Online does not equal easy

Leslie M. Levy

The lure of online classes for students is the flexibility of completing their work “whenever.” This leads to laziness and even lamer excuses than teachers hear in person. (Your Google Drive crashed? Really?)

Instructors choose to teach online classes for similar reasons as students. Maybe they have two or three jobs because they’re underpaid, or they have a full life. That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t catch the online sluggard bug, too.

The value of having online classes available is undeniable, but when are they a waste of time and energy for both students and instructors? I can tell you all online classes are not created equal. Most are not an “easy A,” nor should they be. If a class is worth paying for, it should be worth the effort to earn that grade, but not every online class is well run.

In one class the instructor sent out one email a week saying “good job on the discussion questions, next up is another topic” and otherwise had no presence in the class. I was actually quite taken with the material and was disappointed the class not only required little input, but provided zero instructor feedback. Even our midterm essays got no commentary. None. I ended up losing my zeal because the teacher was lazy.

A good online class involves interaction with students and constructive feedback, plus teaching students related subjects we cannot get from the reading, or nuances that we may not catch on our own — just like live teachers do in regular classrooms.

I completed a social media marketing certificate solely online. It involved numerous webinar sessions with live questions answered both during and after the presentations. We were encouraged to make profiles on several social media platforms and received feedback on what was or wasn’t appropriate for each platform and what to change.

That was back in 2010, and every platform has expanded since then (Snapchat didn’t even exist yet), so it’s functionally useless on a resume today, but the class was highly interactive and stuck with me. I also learned some basic, but huge, concepts about different social platforms, how they work and how the social atmosphere differs between them. That foundation is indispensable to me nine years later. It was money well spent.

I barely passed one online class — Digital Color Theory — because it crammed a full semester’s work into five weeks and required using either Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, neither of which I had opened experienced before. If you’ve ever worked with either of these programs, you know that learning the class material wasn’t the issue. The homework projects coupled with the timeline and inexperience with the software made me want to stab my eyes out and chuck my computer across the room like She-Hulk.

An online class is also not meant to be an easy paycheck for some tech savvy yet mindless faculty member. That is how poor instructors contribute to the poor relationship with adjuncts, which results in pay cuts, lack of benefits and delays or refusal in granting permanent status. They point to bad examples and deem every adjunct just as disposable.

One of my in-person teachers said to “Google YouTube for how-to videos” when I asked about a function in Premiere Pro, an equally foreign Adobe behemoth. A peer taught me the needed one-click fix in a quick minute, whereas my actual teacher had treated me like a waste of time.

Teachers sometimes want us to spend days on end wading through all of the waste-of-time online tutorials to somehow magically find the gold nugget in the dungheap. I appreciate their not spoon feeding students, but my response to “Google it” is this: if I wanted to learn that way, I wouldn’t be enrolled in any class, online or not.

I don’t want to watch an hour-long tutorial for a two-minute answer, nor do I want to endure 15 or 20 different how-to videos that miss the specific detail I’m looking for. I don’t want to waste my time any more than you want to waste yours.

Though, I am open to watching tutorials when the payoff is worthwhile. A good online instructor will post links to specific tutorials they recommend, not just say to “Google it.” The justification is the instructor is putting responsibility for course material on the student, where it belongs, but it’s just lazy teaching.

Take the aforementioned Digital Color Theory class I took. I needed something outside of the class material to learn how to use Illustrator. However, after one day of Googling, I was in tears and had gotten absolutely nowhere except more behind in the work. I emailed my instructor about my frustration and she responded with links to relevant tutorials.

I still barely made the cut, but I passed the class. I would have failed without her specific recommendations. I’m more proud of that D than I am the A’s I’ve gotten in my communications, journalism and video production classes.

Why? Because it was really hard, yet my teacher was actually teaching me. She answered my emails and phone calls quickly and addressed my questions rather than passing me off to Google. Even though I was just an avatar online, she treated me like a real person.

That was the first of two classes marking my college re-entry after mothering four children full-time for 18 years. Passing the course in five weeks, all while knowing nothing about the software, gave me motivation to proceed, and fortified me for later. If I could do that, I could do anything.

If my teacher had left me to twist in the wind, I would not be where I am today.

The communications and multimedia journalism fields require a LOT of technical knowledge I never dreamed of developing, let alone using efficiently. If that teacher hadn’t been so communicative, helpful and involved, I would not have persisted in my life journey. I look back on that class and know that it changed the direction

of my life.

We are here to learn, and we expect you to teach — even if our class is entirely online. What are you offering in your class that I couldn’t do for free with nothing but internet access, time and tedium?

We are here to absorb what you — as people, as teachers — have to offer. We are inundated by information everywhere, but still chose to be “taught” even if we never see your face.

Most stumble through the learning process. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to Google for information or watch YouTube videos does not make one an autodidact, and not everyone has polyhistic tendencies, nor do they achieve their goals with sprezzatura.

Most people reading this won’t even know what those weird words mean, but I bet after reading that sentence they suddenly want to (and they can easily Google those definitions).

Why? Because learning and motivation involves a tease and chase pattern, which ultimately drives learning in any educational setting.

A teacher shows knowledge that piques curiosity and a student suddenly wants something they never cared about before. A teacher shows application of knowledge in how they conduct their life or career and a student wants to emulate it.

When a teacher ignites a fire in a student that consumes their consciousness in a way no one could have predicted, the student sometimes surpasses the teacher. 

A teacher can also dampen desire, quell passions that might have kept cold hearts moving when life was dying all around them, or crush potential into the dust of yesterday’s dreams.

As students, we never know what courses are going to be explosive for our psyche or complete duds. No one can know what will light up their life and send them rocketing to new heights until it happens, but you, our instructors, are here to light our fuses.

We need you, whether we see you face-to-face or not. Good teachers change lives. The class format does not impact your ability to do that. You do.