I recently attended the 2019 S-STEM Symposium in Washington, DC. It was sponsored by the NSF and AAAS and brought students and principal investigators as well as other stakeholders associated with the NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) grant program. One plenary session consisted of five student panelists who either completed for were currently being supported by a S-STEM scholarship. These five students were picked from more than 200 nominations from S-STEM PIs to receive a travel award to the meeting and to be on this plenary panel.
During the question and answer session someone in the audience, presumably a professor, asked them what mode of learning they preferred - in-person (face-to-face) or online. Most of them acknowledged taking some online courses with the sole reason that it was convenient for their schedules. They also followed up with that they felt they really didn’t learn as much from them than a typical in-person course (in fairness one student also said that they had not taken the same class with the two different modalities to given a more apples to apples comparison). Agreeing again, they felt that the online courses they took involved a lot of work on their part but the work was more in line with “busy work” rather than legitimate studying to understand and/or to develop critical thinking. Soon, the students then opined that they felt the in-person classes challenged them more to learn and comprehend more.
Yes, I understand this was a small number and may not be representative of all STEM online courses (I also assumed they only were referring to STEM coursework but don’t recall if the original question or their responses solely singled out this area). But the students' comments did highlight a theme I hear from some colleagues that do online courses- the course is filled with many assignments and obligatory yet un-natural discussion posts (I am, of course, paraphrasing and generalizing a lot here).
I know even mentioning offering a chemistry, let alone even a science online course can spark heated debates in departments, but I think there are some ways to implement them so that students are given that same value received in face-to-face courses. For me I think a factor that is often overlooked in online classes is the live interactions between the instructor on the students- whether it be a discussion or simple question/answers that happen in the classroom. There is something about being there at the moment a question is posed by a peer (or yourself) and seeing the instructor respond to it. Even more interesting is when a professor calls out a student to answer a question and other students can often use that time to empathize, reflect on their own understanding of the material, or just be entertained.
Personally, if I were to take an online class I would like a “Live” session. Similar in principle to YouTube Live or Facebook Live where the instructor- at an arranged time- gives the lecture (on a WebCam in their office or in the classroom) with students watching from home but everyone can see each other or at the very least names in a chatroom. It does take a little bit of the convenience factor out of online courses by having a scheduled time but it does bring in more of that spontaneity of a live course. I haven’t really heard of many online folks doing this but maybe some are. I would be curious how students rate a class with this built in versus the standard online one.