Proponents of online courses say they are a way for universities to save money while providing students with more options to reach their educational goals. But as they grow in popularity, some question if the quality of online courses is lacking.
Just 19 percent of professors feel online courses can match up to traditional classes, according to a 2016 Inside Higher Ed survey.
Professors who have taught online classes are four times more likely to agree that online courses are equal supplements for in-person courses, the study shows. But of professors with no online class experience, 61 percent believe virtual classes can’t compete with in-person courses.
Professors are more skeptical when asked about their own courses: 78 percent of professors with no online class experience responded that online classes can’t compare with their own in-person lectures.
University of Maryland economics professor Robert Schwab falls somewhere in the middle.
“I’d be the last one to dismiss them altogether, but they’re far from a perfect substitute,” he said.
Schwab said an online classes’ effectiveness depends on the material. Some courses work well online and others don’t.
“I teach a class on game theory and I’m constantly doing problems on the board,” Schwab said. “I can sense when people are understanding, and when I’ve lost them and need to go back.”
Schwab also sees the positives in online courses. Schwab’s ECON200: Principles of Microeconomics class is blended, meaning online activities supplement in-class lectures.
“They’ve given us the opportunity to choose how we want to structure our teaching,” he said.
Professor Robert Pernick has also taught a blended course for graduate students. He said it was “a lot of moving parts; students were accountable because I was parachuting in, and it was fun.”
“It was also efficient transportation-wise,” Pernick said.
But Pernick also found downsides to teaching outside the classroom.
“I find it an ordeal to be constantly looking at a screen,” he said. “I don’t want to be chained to a machine.”
Almost 80 percent of professors who taught an online class responded to the survey saying it helped them improve their skills inside and outside of the classroom. This included learning to “engage students with content” and “make better use of multimedia content.”
And 57 percent of professors reported being more comfortable with project-based learning after teaching an online course.
Sophomore middle school education major Joely Friedman said she enjoys her online course because she is “able to pace myself rather than feeling rushed in class.”
“The online lectures let me pause and take notes, and rewind if necessary, which I can’t do in a 50-minute class with 100 other people in the room,” Friedman said.
Senior civil engineering major Matthew Radack hasn’t taken an online course but said students benefit from in-person instruction.
“It’s important to go to class, ask questions and work with other people in-person,” Radack said.