Online learning isn’t a replacement for the campus classroom. For some students, it’s better.

For the many Penn LPS Online students with professional and family responsibilities, the most obvious benefit of taking college classes online is flexibility: virtual classrooms and asynchronous schedules present an opportunity for busy adults and lower a barrier for those who can’t travel to campus. For Ryan McReynolds, a software consultant who recently completed a Certificate in Leadership and Communication, a full term of on-campus classes would be incompatible with his career. “I travel extensively for work, so the online format was really my only option,” says Ryan, who notes that he completed many of his certificate assignments on planes and in hotel rooms. On-campus classes also presented an obstacle to Andrew Ducko, a hockey coach and ice rink manager. When Andrew first decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree, he found that many programs designed for nontraditional students offered primarily weekend and evening courses on campus. “If I have to go to class on weekends, I would only be able to take classes in spring and summer—and, even then, I don’t know that I would be able to do more than one a year because on the weekends I have to work and travel,” Andrew explains. “With the online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences classes, I can manage and budget my time so I can continue to do everything in my life while also going to school.”

For students who are comparing online versus on-campus learning opportunities, however, on-campus courses may seem comfortingly familiar. On-campus courses may entail a wide variety of learning activities—lectures, discussions, slideshows, group projects, in-class assignments, and more—and many do incorporate technology in and out of the classroom. Nonetheless, we have many visual and cultural references for what on-campus classroom learning looks like, and comparatively few for online learning. According to Clayton Colmon, Associate Director of Instructional Design for the Penn Arts and Sciences Online Learning team, online learning may not resemble on-campus classes in the ways we expect. “Technology does not operate in the same way that physical interaction does, and there are not many expectations that need to be carried over,” says Colmon. “In that openness, there is a sort of freedom to understand work differently, and to circumvent some of our preconceived notions about learning.”

And for some students, even those with access to campus courses, online learning may turn out to be the better option. “I love the online aspect of the certificate,” says Robert Marshall, a US military veteran who sought out the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology when he began learning about resilience from Penn faculty authors and speakers. Penn’s Positive Psychology Center offers educational opportunities and resources to learners all over the world, and taking courses online allowed Robert to benefit from immersive instruction and peer interaction without commuting from his home in Washington, DC. “It’s very convenient,” adds Robert. “The accelerated term length makes it easier to dedicate time to learning, especially for those that are working.”

Learning from Penn faculty in an immersive multimedia platform

Andrew coaches hockey players at the College of New Jersey, and his students were curious about their coach’s online college courses. “I showed one of my players my oceanography course site in Canvas, and he said they use the same thing for their college classes on campus,” recalls Andrew. “The only difference is that his professor is standing in front of the class showing slides, and my professor is in the bottom right corner of my screen showing slides.”

Panopto, the application that allows Penn LPS Online instructors to record video lectures using slides, facilitates asynchronous lectures that students can access on their own time. But digital tools like Panopto can do better than replicate live classroom dynamics: Panopto videos can be paused, replayed, captioned, and (when viewed in the Panopto player) enhanced with search and note-taking functions. Likewise, the popular videoconferencing tool Zoom can facilitate synchronous classroom discussions and smaller breakout groups, and it can also be augmented with interactive tools as well as recorded and replayed with captions, which allows online students to revisit the material as needed.

While instructor-led lectures and discussions give students the benefit of virtual facetime with Penn’s expert faculty and lecturers, the virtual classroom makes it easy for instructors to incorporate other media to explore key course conceptions. Movies, video clips, music playlists, and interactive applications can all be incorporated into Canvas course sites. In literature courses, students can hear the author, the instructor, and their peers read a poem aloud; in climate change courses, documentaries and television news reports become essential course texts. Online courses also offer a range of options for student work. “The courses are really experiential,” says Robert of his certificate program. “There were a lot of different methods of learning—experiments, group work, writing.” Although Robert had some apprehensions returning to the classroom as an adult, Penn LPS Online’s small class sizes gave him access to instructor support and constructive input. “When I came in, I would say that I was a traumatized writer,” Robert laughs. “I felt very insecure about my writing. But with the instructor’s feedback, I got better every week.” 

Learning from peers in an inclusive online classroom

Ryan’s courses in the Certificate in Leadership and Communication typically required weekly synchronous sessions in Zoom, which Ryan often attended from hotel rooms around the country as he traveled for software consulting work. “The weekly sessions made it feel like more of a traditional program where you could see and engage in conversations with your professors and classmates in real time,” Ryan recalls. “Even after completing the program I have stayed connected with several of my classmates online.”

With students logging in from all over the world, the cohort in any given Penn LPS Online course may include a range of ages, locations, professional backgrounds, and life experiences. For Robert, the diversity of his courses added an important benefit to his applied positive psychology education. “The teaching itself is world-class, obviously, but we really got into the meat of the course when we learned together in a group,” he says. In some courses, students design experiments or positive psychology interventions and share their results with their classmates for feedback. “We did these assignments in real life and learned from that, and then heard about what others did and how. You learn a lot from classmates who have so many different professional backgrounds and experiences and perspectives,” reflects Robert.

The virtual classroom may shrink the distance between students learning remotely, but it also impacts the way they experience class time. For Colmon and the Penn Arts and Sciences Online Learning team, asynchronous participation offers an opportunity to level the playing field for students who aren’t at their best in live meetings. “The online space allows students to participate in ways they might not necessarily have done in a physical space,” says Colmon. Course sites in Canvas may incorporate digital tools that run the gamut from collaborative Google Docs and discussion threads to VoiceThread, a multifunctional multimedia platform for student presentations and group projects with visual, video, audio, and text capabilities. “Students who wouldn’t say much at all in an on-campus class can use online tools to share information at their own pace in ways that are comfortable for them,” says Colmon. Even students who are completely at ease in a live meeting can benefit from asynchronous participation, he adds. “The online space allows you to think about something and share your thoughts, as opposed to rapid sharing in an on-the-spot discussion.”

The space to consider course concepts deeply is critical in Penn LPS Online offerings that emphasize personal reflection and self-awareness, such as the applied positive psychology courses. For Robert, the certificate offered an opportunity to better understand a topic close to his heart through coursework and class discussions. “When veterans leave the service, they lose a big part of the meaning and purpose in their lives,” he says. “How can we help them flourish?” Robert hypothesized that orienting veterans toward meaningful work could improve their well-being, and tested his theory through applied learning and class discussion. “As a veteran, I felt that I could really speak about my experience and feel heard and supported,” he says. “Every single course felt supportive and safe to speak about sensitive experiences, even with people you’ve only just met and you don’t know face-to-face.” After completing the certificate last year, Robert continues to explore positive psychology strategies for veterans and has gone on to speak at conferences, retreats, and local organizations.

Learning from the medium to master the digital world

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic compelled many employers and classrooms nationwide to go remote, the 21st century has seen rapid technological change to the ways we work, play, and communicate on a day-to-day basis. “At our current moment, digital literacy is foundational to participation in society,” says Colmon. “We have transitioned a lot of things into the online space, and it's very easy to be misinformed if you aren't aware of the ways that digital artifacts are constructed to make a particular argument, or to make you feel, think, or understand things in a particular way. It is incumbent on all of us to have some form of digital literacy in order to be active citizens.”

What is digital literacy? “It’s a broad term, but it basically involves understanding different forms of digital media, its audiences, the mechanisms that go into creating it, and how it is presented in digital space,” says Colmon. “Digital literacy means understanding those concepts and being able to converse about them. Digital fluency means being able to create, analyze, remix, and share digital media online.”

Colmon teaches a course specifically on the subject, which allows students to take a deep dive into digital practices, tools, and creation. But digital literacy is also one of the foundational skills of the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, so Penn LPS Online courses across the spectrum of disciplines benefit from using digital technology to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information. To succeed in online courses, online college students and even casual course-takers learn “netiquette,” practice communicating clearly and effectively in virtual spaces, and think critically about digital texts.

Perhaps a more subtle but equally beneficial lesson of the virtual classroom is how to manage and organize your time when you engage with coursework on your own schedule. “I’m always trying to teach my players about time management so they don’t miss practice, and now I’m learning time management more than ever before,” says Andrew, who keeps lists of his responsibilities at work, school, and home in order to stay focused. Robert drew on his professional experiences to meet his classroom goals. “The military teaches you to really think on your feet and adapt to whatever is happening at that moment,” he says. “Having an assignment due is like having a mission. There’s a lot of planning: if we had a paper due Sunday, I would work backward and plan down to the day what I needed to do to complete it by Sunday.”

“I learned so much about myself,” adds Robert of his intensely reflective course of study. “The online certificate really did change my life and helped me greatly moving forward.”

For more staff and student insight about the online learning experience, check out Penn LPS Online Students on How to Balance School, Work, and Family and Tips for Remote Working and Learning in Penn LPS Online Features.

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