The past several weeks have seen a dramatic shift in online and decentralized learning being a somewhat fringe endeavor to being fully mainstream. Administrators, teachers, and students are all trying—with varying degrees of success—to navigate the hurried transition. Against this backdrop of quick change, and “good enough, for now, pedagogical patchwork” it is easy to forget that online learning has a fairly well-established history and both teachers and learners have been succeeding for many decades.
This series of interview posts endeavors to share three successful online learning stories believing that, though it is always important to remember the human behind every learning interaction, this is perhaps even more important these days. I hope that this series will help all of us—whether teachers, designers, or developers— to take this knowledge and learn to, as elegantly stated by our first interviewee, “treat them as real people, even though the intermediary wall of the internet.”
In this first interview, Alison Freeman discusses her experience getting her undergraduate degree in Communication Studies via a full-time, online study. Freeman began her studies through the College Plus program (now Lumerit Unbound). She completed coursework through Thomas Edison State University in March of 2016. Her journey is one of doing things “a little differently” she happily embraced modularity in her higher education journey.
How did you learn about College Plus and Thomas Edison State?
In high school, I was homeschooled. The College Plus academic coaching program for online distance education targeted homeschooled students so my parents and I were aware of them through general advertising and word-of-mouth. My mom suggested I should learn more about online education because of the advantages in flexibility and cost.
Why did you choose to study online?
At 19, I knew I wanted a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t want to move away from my job or my community, and also, just kind of had an anti-system streak in me that believed I could do things differently.
At the same time, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and knew I would need help to navigate the world of academic administration. The one-on-one coaching with trained advisors in College Plus sold me on the deal. I eventually chose the communication degree at Thomas Edison because they had the most flexibility in how one might go about building a degree of any accredited institution, and Thomas Edison focused on online ed, so it seemed like the best option for me.
Did you have any online learning experience before your undergrad or was this your first?
Before joining either College Plus or Thomas Edison, I had earned 30 credit-hours through taking CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams. I studied for these through official study guides produced by the College Board, as well as through various online resources. This introduced me a bit to line learning however my first real experience in an online classroom was with College Plus.
We could probably talk about this for several days but….what were, very broadly, the best and worst parts of being an online learner?
From the admins at the local University of Phoenix who proctored me through nearly 25 CLEP exams to my College Plus Coach, Carissa, to professors I still follow on Twitter, the intense, intentional, and engaged people I met during college were easily the best part of the experience.
Flexibility, speed, and huge cost savings were the other obvious perks. I have zero student debt and graduated debt-free. That’s awesome. I’ve had flexibility in my early 20’s that I absolutely wouldn’t have if I was concerned with making student debt payments.
On the negative side, I had a good handful of classes with disengaged, over-scheduled professors who rarely responded to me, and left no meaningful feedback. I also spent a heck of a lot of time alone in my room. I worked and was involved in church and other activities throughout these years, so I wasn’t starved for interaction, but I probably should have gotten some blue-light glasses. There’s a lot of screen-staring involved!
Interesting that the instructors ended up being both the best and worst parts of the experience! Did you feel like you know your instructors/advisors? If so, how did they become “real” to you?
My favorite professor was a fellow named Michael Humphrey (https://twitter.com/mlhumph3) who taught journalism at Colorado State. I took one class from them in the Summer of 2015. He assigned real work that would help us build an actual portfolio. He also engaged with our work on the publishing platforms we used and left meaningful feedback. He felt very active and engaged in my learning process and it seemed like he cared about my success. At the end of the term, I remember he invited me to email him later if I ever needed career advice. I still follow him on Twitter, and though he probably won’t remember me, I would email him if I had a reason! That class was a huge confidence-booster for me, and I have used pieces I wrote for it as writing examples more than once.
Did you feel like you know your fellow students? Did you ever meet up face to face or have you continued any of those relationships?
Coincidentally, yes! Just this last August, I stood up as a bridesmaid at my dear friend Kylie’s wedding. I met Kylie through my first class at Thomas Edison. We discovered in the class chat that she was also a once-homeschooled-College-Plus-student, and we instantly hit it off. We became study-buddies initially and then good friends.
A little over a year later, she visited me in Seattle. In turn, I met up with her and other school friends for a weekend in Austin. I would say Kylie is probably the only close college friend I have, but I do keep up casually on social media with several more friends I’ve met along the way.
That’s awesome! It’s always so amazing how the Internet can help you meet people you never would have known otherwise! In closing, what advice would you give to a future online student?
You’ll get out what you put in.
If you choose to engage with the folks you have an opportunity to learn from and treat them as real people, even through the intermediary wall of the internet, you’ll be surprised how passionate and engaged many faculty and students in the online learning world can be.
Focus on producing real work as much as you can.
The projects you choose to do for school will become major confidence boosters for transitioning to a career, especially when you’re in the early part of your work life.
Finally, don’t sweat the disengaged over-worked adjunct professor who is teaching 18 online classes at once and can’t remember which one you’re from when you email him! If you’re remotely attentive, you’ll get a good grade, even if the class is uninspiring. Just like in any educational experience, every class won’t be a life-changer. Look forward to your next inspiring class, and most of all keep on going!