When an Online Course Isn’t Completely Online

Online course on campusHave you ever registered for an online class only to find out after the term starts that there are required, in-person meetings? It has happened to me and it’s frustrating to say the least. Sometimes this kind of information is listed as part of the course description, or is available in a syllabus you can review before you enroll. But, all too often these details are left out of the resources provided to students in advance of the first week of classes.

I recently had the opportunity to review a long list of online programs and quickly noticed that terms such as completely online, fully online, and 100% online are used when partially online or primarily online would be a better description. What does it mean when a program is “online?” How do you know whether or not you will have to visit campus as an online student? Marketing and promotional materials aren’t always clear on these points.

What is Online Learning?

While there are no industry-wide definitions of what an “online” course or program is or should be, a few guidelines are available to help you anticipate the various formats you will likely encounter. Many schools offer versions of the four following categories of course delivery:

  • Online: All course interaction takes place through the course website or school’s learning management system. Students communicate with each other and their instructors through Web-based tools such as email, discussion boards, and virtual meeting “rooms” (e.g., Skype, Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate).
  • Hybrid or Blended: These classes combine both online and in-person formats requiring some course work to be completed with Web-based tools, while other activities take place in person in a physical classroom, lab, or other facility.
  • Web-enhanced: Most of the content and activities in Web-enhanced courses take place in a traditional classroom, however, some course administrative tasks (e.g., announcements, schedule), assignments, and supplemental materials are also available online.
  • In-person: This category is also often described as “face-to-face.” All course meetings and related activities take place in a traditional classroom setting, usually on campus or at a regional learning center.

These descriptions cover a lot of ground, but the line between online and in person is blurring. Simple definitions don’t accurately convey what a learning experience may be like. As the capabilities of technology advance and additional resources become available, so do the options for online teaching and learning. The Online Learning Consortium is developing additional category descriptions based on current practices in higher education, which include definitions at both the course- and program-level. In addition to online and in person differences, these definitions address:

  • Synchronous interaction: Some online courses require real-time meetings via Web-conferencing or live chat tools that allow all class members to log in at a scheduled time.
  • Flexible options: A variety of resources may be offered online and on-campus providing students with choices about how they will interact with course materials. Self-paced course work is another flexible format that makes it possible for students to complete course work, or demonstrate mastery of specific competencies for course credit, on their own.
  • Mixed format: Students may complete multiple types of courses while they are enrolled in an academic program, experiencing online, hybrid, Web-enhanced, face-to-face, synchronous, and flexible learning methods along the way.

Efforts taken by colleges and universities to accurately describe the learning environments they offer help you to not only set realistic expectations about being a student, but also prepare for the experience ahead.

On-Campus Requirements for Online Students

Not all online programs require students to attend meetings in person – many courses really are completely online. And there are a lot of good reasons to meet face-to-face with instructors and classmates, as well as advisors, librarians, and other support professionals at your school. Knowing that there are actually requirements for this is an important expectation, especially if you are enrolling in a program offered by a school that is not in your local area, as is increasingly the case.

The Learning House’s 2014 survey of online learners found that only “54% of students attend an institution within 100 miles of where they live.” No one wants to find out that they have to travel or coordinate extra school-related meetings when they weren’t planning to, and this usually involves rescheduling work and family commitments.

So, why would online learning require a campus visit? There are activities that take place within a specific class, as well as those that involve administrative tasks and interactions, that may be required, even in a “completely online” environment.

In Class:

  • Test Proctoring: Final exams may mean you have to show identification and sign-in to a testing center, even if your course includes online quizzes and other tests. New virtual proctoring systems (e.g., VoiceProctor, ProctorU) are gaining popularity, but many schools still require students to take exams in person either on campus or at a pre-approved location in their local areas.
  • Class Projects: Some online programs require students to attend at least one in-person meeting in each course. This often means test proctoring (see the item above), but can also happen as part of a class project or presentation. This seems to be more prevalent in associate-level programs.
  • Lab Credits: Many courses include hands-on lab assignments or separate lab courses. These are usually science classes (i.e., biology, chemistry, physics), but are also found in math, anatomy, and other subjects. Virtual labs are increasingly an option, but not all programs have adopted Web-based alternatives.
  • Specific Courses: One or more courses may not be offered in an online format, even in an online program. Public speaking classes, for example, are not always available online, but are frequently part of the general education curriculum for undergraduates.
  • Residency Requirement: While all course work may take place online, students may attend a weekend (or longer) symposium and advising sessions scheduled periodically during their academic programs. These can take place on campus or at another location as determined by the school, and is more prevalent in graduate programs, especially at the doctoral level.

Admissions, Advising, and Support:

  • Placement Testing: Applicants and newly accepted students may be asked to take a series of tests to not only ensure readiness for college-level course work, but also assess skills for placement in different courses. English and math, for example, are basic undergraduate subjects, but students can take a range of courses in these areas to fulfill the core requirements. These tests often take place on campus or in an approved testing center.
  • Orientation: New student orientations provide a broad introduction to the school’s resources and academic expectations. These sessions range in length from a few hours to a full day or longer. While online attendance may be an option, some schools require all students to visit campus before their classes begin.
  • Academic Advising: Students need to meet with their advisors on a periodic basis throughout an academic program to make sure they are registered for the correct courses and making progress toward graduation. Many schools have campus-based advising offices, however, tools like Skype, email, and even the telephone, may be acceptable means of communication for advising online students. These options vary by school.

Do Your Research

Be sure you read the fine print. When a program or course is advertized as “online,” review all of the related materials to see if there are any exceptions listed, such as in-person test proctoring or new student orientations. If you don’t see this kind of information on a school’s website or in a program brochure, ask the admissions office for more details and confirmation about the expectations of students.

You can also talk to your academic advisor about the requirements of specific courses offered as part of a degree program you are already working toward. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Will I need to come to campus to complete the admissions process or register for my first classes?
  • How will I complete quizzes, test, and exams in my courses?
  • What are the options for meeting with academic advisors, career counselors, research librarians, and tutors?
  • What are the options if I am unable to travel to campus or one of the school’s learning centers?
  • Where can I find more information about the requirements of specific courses, before I enroll each term?

The same guidelines apply if your preferences and interests lie in a blended experience. Many students benefit from a mix of online and on-campus resources, as well as availability of in-person support services (e.g., advising, career counseling, library), so ask for more information about how a class or program fits your priorities. You may have more options than you think.

What is your advice for students enrolling in 100% online classes? Share your feedback about setting expectations and researching the requirements in advance.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog