By Angela McLean
Ryerson offers about 400 online courses each year, and while there are financial and practical benefits for students taking them, some experts and students question their value.
Commuters and working professionals often gravitate toward online classes, but they’re also taken by less academically-proficient students, such as those in credit-recovery programs. In an article by The New York Times, Susan Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan wrote that “for advanced learners, online classes are a terrific option, but academically challenged students need a classroom with a teacher’s support.”
Dynarski cited a study published last September in the American Economic Review, which found “taking a course online, instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college.” The study looked at the performance of hundreds of thousands of students at DeVry University, a for-profit American college with sites across the country. The students who did most poorly in online courses were those with low grades going in, and in the case of online credit-recovery classes, which Ryerson does not offer, Dynarski wrote that pass rates in these classes may be high, but retention rates are lower, leading to poor results on future testing.
“If someone does not learn well by reading, online courses are probably not the best option”
Lillian Gong, a third-year child and youth care student, has taken a total of five online classes. Overall, Gong said she likes being able to fit a part-time job, internship and school work into her week, all while having flexibility on when she chooses to do her course modules. As a commuter, the experience has been even more beneficial. But she also found online classes to be equally the same, if not more challenging than in-class lectures. “It requires independence and time management to organize when you will be completing readings and reviewing the week’s lesson.”
Fourth-year arts student Sabrina Sgandurra agrees with Gong, and says she learns better in a classroom. “I learn more when someone is talking at or to me rather than reading lecture notes,” she said. “This also means that if someone does not learn well by reading, online courses are probably not the best option.”
Wendy Freeman, the director of Ryerson’s e-learning office, said the traits of a successful online learner are consistent with those needed to perform well in a traditional classroom setting, with some minor differences. “They [all] need to be able to make sure they build time into their schedule to do the school work,” she said.
Students in face-to-face classes have weekly blocks to schedule around. For online classes, especially ones in which students don’t have to log in at the same time as the instructor, “the motivation to be self-directive is really important,” Freeman said.
In some online classes at Ryerson, students do need to be logged in at the same time every week. This poses a problem for students like Sgandurra. She is currently in Italy, and in her experience, the distance education isn’t so accommodating of distance. Sgandurra had to drop out of PHL 550 this semester because of the demands of that course, one of which was that she had to sign on every Tuesday at 9 p.m. to participate in an online, live tutorial.
“This obviously did not work for me, seeing as I am in a different time zone,” she said.
She added that she had to purchase her own portable WiFi device with a limited, and expensive, internet plan, which sometimes makes watching videos for classes difficult.
“I think that if I was doing an internship or more travelling, it would have been extremely difficult, even potentially not doable,” she said.
Sgandurra’s situation is rather unique, but there are still several issues with online classes for those taking them at home.
A common obstacle Freeman works with faculty to overcome is a lack of student-instructor and peer-to-peer engagement.
“When you don’t have that sort of spontaneity and immediacy of what you get in a classroom, where you can look around the room and if nobody raises their hand then you usually know there’s some gaps in understanding about something that’s being discussed, you have to build in opportunities that allow students to ask questions and see for themselves whether they understand the material, and do that all through the course,” she said.
“You have to build in opportunities that allow students to ask questions and see for themselves whether they understand the material”
The search for a happy medium has led to the rise of ‘blended’ classes, where in-person and online evaluation methods are used. A recent introduction to Ryerson’s journalism program, Making A Difference: Why Journalism Matters (JRN 344) blends pre-filmed, online lectures with one-hour tutorials led by a TA to discuss the material. Third-year journalism student Lindsay Christopher was among the first to take the class last semester. She found the tutorial discussions essential in the learning process. “Online discussions just aren’t the same and I get tired of typing out long, thoughtful ideas,” she said.
Christopher liked the class in the end. However, the argument remains whether blended classes are any more effective than traditional classes. A 2017 paper by a group of four scholars from North America, including one from the University of Toronto, found students in blended classes performed “generally on-par with those [in] fully in-person courses,” with the primary benefit being lower cost to schools.
Freeman said she is a fan of blended classes and is helping the university look into ways to expand its offerings, because “blended classes can provide really good flexibility for students and professors and, when properly designed, can actually provide students with more opportunities to engage with the content that they’re learning and with each other.”
As for fully online classes, Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi said the university is not actively pushing to add more but will act when demand requires them, particularly within the Chang School.
For students who are struggling with online classes, there are some ways to make the experience easier. Gong said she stays on track by devoting one day each week to the readings, videos and discussion questions and setting reminders for deadlines.
“I find online courses can be super useful if you make them to be,” she said. “However, I can also see the disadvantages with folks that may feel unmotivated or need auditory or more visual learning that lectures would provide. Everyone prefers different learning methods.”