may possess some of those skill sets.

A woman seated at a desk at home wearing headphones gesticulates with her hands as she holds a video call on her laptop computer.

How successful have your students been? Are they generally able to leverage their online education?

Most of the students who stay in touch with me have landed a job that they originally had in mind, whether it's at the same company or somewhere else. I haven't heard from any student that taking online data science classes wasn't worth the time or investment.

When I hear from the students who stay in touch with me, they usually say that these classes really helped them get a new job or a promotion they wanted. There's lots of great feedback from students who put the time in to earn their degree. They can either transition to a completely new career or stay within their current function and simply move up the ladder.

Do you feel students hold any misconceptions about online classes?

Most students are a little freaked out at first when they log on to their school's learning management system, whether it's Canvas, Blackboard, or 2U. Unlike walking into a classroom and waiting each week to find out what's expected of you, everything is right there in an online class.

For example, an eight-week course means you'll have eight different folders to click on. There's so much information that it can feel overwhelming. For that reason, students tend to panic a bit.

“All in all, it just takes some coaching. I have to remind students that we'll get through this together …”

I've had students email me saying they didn't understand what they were getting themselves into. This often happens if they've started looking at some of the quantitative and math formulas we'll be covering in the course.

All in all, it just takes some coaching. I have to remind students that we'll get through this together and that I'll be teaching at a pace at which they'll be able to absorb everything. They can also rely on their classmates for support.

But then there's the other end of the spectrum. Some people think that because the course is online and self-paced, it's not a huge deal — they'll just get to it when they get to it. Even if I give extensions, though, I can't allow students to turn in anything once final grades have been submitted.

It's pretty easy to fall behind in an online class, but thankfully I don't see this happen too often.

Do you have any tips on how to succeed in an online course, particularly for students who have never taken one before?

First, research before you choose an online program to enroll in. Most prospective students will already have a job title in mind. For example, maybe you want to be a senior software engineer, an HR rep, a nurse, or an accountant.

Rather than just researching the program and school, however, you should spend time looking at what the requirements are for your ideal job. This way you can ensure that it aligns with the school you're considering.

“[B]e specific about what job you’re seeking and try to align it with the school.”

For those wanting a data science job, some companies prefer candidates who know certain programming languages, such as Sass or Python. But not all data science programs specifically teach those languages. If you strictly want to be Sass-certified, you'd need to find a school that focuses on Sass.

In short, be specific about what job you're seeking and try to align it with the school.

In terms of finding success as an online student, here's what to do: As soon as the course opens up, print the syllabus, make sure you have the required book(s), and start exploring the learning management system by clicking folders and reading up on the curriculum.

Remember that you'll need to come up with your own schedule and be intentional about carving out time for school. Let your family and friends know what you're doing. There might be a plan or activity coming up that you're no longer able to make. Stay committed and remind yourself of your goals.

What advice would you give instructors who are new to teaching online?

Definitely find another faculty member you can reach out to — somebody who can field all of your questions. There will be technology that's new to you, whether it's BlueJeans, Zoom, or some other program you have to use for your online lectures. If something can go wrong, it will, so be sure you know how to use that technology.

“By building trust, your students will realize that they can come to you with any questions they have …”

Additionally, check that you understand the syllabus, the outline, and the expectations of the class. Make sure the due dates make sense, too.

Finally, be proactive about building relationships with your students. They could be new to the program, or this could be their last class. You won't know what their previous experiences are, so try to form personal relationships with them.

By building trust, your students will realize that they can come to you with any questions they have, rather than sitting back and floundering should they start to get lost.

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