An Online Education Disconnect

My distance-learning experience shows how difficult it can be to cultivate a sense of community from afar.

online professor.
It can be hard to pay attention when the professor is staring into her computer screen.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by verbaska_studio/Thinkstock.

This is the future of learning, I thought as I settled behind a linoleum-lined coffee table, ready to guinea-pig my way through a distance-education course. But about 20 minutes into my first encounter with long-distance learning, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from the platform whose whole purpose was to connect me to other students.

Every Friday morning during the spring 2016 semester, my professor, three other students, and I convened in a Washington, D.C., classroom to Skype with a dozen other students back on my college campus in Ithaca, New York. I was taking part in a program that allowed students to live and intern in Washington while still fitting in a semester’s worth of credits. Most of our professors were scholars and professionals based full time in D.C., but with this distance-education course, our professor temporarily relocated from Ithaca to live and lecture in Washington, simultaneously teaching my classroom and students on campus. A screen stationed at the front of the room displayed a panorama view of the other classroom, and they were able to see us, too. We each had our personal laptops in front of us, and thanks to Blackboard Collaborate (one of many online learning platforms), whoever wanted to speak at the moment would raise their electronic hand by clicking an icon on their Collaborate screen. Then she’d switch on her laptop’s camera and take the digital floor, thereby having her face consume the overhead screen like Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers movie.

According to a 2015 report on online education, 28 percent of higher education students enrolled in at least one distance-education course during the fall 2014 semester. Distance education has the capacity to reach more students across further geographic and socioeconomic lines than most colleges can traditionally do on a campus. But some folks aren’t convinced that these online platforms provide the level of collaboration and human interaction that’s needed for an effective learning environment. As one University of Virginia professor put it in 2012, “Online education is a one-size-fits all endeavor,” he said. “It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.”

Within the category of distance education, there’s a wide variety of structures, which depend in large part on the learning platform on which a class is held. Some classes allow professor-student interaction, while others provide a one-way avenue of information from presenter to the audience. There are entirely virtual classrooms where every student signs on remotely, as with massive open online courses, aka MOOCs; there are mixed classrooms made up of a base-camp classroom and additional students who dial in from remote locations; and then there are courses like mine, where multiple classrooms of students come together.

I may have drawn the longest possible straw in online learning. I was signed up for a scaled-down, hybrid-classroom approach to distance learning. The course material was engaging, and so was the instructor. The professor stood a few feet away from me, and I had unlimited time to ask questions before and after the class itself.

But though we were in the same room, even I had trouble paying attention while the professor stared into her computer, trying to simultaneously engage those of us in the room as well as those students more than 250 miles away. Every week, it looked like half my peers back at the ranch were dozing or updating their fantasy sports leagues instead of paying attention. I marveled at the ones who powered through and remained engaged throughout the whole section—and a lot of them did.

My ultimate peeve with this technology-dependent learning platform was digital hand-raising. In many classes that size, professors encourage students to contribute their opinions popcorn style—that is, without lifting their hands—so as not to disrupt the natural flow of a conversation. But because these online platforms aren’t as conducive to informal discussion, we had to rely on an electronic list of people who were waiting to speak. The queue of electronic hands could take so long to get through that some students abandoned hope and lowered their hands while others got into the habit of raising their hand pre-emptively just so they’d have a spot in line if an idea came into their head later on.

The biggest downside of a hybrid classroom was the clear separation between the two groups of students. At times, we would joke back and forth with one another through the computer screen, forging a sense of connectivity. But more often than not, the course’s structure made me feel like our classroom was two separate communities rather than one. I always felt comfortable debating a student who was in the same room, but debating with my peers in the remote location made me a little uneasy. Even though I hardly knew the folks sitting around me, somehow it felt more reasonable to challenge someone’s comments in person.

Curious about whether my online learning experience was an anomaly, I called Jan L. Plass, a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He brought up a similar experience he had years ago while teaching an online course to students at the University of New Mexico’s satellite campuses. “When you’re in the classroom, you pick up on a whole different set of nonverbal forms of communication in how students sit, how they hold their bodies, etc.,” he said. “It’s OK when you don’t have that for anyone because you adopt a different strategy. But for an instructor, it’s very hard to switch back and forth.” For that reason, Plass says his graduate program in educational technology at NYU is trying to avoid this fractured classroom structure in the future. He recommends all students tune in online, or all physically sit in class—no combo platter.

I then brought up the feature of distance learning that raised my blood pressure every Friday of the semester: the electronic hands. Did some students raise their hands more often with this technology? Did some avoid speaking altogether because of it? Plass acknowledged there might have been a different dynamic created by digital hand-raising. Perhaps, he said, students in remote locations feel the need to raise their hands and make a contribution every now and then just so the professor remembers they are there. It made sense: In my tiny class, I never felt pressured to force a contribution because I knew my professor could gauge my attention and understanding simply by reading the expression on my face. It was harder to do that with students in the remote setting with a not-so-great, fly-on-the-wall view.

Intriguingly, though, my professor didn’t feel the classroom divide as acutely as I did. Recently, we sat down for coffee so I could ask about her perception of our hybrid classroom. Naturally, we had different viewpoints of the course, but the thing that surprised me the most was her positive impression of my semesterlong foe, the digital hand. She told me that as an instructor, and someone who could be a shy student, she thinks the digital queue is a great concept: She thinks that it makes it easier for instructors to see who’s rightfully next in line to speak and that it encourages students to speak who might otherwise be overshadowed.

Fair enough. But what about the divide I sensed between the two classrooms? Plass pointed out that online classes require much more structure. But when you’re all in the same classroom, a class syllabus can sometimes take a back seat to personal anecdotes or unplanned discussions. I agreed with him. To me, it seemed like online learning’s reliance on structure and technology left little room for the social interactions that humanize a professor and the material. More efficient, but less personal.

Those same technology limitations extend to the way in which students approach each other, too. When we interact with people, he said, we pick up a lot of nonverbal signals—things like body language, eye contact, micro-changes in facial expressions. That’s probably why I felt less comfortable challenging the students in Ithaca: because I didn’t have the context clues that help shape a strong dialogue.

I still believe that courses like these are the future of learning. They grant students an undeniable flexibility when it comes to work schedules, and in my case, allowed me to experience a city hundreds of miles away from campus while still being enrolled in my university’s classes—no transferring or loss of credits necessary. But before I take another combo-class, I’d want to see a few things, like better mechanisms for encouraging classroom discussion. Most of all, though, I’d want a better system for hand-raising.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.