Another Look at Online Classes

When I think about the online classes I’ve taken at UMaine Augusta, I always believed that there are two pieces that come into play: content and delivery. Content includes the subject matter itself, the texts and course readings, and the instructor’s “deliverables” – lectures, interaction with students, and enthusiasm. The delivery method, in this case, is web-based. The best online courses are taught by instructors who use online technology to transmit, and even enhance, their course content.

But now that I’m taking an online class at a different campus, I’m aware that success in online classes involves a third important piece: the particular platform used to deliver the online content. At UMA, we’ve always used Blackboard. At UMO, we use FirstClass.

So far, not so happy with FirstClass.

Blackboard behaves like a website. Once you log on and select your particular class link, you are “in class.” An announcement from the instructor greets you, and changes from week to week, or even more often.  A sidebar has buttons to click for things like Syllabus, Assignments, Discussion Forums, Groups, Resources, etc. It’s very customizable, so instructors can add areas to link to. For instance, last semester, one of my profs had sections for Weekly Updates, PowerPoint/Videos, Writing Lessons, and Web Links.

FirstClass behaves more like an email program. Again, you log on and click on your class, bringing you to a series of icons for each of the weekly lessons, the syllabus, faculty background, and student introductions. A nice touch is a little red flag on any icon section that contains new material since the last login.

I hate to whine, but that’s about the only nice touch. Students’ discussion posts appear as individual emails, and display in a miniscule font. I found a way to increase the font size, but must make this adjustment for each and every post. For some reason, I’m unable to attach an essay to a post, and when I paste the essay into the body of the post, it reformats my writing in strange ways.

But the hardest part is following a discussion. In Blackboard, every discussion starts with a student’s original post, and responses are indented in an orderly “thread.” It’s easy to follow a conversation’s back and forth flow, and understand when a new person is chiming in with new input. But in FirstClass, you simply can’t do that, as far as I can tell. You can reorganize how posts appear, either by date order, or in alphabetical order by subject title or by student name. What you can’t do is follow a discussion. It feels very disjointed to me, going from post to post reading really interesting content that doesn’t quite add up to an actual discussion.

And this is so unfortunate, because otherwise, the class is fantastic. It’s called A Midwife’s Tale and the Social Web, and is being run as an interdisciplinary seminar. All of the instructors are engaged and engaging, my classmates are participating in a really meaningful way, and the subject matter is fascinating. So the content is there, and the delivery is there, but for me, this platform is really getting in the way of my experience.

So what to do? First, I’ll make a call to their help desk to figure out those attaching and formatting glitches. Perhaps there’s a way to realign my classmates’ posts so I can follow one conversation at a time. Meanwhile, I miss Blackboard!

I’d love to hear from other online learners out there. What platform do your classes use? What works well? What works less well? What is driving you nuts?

…and since folks seem to like the snow pics, here are a couple from our most recent storm.

During the storm...those white spots are snowflakes

Out and about a couple days later

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8 Responses to Another Look at Online Classes

  1. Leslie Billings says:

    I have taken courses on both platforms and agree with you 100%. Blackboard is much better at replicating the feel of a classroom, if the instructor uses it that way. However, I have also taken a couple of courses on Blackboard that could have been conducted by email; there was virtually no interaction between students. Such a waste of opportunity! There is yet another platform I have run across, WebCT. This one falls kind of in-between Blackboard and FirstClass. My conclusion is that it takes all three parts: content, delivery and platform, working together to make an excellent online class.

    • leenthebean says:

      Thank you for your thoughts on this. I took a WebCT course several years ago. I thought I heard that company was absorbed by either First Class or Blackboard. I completely agree that the online course is only as good as the professor teaching it, and interaction between the prof and the students, and between the students, is key. Those other kinds of classes – where there’s little interaction – are what give online classes a bad name. Too bad, when there are so many good, great, and even awesome online classes (and online teachers) out there. Thanks for weighing in!

  2. Caz says:

    Gosh – do you really live there? It looks absolutely beautiful!!
    I can’t help you with the online study but I guess it all just comes down to what you’re used to. Maybe you could give the new University a few tips and some feedback on how it could run more smoothly? Good luck with it.

    • leenthebean says:

      Yeah, I have to admit, I’m pretty fortunate to live in such a gorgeous place. As for tips, I’ll save that for the course evaluation at the end of the semester. Thanks for the good wishes, and for checking in, Caz.

  3. Colleen, I placed a link to this on Twitter. Interesting and informative post. Have you thought about placing links to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media on your blog? Might help increase traffic. You write interesting posts, and I hope they get read by highered professionals.

    • leenthebean says:

      Hi Bill! Thanks for the link. I have to figure out how to get those link icons on my blog. I’m sure it’s not complicated. I just have to make the time and do it. Do you have to have a twitter account in order to link to twitter?

  4. Connie Yen says:

    Beautiful pics!
    I’ve taken numerous online classes which all utilized Blackboard and I’ve never had any problems with it. Even some of my seated classes use blackboard to post class documents and grades. I’m glad I have never experienced FirstClass!

    • leenthebean says:

      Hey Connie, Thanks for checking in. I have a lot more experience with Bb and maybe that’s by I like it better. I’ve used FirstClass before, and don’t recall disliking it so much. I hope I can figure out ways around the things I don’t like!

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