Online education expert: Discipline is key

Peery says indentifying confused students is sometimes difficult for online instructors.
Peery says identifying confused students is sometimes difficult for online instructors.

Irresistible prime-time television and quick snacks that turn into 20-minute breaks are the ever-tempting enemies of online learning, according to Maryland’s distance educator of the year, who says proactive and dedicated students get the most out of web-based classes and the freedom they provide.

Tammy Peery, chair of the English Department at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus, was recognized as her state’s top online instructor March 4 by the Maryland Distance Learning Association.

Peery, a teacher at the three-campus, 60,000-student community college since 1999, grabbed the association’s attention with her role in developing Montgomery Common Courses, online classes that feature the same content for all students in different sections of a college course.

Any student can maintain solid grades in distance courses, Peery said, but students who take online classes to adapt to the changing job market—single parents and military servicemen and women among them—have always been the standouts.

“They are people who really need that education and really want the education,” said Peery, 39, who taught at Maryland’s Frederick Community College before starting at Montgomery College. “They want to improve themselves, so they really thrive and they’re amazingly hard workers. … They want to better themselves, but their circumstances are such that they can’t be tied to a particular place and time [to attend classes].”

Those students also share a common trait, she said: “They’re all so disciplined.”

Students in lecture halls have professors and teaching assistants there to coax attention through even the driest lectures—a luxury that distance learners don’t have.

“There’s no one standing there saying, ‘You have to stay focused for the next hour,’ or ‘I’m going to collect your paper now,’” Peery said. “[Online students] can’t watch TV when they’re supposed to be doing [school] work, and that’s tough.”

Web-based classes also require adjustment from faculty members used to life in the lecture hall, she said. During a classroom lesson, Peery kept an eye out for what she termed a “confused face,” or a clear look from a student after a key concept had sailed over his or her head.

“Online, I can’t see [a] confused face,” she said, adding that she can tell her web-based students are confused about a topic if their participation on class message boards suddenly plummets. “Students have to be proactive and have the guts to ask questions and not wait for me to call on them.”

Peery’s 11 years in distance education have seen a major shift in the capabilities and perception of online courses. Earning a degree via the internet wasn’t widely accepted as equal to brick-and-mortar college classes until online enrollments skyrocketed in the middle of the 2000s.

An annual study, based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, reported a 17-percent increase in online course enrollment last year, with more than one-fourth of U.S. college students taking at least one web-based class during the fall 2008 semester.

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