(Note: Since writing the post below, I have taken a for-credit online math course. My review of the online math class can be read here.) Last September, I signed up for Michael Sandel's online "Justice" class through the Harvard Alumni Association. I was not as interested in the topic as much as I was interested in sampling Internet-based learning, which was the subject of a post on my graduate school blog last autumn ("Distance education at Harvard: I'm not convinced") and a response from a friend who is getting his undergraduate degree through the Harvard Extension School's distance education offerings (see ClueHQ, "Is Distance Education a Problem at Harvard?").
I should note right off the bat that Sandel's online class is not currently part of the Extension School's online offerings, although it was at one point in the past. I did not sit through all of the sessions, nor did I complete any of the assignments that the in-class students had to deal with. Nevertheless, after taking part in Justice, I am able to offer a basic evaluation of Web-based distance education based on prerecorded video and asynchronous communications tools, the same format used for most of the Extension School's online classes.
I found that many of the concerns that I raised last year about online education were validated. While the video of Sandel's prerecorded Harvard College lectures were wonderful to watch on a lazy Sunday morning, I felt very isolated by the experience of having to sit on my hands while he fielded questions from the in-person group and debated various philosophical and legal concepts with them. The class blog set up for alumni had some interesting discussions that popped up after the videos were aired, and Sandel had "online office hours" to discuss the class with participants (apparently following the format his class used when it was offered through the Extension School), but it just wasn't the same. The quick give-and-take and the ability to steer a classroom debate in a different direction with a spontaneous question or example was entirely absent, as was the experience of turning to the person sitting next to you to talk about the class. And while it was nice to be able to stop the video to take a break, or replay certain sections, I also found that it was very easy to be distracted by IM, the phone, and other browser sessions.
Harvard seems to be aware of the limitations of this type of distance learning, and indeed only the Extension School has embraced asynchronous online learning as a substitute for in-class instruction for credit at the university. It's worth noting that one of the few other entities on campus that actively experiments with online education -- the Berkman Center for Internet and Society -- has concentrated on real-time class sessions using Web technologies and virtual worlds like Second Life.
Of course, these technologies have their own drawbacks -- they may require extra staff and a steep learning curve to effectively employ. Nevertheless, they at least allow the spontaneous group discussions and other forms of conversational learning that I believe are still central to a modern university education.
Update: More than one student has described to me the difficulties inherent in online communications with instructors and TAs.
I heard from one HES student who took a Java programming class that was offered as a distance ed class in the ALM in IT program. He said that there was nearly "0%" interaction with the instructor and distance TA, zero feedback on assignments, and all of the assignments were recycled from the previous semester. Another student complained to me that he was unable to get in contact with a TA to discuss an important assignment, and a third, posting on the Extension Student online forum, complained that the "TAs who are running the show appear to be very weak at communications."
Online communications breakdown shouldn't come as a surprise. On the Internet, students are usually associated by their email and discussion board interactions. For in-person classes, teachers get to know students' faces, voices, and willingness to take part in class discussions. Instructors for many courses encourage students to raise their hands to ask questions during class sessions, and it is usually possible to talk with a teacher or TA before or after class, or during office hours. Students can't be ignored in such a setting. Online, however, it is very easy for instructors to overlook electronic communications, which can lead to a great deal of frustration for students. For distance students at the Extension School, there are no required "office hours" in which students can call or reach out to instructors.
Disclosure: I am a board member of the nonprofit Immersive Education initiative, which seeks to develop best practices and standards for education in virtual worlds.