Online advice

Aug 15th, 2012 | By | Category: 24-1: Communicating Yesterday's Stories Today

Dear Editor,

I doubt that this letter will meet any standards for publishing as a talk-back note. The length is certainly prohibitive in that regard. However, I do feel strongly about online education as a viable form to supplement traditional brick and mortar schools. Please do consider my noted contents and feel free to pass them on to Professor Al-Asfour as you may consider appropriate.

I compliment Tribal College Journal for publishing Professor Al-Asfour’s presentation of “Online Teaching: Navigating its advantages, disadvantages and best practices” (Vol. 23, No. 3). For years I have looked for just such a presentation. Since spring 1998, I have been teaching online. First it was an Ethics and Professionalism for CPAs (Certified Public Accountants) course and later additional accounting courses to include principles, intermediate and income taxes. Professor Al-Asfour brings to light many aspects of online education, some that I would like to expound on from a professor’s point of view.

There are many pros and cons to online learning. Professor Al-Asfour mentioned several to include: flexibility, increased technological skills and written communication skills. Mentioned also were some disadvantages such as missing one-on-one meetings with faculty, motivation and self-discipline, need for internet access and equipment. Some disadvantages can certainly be mitigated to an extent; instant messages, texting, email and other resources can help the professor reach out and touch students at a distance.

In classes that I teach online my student population is worldwide. It is not unusual for me to have, in the same class section, students from Eastern Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Hawaii, Alaska, the west coast of the U.S., middle U.S., eastern U.S., Europe, and deployed military in Afghanistan (and at one time Iraq). Time zones are not a problem when it comes to asynchronous classes. Students enter and work on their assignments at their own pace within a scheduled block of instruction. However, I would gather that Oglala Lakota College might not have a time zone constraint and that synchronous class sessions would be considered possible. This synchronous element adds an entirely different flavor to online learning. I use some synchronous meetings with my classes in principles of accounting, calling them tutor sessions, and then archive the meetings so that those who cannot attend have the benefit of viewing and hearing our discussion and my presentations.

Professor Al-Asfour mentioned phone conference calls and Skype; there are additional resources for synchronous meetings to include WebEx where the professor may provide screen share, white board and PowerPoint presentations. Over the last few years, I have added one more feature to my online classes. I used a camcorder to record lectures and demonstration problems for students the same as I would in a face-to-face (f2f) class setting. Students’ responses and reactions to being “touched” during an IM chat, seeing my video presentations or participation/reviewing synchronous sessions has been very favorable. In fact, it seems to be more in demand and helps the student get organized with their study. Several have noted they view the lecture videos first so that they know what to concentrate on when the read the textbook.

Number- and science-related courses such as math, physics, economics, accounting, and finance should be included in the menu for online classes. Textbook publishers have embraced the online learning community. They have considerable resources that can be integrated into the classroom delivery system such as Blackboard. John Wiley and Sons provide WileyPlus, McPherson has My Accounting Lab, and McGraw-Hill offers Connect, all incorporating interactive resources, along with online auto-grading features, to support selected textbooks. Additionally, each publisher has many more subjects included in their menu such as history, biology, physics and math. Cost becomes a determining factor with these options. The individual student may bear the costs as a part of their course materials or the institution may work with the publisher to provide these resources as a part of the overall online program. If the latter were chosen, then one might expect grants and funding to be sought from government and not-for-profit educational supports. Often we hear of how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or IBM and other large corporations provide educational grants and support to further the advancement of online education.

Other facets of online teaching that I would like to mention include that it is much more time consuming and does require strict organization. Out of sight is out of mind. Faculty as well as students must set up a regular schedule and keep to it. Yes, the system is flexible for the user, time can be apportioned over a segment but the individual must hold to a set pattern and refrain from outside distractions. If 15 hours of course work is expected over a weekly period, it is not a good practice to try and cram it all in on a Saturday or Sunday. Therefore, time management skills are critical for all involved. These time management skills learned by the online student will be a valuable resource with employers after graduation and entry into the job market.

How valid and rigorous is an online program? This simple question is often presented to me each time I attend Maryland Association of Certified Public Accounts town hall meetings. I am usually the sole CPA educator at these gatherings of accounting professionals from industry, government and public practice. My response has been that it can be very rigorous and meet the standards found at any brick and mortar institution where f2f classes are the norm. Most of the online work is done in a self-study or collaborative environment. This may lower the level of confidence that the individual student is the sole practitioner and beneficiary of the education offered. Assessments and assignments that are only online can be completed by any individual; student or otherwise. The crown jewel of an online program is the final assessment. The strongest is one that is f2f, proctored, closed book, comprehensive, and timed. Photo identification may be examined to ascertain the validity of the student. Assigning a significant portion of the course credit (30% to 50%) to this final assessment ensures that those who complete the course by their own means will demonstrate their true level of knowledge, skills and abilities for the given course material. I would expect that Oglala Lakota College and other Native colleges with student populations more centrally located would be able to administer this type of residency requirement. For a worldwide student based university the logistics are more challenging. Therefore, yes, my industry colleagues, there can be validity and rigor to an online educational program.

Again, I was pleased to have read Professor Al-Asfour’s presentation of online education entering into Native American higher education. It demonstrates that there is broader educational reach into the population with a quality system that can be affordable. With the cost of gas hitting all time highs, the need for individuals to simultaneously work, maintain family responsibilities, and attend school, online education opens doors that have been closed for too many years. I believe that the benefits will far outweigh the costs both for the institution and the individual.

Michael J. Motes
Associate Professor Accounting
University of Maryland University College

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