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accents on english | fall 18-spring 19

Online Students are Plugged-in to Education

To the poet, all times and places are one.

—Oscar Wilde

The ability to go to school at midnight with a dog in your lap and a glass of Merlot in your hand is becoming the new normal. Well, maybe not the vino—but definitely the late nights and, for sure, the dog. With the booming technology and rise of digital and immersive educational media, online education has hit the higher ed market big time. It's a popular way for students to get an excellent education and excel professionally and academically. People who otherwise wouldn’t have the luxury of attending college—full-time teachers, active military, stay-at-home moms, and CEOs—can obtain a degree entirely online. Students want the rigor of a traditional program but need the flexibility to set their schedules, as family and work obligations can change at the drop of a hat.

But what’s it like going to school without actually going to a school? Do students make the same connections and have the same sense of community? While some scholars might argue that online education turns people into robots who lose touch with reality, there are multitudes more who attest that their online students actively engage in discussions and learn from one another in ways that they would not in an actual physical building. In some cases, the medium is not the issue; it is the ingenuity and insight of the university, the professors, and the students (and the determination of all) to make online education a success.

“I love that I can go to a university online that is globally recognizable,” states MA English (English Studies) online student Bridget Buckley, who lives in San Diego and is now a proud Sun Devil with the spirit gear to prove it. “I think the program is what you make it. I am doing my best to create a traditional graduate school experience in a non-traditional structure. Someone told me the most important thing about graduate school is the relationships you make with the professors and because I plan to take 16 months to graduate, I have the time to foster those connections.”

The Department of English has about 1,100 online students in BA English programs and over 300 students in its three online master’s programs. An online classroom is not just a space to get assignments, post discussions, and receive feedback from professors. It is also a community—a microcosm of a certain number of people engaged in a particular topic. Many students log into their classes at places without distractions of the home front (like Starbucks, a library, or under a shade tree because they want to be in the zone). Some students report that—in certain online classes—they feel transported to a second place through the engaging lecture videos. For seven and a half weeks, the participants become familiar with each other’s writing and sometimes connect in personal and professional ways.

Since online students do not have those personal encounters, it becomes more important to present themselves the best way possible—in writing. “I probably spend way too much time forming my discussion posts and responses because there is something permanent about written work,” adds Buckley.

While flexibility is a plus, some confess that they miss the face-to-face interactions with faculty and other students. Besides class discussion boards, MA English student Michael Hall finds community by taking courses with the same instructors as a way to build a professional network. “I noticed a few peers from earlier classes,” says Hall, a middle school teacher in Hawaii. “Being able to interact with the same professors and students over multiple semesters has made it easier to experience authentic discourse.”

Linda Sullivan, who directs undergraduate advising in English, also addresses the presence of community: “Students in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan seem to have a good sense of community among partners in the same stores and/or between partners and their managers.” Sullivan believes that most online students have outside communities (families, jobs, etc.). In addition, ASU Online has an active Facebook group, “Sun Devils Connect,” which offers a sense of community to online students—a place to hang out. There’s just no fireplace.

The flexibility of being immersed in other cultures—and working in the field while studying—appeals to many online students. Brittany-Rose Tribulski, for example, lived in Thailand, Korea, Japan, and Chino, California; Canada, Utah, and Arizona while completing the Master of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MTESOL) online program. “I could study for my master’s while simultaneously studying the world!” she exclaims. Tribulski chose an online program because she was already teaching overseas and didn’t think it was sensible to return to the U.S. to learn about what she was already doing.

The online environment also benefitted Tribulski in a more private and personal way. Tribulski experienced a traumatic death in the family before her program began and endured hurdles of depression and anxiety. “If I had not been enrolled in an online program, I would have been forced to drop out of school,” says Tribulski, who is grateful for the online education platform and the ASU MTESOL program. “It was the source of light for me and allowed me to handle my new issues privately while still studying and even accomplishing something during the hardest part of my life.”

Generally, online students are motivated to succeed and have high expectations for faculty involvement and communication. They don’t choose online because they don’t want to come to campus. They choose this type of learning environment because it is a more suitable option—and sometimes, the only option. Their goal is to get the most out of it as possible.

ASU Online now offers more than 175 degrees entirely online and has over 30,000 online students. According to its website, “In U.S. News & World Report’s recently released report, ‘America’s Best Online Programs,’ ASU was ranked among the top 15 online programs for bachelor’s degrees in 2016.”

As ASU’s online platform continues to expand, it is clear that place and time should no longer be obstacles to education. And place is what you make it. So, plug in the laptop and soak up the knowledge.

Sheila Luna

Image: During spring 2019, students in Department of English online programs lived in many locations around the world, including 47 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Guam, and 12 other countries: Canada, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Great Britain, India, Japan, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, and Ukraine. Map created using MapChart.