Turn on. Tune in. Drop out?

Online learning has become more prevalent among students of various degrees nationwide. Portland State offers an assortment of online degrees while also requiring many students to enroll online as a graduation requirement for the University Studies cluster. According to PSU’s UNST website, the program aims to “teach learning” by diversifying a student’s learning experience and expanding students’ abilities to think critically and communicate effectively.  

In addition to offering an alternative experience in education, online courses allow students with children, disabilities or conflicting work schedules to continue their degrees. “I chose to take a class online because it allowed me to have more time for work,” explained PSU student Paige Fischer. “The biggest pro is definitely being able to do my work from any location at any time. Having the flexibility to learn in cases like severe weather or illness is very beneficial in staying caught up with the work.”

“I chose online learning because I feel that I learn better when I’m by myself and not in a class with other students,” said online PSU student Mikayla Brennan. “I also prefer to do my school work late at night. The biggest pro is that you’re able to do the work on your own time.”

PSU’s official report on the effectiveness of online UNST courses suggests a trend in student satisfaction regarding writing, communication and an increased level of organization from online professors.

Director of Assessment and Undergraduate Clusters Rowanna Carpenter expressed similar sentiments after assessing online UNST student evaluations. “In addition to the flexibility of time management that online-learning provides, it also creates a much easier environment for shy or less-outgoing students to thrive,” said Carpenter. “Whereas in class, these same students could also be less successful because they are too shy to speak up.”

Where the effectiveness of online UNST courses falls short can be seen in comparing the lower online pass rates against classroom learning pass rates. UNST staff have begun implementing action steps in order to combat this trend, such as faculty workshops and student outreach. “We also do our best to maintain the same style of operation as face-to-face classes,” Carpenter said. “Teachers in online courses not only create very well-structured learning plans but also facilitate group work and interactions to mirror those in-person.”  

PSU professor Michael Rancourt discussed the pros and cons of teaching online. “In my face-to-face classes, I teach like I’m having a conversation because that’s really what I think I’m doing,” added Rancourt. “But in my online classes, I teach like I am writing an essay. I love writing, so I actually really like the process of pulling together research about a topic and presenting it in a way that shares ideas and models a way of sharing ideas at the same time.”

Although Rancourt enjoys the benefits of online presentations, he still prefers in-class courses over online. “I think everyone is afraid that teaching online will feel impersonal, like it’s harder to have a connection with students,” explained Rancourt. “That’s how I’ve felt. For me, without that connection, it really feels like this formal transaction—like a business transaction, instead of a collaborative process between members of a community.”

UNST student evaluations reflect Rancourt’s sentiment: online students are less likely to feel a sense of community, and, despite the utilization of online group work and discussion, the impersonal aspects of distance learning can foster a distaste for online courses.

Despite these negative findings, the UNST department has continued to increase the amount of available online UNST courses. “The evidence shows that students are overall satisfied with online courses,” Carpenter said. “We’re just going to keep working and keep pushing for more engagement and learning and maintaining a standard with both the faculty and students.”

“I don’t think it would be fair to say that one is just better than the other,” said Rancourt. “It’s different, so instructors just need to think about teaching online differently. Even if we haven’t all found everything that works best for our students yet, we still probably go about improving our instruction the same way we do with our face-to-face teaching.”