Missing the Lecture Format in an Online Class

Online learning changes the way you interact with your professor.

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At this point in my online class, I’d like a chance to see my professor’s face as I would in a traditional classroom.

I once took a course called European History in the Middle Ages that was as dry as a college class can get. It was a struggle to get to class every morning at 9 a.m., even though the building was three minutes away from my dorm. I practically had to hold my eyes open as my professor droned on about royal rivalries or yet another depressing plague.

Fortunately, that course was the exception. Most of my college professors were engaging and I got more out of their lectures than the textbooks. It's not surprising, then, that I've had a hard time adjusting to the lectureless format of my online personal finance class.

I have yet to see my professor, aside from the thumbnail picture attached to her online class profile. Not only have there not been any lectures, there haven't been any Google Hangout sessions or webinars – the kinds of interactive experiences I've heard take place in other online classes.

[Learn how to tell a good online degree program from a bad one.]

Recently I read a New York Times story about a Stanford University professor offering an online personal finance course through a series of video tutorials. I found myself jealous of the students who had a chance to watch their instructor in action.

My yearning to watch a lecture online may seem strange to online education experts, many of whom are critical of professors who record the lectures they give to their on-campus students and put them on the Internet.

If professors want to record themselves lecturing, many online education experts suggest they do so in short segments, à la the much celebrated Khan Academy, which gives students access to quick video tutorials on an array of subjects. The shorter format makes material easier to digest outside of the classroom, the thinking goes, and plays to limited attention spans.

I'd probably get more out of a five-minute lecture than a 50-minute lecture, but I'd choose a longer, on-campus style lecture over none at all.

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Although I would have preferred a bit more interaction with my professor to date, I was impressed and surprised that she called me when she realized I forgot to turn in the second half of my discussion board assignment. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I'd never received a phone call from a professor. Granted, I'd also never completely missed a deadline for a course.

When my professor called that day, she seemed genuinely concerned that I might drop out of the class and made an effort to compliment me on the work I'd done so far.

But despite the kind gesture, I still don't feel like I know her. I wouldn't feel comfortable asking her for a reference, for example, or reaching out by email months after class to say hello. Without seeing her interact with students, I can't tell whether she's a charismatic instructor – the kind I'd choose for a mentor – or as underwhelming as my European history professor.

That's partly my fault. If I wanted to establish a relationship with my professor, I could initiate a conversation through email or phone, just as experts suggest.

In retrospect, my experience in this online course probably isn't too different from that of many students at large National Universities. When you are taking classes with hundreds of other students in a large lecture hall, you probably don't feel any sort of connection with your professor. Initiative is key.

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