College students have always had to navigate a myriad of choices as they decide on a school, program, career pathway and educational plan. More and more, students are also having to decide on which learning environment is best for them.
Face-to-face classes are still very popular and offer traditional coursework with students and an instructor meeting in-person on regularly scheduled dates and times, generally in a classroom setting. Online courses are offered primarily through an internet-based platform such as the UNM-utilized Blackboard learning system. Hybrid, often called blended, courses offer a combination of face-to-face and online components.
Online classes can be either synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous classes are scheduled at regular times and students participate simultaneously through live video conferencing which allows for real-time interaction with the instructor and other students. Asynchronous classes let students log in at any time and access predesigned modules. This provides more freedom of scheduling, but students still must meet deadlines as established by the instructor.
Online learning is growing nationally as reported by U.S. News and World Reports (January 11, 2018). Of 4,700 colleges researched, more than 6.3 million students took at least one online course in the fall semester of 2016. This represents a 5.6% increase from the previous year. Public colleges and universities report the largest growth in online enrollments.
Within the University of New Mexico system, 39% of students take at least one online course each semester (). At the UNM-Gallup branch, the spring 2019 semester will offer 73 online sections which represents 17% of total classes. 11%, or 50 sections, will be offered as either hybrid or web-enhanced (https://www.gallup.unm.edu/academics/schedule.php).
Face-to-face, online and hybrid classes all offer distinct advantages and disadvantages which students must consider when planning academic schedules. Benefits of face-to-face classes include:
- Instructors can make more immediate adjustments to content and style based on feedback, interaction and comprehension;
- Speaking and collaborative skills can often be used and developed within the more traditional classroom model;
- Some students are more motivated by the structure of face-to-face classes which are regularly scheduled, although synchronous on-line courses often follow the same structure as face-to-face;
- Certain technical, scientific and “hands-on” courses are dependent on an in-classroom or lab environment;
- Speaking skills can be more easily honed and practiced in an environment where instructors and students can have in-person engagement with immediate responses.
Face-to-face classes can have disadvantages for some students:
- There can be a lack of individualized attention and all students have to adhere to the same schedule and pace;
- The lecture component of face-to-face classes can sometimes discourage engagement if that is the only style used;
- Scheduling is rigid and can be difficult, if not impossible, for those who work full-time;
- Large classroom management can be challenging and distracting;
- Students who have a difficult time speaking in public may be intimidated by large classrooms and miss out on engagement opportunities.
In the same manner, online classes can offer benefits and drawbacks for students. Some advantages of online learning include:
- Flexibility which allows students to work on their own schedule, at their own pace and from off-campus locations. This can be beneficial for both instructors and students by enhancing work, school and life balance;
- The ability to review material is often viewed as an advantage of online classes. Students have the ability to re-watch recorded lectures and videos which can be particularly beneficial to students for whom English is a second language or for those who find a particular topic difficult and need to hear the information more than once;
- Asynchronous online classes allow students to choose when they will engage in coursework. Students can study anytime and decide when they are most intellectually alert and ready to engage with classwork;
- Facilities management is much easier for institutions if they do not have to maintain a regular classroom space;
- Access can be greatly increased by online classes. Students who do not have ready access to a local institution of higher education can be served by online courses and the availability of courses from multiple colleges offers more variety and program options.
Online learning can also have some disadvantages which means students need to consider the value of depending exclusively on this platform. When deciding on whether or not to incorporate online learning into one’s education plan some things to keep in mind are:
- Online learning may not be the best option for students who lack self-direction. Students who are not highly motivated may struggle with the responsibility of navigating online courses;
- Personal communication opportunities between students and faculty members may not be as readily available or as spontaneous as in face-to-face classroom encounters;
- Networking and collaborative opportunities may be difficult to arrange in an online class. Well-constructed online classes, however, often offer online discussion boards that can draw students into meaningful interactions;
- Training is required by students and faculty to become familiar with online platforms;
- Technology divides and malfunctions can also be problematic, especially for students who may already have limited access to internet, computers or support resources.
Hybrid classes that combine online and face-to-face coursework while offering the best of bothapproaches can also suffer from the disadvantages of both learning environments. All instructional platforms have clear pros and cons. The availability of multiple formats provides options that broaden access and offer choices that can enhance the ability of students to balance their roles in the classroom, the workplace and within their families and community obligations.
In order to determine the best match, students need to consider preferences in scheduling, in-person interactions, program access, and academic planning. Students should always rely on advisors and faculty mentors as valuable tools in deciding their personalized education strategies. The ability to design coursework across multiple learning platforms can help in deciding on and achieving school and life goals.
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