Posted on: March 5, 2023 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Graphic by James Landgraf

By Nick Stulga, Editor-in-Chief

Completing coursework via the blue glow of a screen has become more common than ever following COVID.

While some face-to-face courses at Moraine Valley have not been running due to low enrollment, the number of online sections has more than doubled since before the pandemic.

The change appears to be due in part to a false perception that online courses are “easier.” It may also stem from the need for flexibility as students work more hours to keep with inflation. Or it could be that students “found the ease of not having to brush their teeth and put on pants on any given day,” as Moraine communications professor Eric DeVillez put it.

But the cons of online learning may outweigh the pros, according to the Brookings Institution: “Students in online courses generally get lower grades, are less likely to perform well in follow-on coursework, and are less likely to graduate than similar students taking in-person classes.”

I completely forget that the professor exists. And I forget about the class because it’s not in front of me.”

Elias Ziada, MV business administration student

Moraine had 224 online offerings in spring 2020, just prior to the pandemic’s start. As of this spring semester, that number is 489, more than double. Online sections now make up more than a quarter of the college’s offerings. And although these classes are filling, they may not be the best fit for all students.

Talah Shaibi, 21, is one students who struggles online. She takes online courses to have fewer hours on campus “so I can come home and stuff.” But being the oldest of six with working parents means that Shaibi can get distracted with housework. Shaibi also has time management issues and struggles reaching out for help.

She said if she gets better at time management, she would take another online class: “Because that’s basically what you have to worry about with online classes. Having a space where you can just focus on that online class and finish all your assignments on time.”

These aren’t the only problems students run into. Technology also has a learning curve.

Dean of Student Success Joann Jenkins helps refer students to resources they need to succeed at Moraine. 

Jenkins said she recently worked with a student who needed to submit an assignment via Canvas–Moraine’s learning management system–in a specific font using a specific program, but he couldn’t figure it out. 

“You know, he didn’t understand how to upload his assignments,” said Jenkins. She said the media portray online learning as, “‘Oh, stay at home in your pajamas and do it on your own time.’ They make it seem like that, but it’s not like that. Students need a skillset before they even take an online class.”

 Spring 2020Spring 2020Spring 2023Spring 2023Section Difference
  Total1,996  1,921
A chart comparing number of each class type right before COVID hit at Moraine versus now. Source: Sadya Khan, Executive Director of Institutional Research, Planning, and Effectiveness

This perception that online classes are easier seems to have caught on with some.

Elias Ziada, 19, is a business administration major at Moraine who was forced into an online class last semester after signing up too late for classes. Ziada believes online classes to be easier, despite being bad with them.

“Because there’s no in-person, I’m not meeting with the teacher,” Ziada said. “I’m not actually getting up, leaving my house, and going and seeing the professor. I completely forget that the professor exists. And I forget about the class because it’s not in front of me.”

Online learning does work well for some students. Communications department chair and professor Tom Dow usually fills his online classes with students who are teachers getting literature endorsements and certifications. He says they take courses online because they wouldn’t be able to stop teaching and come to class.

But regardless of their great work, it feels different than it would in person.

“The students are amazing,” said Dow. “Very engaged, everyone gets their work done, but it’s not energizing in the same way as being in a classroom with students.”

DeVillez misses the face-to-face interaction that was lost with the increase in online sections. He says that the chemistry in the classroom is fueled by the personalities in the class, allowing him to “pull from one student or another and play the room. 

“But, you know, in an online class, it’s just an endless void.”

Convenience comes with drawbacks

Why would students take classes that feel more empty? Dow believes the pandemic has caused us to retool our lives around the idea that we can work from home and have more flexibility. 

“So part of your work is online from home, part is here, and you pick and choose which parts make more sense to do face-to-face,” Dow said, “versus which parts make more sense to do at home, whether you have child care issues or you have whatever you’re doing or you just like to not have a commute one or two days a week, whatever it is.”

The convenience comes with drawbacks, according to MV mathematics professor David Huber.

“I get it, life happens, things happen, and there is an appeal to online classes for that,” Huber said. “But it’s very easy for students and for everyone in general to see the positives of that and not see the drawbacks of ‘Oh, I have to do this on my own.'”

Huber has seen students struggle in online math classes.

“I think it’s just harder for the students who aren’t strong students to begin with because there’s an extra layer of reaching out and getting support,” he said. “Like I can’t just raise my hand and ask a question right then and there.

“I feel like any additional barrier to getting help reduces the likelihood that that student is going to be successful.”

And students aren’t the only ones facing drawbacks. Dow says that online classes, when done well, take more work to create than the in-person experience. You can’t just say something to a room full of people and be done. If you want to discuss, say, a Shakespeare passage online, you have to respond to the group and then individually to each student, which is a lot more work. 

There’s also the missing aspect of a teacher’s personality online: “The sheer force of my personality isn’t creating the engagement in an online course,” Dow said. “I have to come up with really cool ways to do that and other tools to do that because [I am not] in the room.” These tools include video and audio clips, discussion boards, and engaging projects, like reenacting a theatrical performance of Shakespeare. 

Thriving online takes discipline

These factors can make online learning seem bleak and empty. But there are still things students can do to prepare themselves.

“First, some of the students have the expectation that online courses are easier,” Jenkins said. “That is not true. Not that they’re more challenging, but you have to be a lot more disciplined.”

Lisa Dryda, assistant dean of the Center for Teaching and Learning–a department that helps prepare teachers for teaching in an online setting–says time management is key for online students.

“I think they really need to be good about budgeting their time and holding themselves accountable,” Dryda said. “And reaching out and getting help. Checking in. Asking questions. And creating a plan for themselves on how they are going to dedicate time to that class. They need to carve out time for themselves. Leave enough time to ask questions to the teacher and get an answer before it’s due.”

During the height of the pandemic in spring 2021, about 70 percent of Moraine’s classes were online. A year later, that number dropped to 36 percent, and we are now at around 25 percent of all classes in an online format. Dryda thinks the number will continue to hover at around 20-25 percent. 

But others are still yearning for a return to pre-pandemic numbers, with students back in the classroom, ready to learn, maybe ready to fall asleep, but regardless, able to be physically seen.

“I think they oftentimes mistake comfort for what best fits their ability to learn,” DeVillez said, “and I wish that would swing back the other way because we’ve got to get some butts in chairs.”