In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, many schools and their students are switching to the online format. School administrators have recognized online learning as a practical way to responsibly diminish risk while delivering an interactive education to students. What is online learning? How does it differ? Are there advantages? What are the drawbacks? I’d love to share my online learning experience, along with pointers from my classmates.
Our cohort started as the Online Hybrid MBA program at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. The semesters are divided in half, “Mini-mesters” if you will. Our status quo is to gather in a destination city every 6-7 weeks to end current classes and begin new ones. During our ~6 weeks apart, classes consist of asynchronous pre-recorded video lectures by the professor, followed by synchronous live class lectures and discussions.
Participation in a Virtual World
Online classes – done right – can be surprisingly interactive. Students are expected to have watched the pre-recorded lecture videos and read any assigned reading. In this way, professors often use the class sessions as more of a discussion to check comprehension, review completed assignments, and answer any outstanding questions. Depending on the class, we might present group work on video, have a lively discussion, or even have breakout discussions in separate video rooms during class. The professor sees everyone in the class, and students can view the ~8 classmates that spoke most recently. Participating in class is no different than in-person; you simply raise your hand and the professor calls on you. Yes, this means Cold-Calling – the process of a professor calling on students unexpectedly – is still a thing; be ready!
Similarly, exams and quizzes feel all to familiar with my in-person undergrad experience. Professors can opt to video record the session while a student takes an exam, so if any questions arise, both sides can verify the integrity.
First and foremost, online learning opens the doors to students that would not otherwise be able to attend. In our program, nearly 100% of classmates hold full-time managerial- or executive- level positions that we were unwilling to depart in order to attend grad school. We didn’t want to put our careers on hold to obtain an advanced degree. Tepper gave us an MBA program that we can attend while continuing our career and personal growth stories.
Online classes also mean that location and travel are no longer hurdles. Students just “make it work” by attending class in the location that suits them best. Vacationing in Costa Rica this week? No problem, sign in and attend class from the Rain Forest. Had a family trip planned to Hawaii? No need to skip class and miss important lecture content. Did you have a corporate meeting in Singapore that went until 7:29 pm EST? Not an issue, you can be on time for class at 7:30 in Pittsburgh. I’ve even seen classmates attend class from the car – with their significant other driving of course.
Sounds great; but what are the drawbacks? Distractions and technology occasionally create situations where focus becomes elusive. For example, a cat might walk across a student’s keyboard while they are presenting; another student might forget to put their mic on mute and ask their spouse for another slice of pizza; your home internet might disconnect leaving others to think you’ve frozen in place. The occurrence of these technical faux pas certainly improves as students become accustomed to the new learning environment. Discussions with classmates also reveal that Online Learning embodies the saying: “you get out of it, what you put into it.” In a traditional classroom, the professor can more easily read the room and pull along those students that might be getting lost or distracted. Online learning requires students to make a more concerted effort to maintain focus and get the most out of their personal learning experience.
Social Experiences Online
For me, the most surprising aspect of online learning was the social experience. Group work requires that students collaborate via video and concurrent document editing much in the same way that companies must function across offices. Video is key to delivering personable online interactions that build trust and increase collaboration. Our in-person interactions extend to the online world with virtual happy hours to relax, unwind, and debrief with classmates that have grown to be friends. Perhaps the social aspects are best exemplified by a screenshot of our class taken on Halloween:
So welcome to all those students who are now joining this new format. Make the most of your own experience with the same levels of participation and commitment you would apply to an in-person setting. Let the technology serve as a medium – not an impediment – to learning the material and connecting with your classmates. You might just find that online experiences bridge distances in the physical world.