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Inside Story: Online Courses at UMD

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – If you tell someone you’re taking an online course at the University of Maryland, they wouldn’t really know what you mean – you could be listening to recorded lectures, earning a degree entirely online or meeting in real time in a virtual classroom.

Each type of online class offers their own benefits, and can be better or worse for different types of students. Students don’t have to be at the university to take part in an online course – they can be as close as College Park, or as far away as Asia.

One of the most common types of online class is an online version of a traditional class. These courses feature videos or audio recordings of a professor giving a lecture. The main difference with this kind of class and its traditional counterpart is that students can work at their own pace.

“Students can approach the material, within reason, on their own schedule,” UMD history professor Howard Smead said. “They have to meet the deadlines for writing assignments and that sort of thing. But they have a heck of a lot more flexibility.”

What others may think of when they hear “online course” is attending an entirely online college. University of Maryland University College is one of the nation’s leading all-online schools, with more than 95 degrees available for online-only students.

UMUC doesn’t have recorded lectures for students to learn from. Instead, lectures are entirely typed, and students complete a series of assignments to demonstrate their understanding of the material. While students might be able to learn this way, they don’t get a real human connection with the professor.

“If you take your class entirely online, you never meet the teacher, the teacher never meets you, and the dynamic is different,” UMUC journalism professor Sharon O’Malley said. “You just don’t get to know the students, so it’s not as fulfilling of an experience, not as a teacher.”

Not all online courses are so impersonal. With some, the only difference is that the class doesn’t meet in a physical classroom, but a virtual one. For this type of online course, students log in to an Adobe meeting at a specific time twice a week and their professor conducts class from Colorado using a PowerPoint presentation and audio. There are tools students use to  “raise their hand” and answer or ask questions.

“I think this format can be effective for certain classes,” UMD junior Mary Glynn said. “Since my class is all about creating and writing assessments, the class doesn’t need to be in person. If this was a traditional course … it would be structured the same way. The only difference would be my teacher standing in front of me.”

While the popularity of online courses is growing, it is unlikely they will ever completely replace traditional classroom settings, which have the benefits of immediacy and teacher-student interaction, things online classes cannot currently offer.

“This is sort of the direct it’s going in,” O’Malley said. “I’ve seen a lot of colleges are starting to offer online classes. The ones that are going only online, I don’t think those are the top universities.”

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