Online Learning: Throw out the Textbook

by Jessica Wiese

As a somewhat atypical college student, I am working to finish my Bachelor’s degree at thirty-one years old. Like most people, I attended college directly after graduating from high school. I spent three years at Texas State University in San Marcos, focusing mainly on the core classes and satisfying prerequisites, but I am a big enough person to admit that I spent a lot more time at the bars and on the river than in the classroom. There was only so much interest that a geography professor could garner, and I found all of my classes to be incredibly boring and was a very absent student—couple that with the implosion of my family, and it was a recipe for disaster. Sitting through lectures was a special form of torture, and classes with an attendance policy were the bane of my existence. In-person learning (or really, learning of any kind at the time) was quite awful for me.

After becoming a parent, having a cataclysmic shift in my priorities, and experiencing tremendous amounts of personal healing and growth, here I am—finally finishing what I started. I am happily married, a mother to a beautiful nine-year-old son, and I work full-time as the Human Resources Manager for a therapy provider for individuals with autism. I have a very full, happy life, but my incomplete education is a constant source of insecurity and shame. Online learning is really the only option for me as I complete higher education, since I would like to occasionally see my family and sleep. I was initially so afraid of how much I would have forgotten during my nearly ten-year hiatus from school. MLA format?! Mathematical formulas?! That tiny voice in the back of my head telling me I’m too late, too old, or can’t do it at all was always louder than any words of reassurance I attempted to drown it out with.

Since returning to school in the fall of 2019, I’ve taken about thirty-seven credit hours exclusively online, with twenty-six to go until graduation. Of all the courses I’ve taken from my time at Texas State, this past year at both my local community college, and now here at Texas Woman’s University, the best course was this past semester. It was the first course I had in which there wasn’t a textbook. The content shared with us each week as we explored the different themes was always from a variety of different sources including artists, performers, and lesser-known activists. The course, US Women of Colors, was one that I was ecstatic to take, but I couldn’t have foreseen just how much I would love the lessons that were posted each week. Although my circle is small, I’ve shared so many of the videos, poems, and books with the people that I care about—while feeling more empowered myself to be a better, stronger advocate. Reading from a textbook and taking quizzes on vocabulary has its merits for certain courses and is necessary for certain topics, but is it really doing anything significant to ignite a true passion or increase a student’s learning? Granted, I don’t want a doctor who hasn’t been thoroughly tested to operate on me, but that’s a different story. Since being exposed to so many new creative minds through this course, it has expanded my horizons in ways that I didn’t expect any course would or could. This, in my opinion, should be the goal of any professor—creating that passion in their students and instilling the hunger to learn more.

Conversely, I had the extreme displeasure this past semester to take the absolute worst course of my college career: Statistics. Right out of the gate, the posted syllabus was a template that wasn’t modified to fit the course—picture Xs in place of critical dates and even the course title and number, and yellow highlighting remained to indicate things that should have been changed. Due dates were unclear and ever-changing. The only instruction we received was through software we had to install and two textbooks. When I’d email with questions or requests for assistance, it would take days or sometimes weeks to hear back, and grades weren’t posted for any assignments until the last weeks of the course. For a statistics course, not getting an answer can result in a complete work stoppage. Because the content is cumulative, it is also pretty terrifying not knowing if you correctly understood the previous weeks’ assignments as you utilize that same “knowledge” on more graded work. I can’t imagine the number of students each professor has in each course or how many courses they are all teaching, but timely responses to student questions and timely grading is critical for any online course.

Finally, after a month without instruction of any kind, the professor agreed to schedule a Zoom meeting during her office hours to explain some of the material. Not only did she schedule it at a time that was not suited to working professionals’ schedules, the recording was completely unhelpful: cut to the professor laughing about how bad she is at math—especially troublesome for a math course—saying “umm” and “basically” throughout, and making immature comments as though she was hosting her own YouTube channel instead of worrying about educating her audience. Online learning can be isolating without a buddy from class who you sit next to regularly and can text with a quick question, so you really have to be able to count on your professor’s support.

To avoid ending on a sour note, allow me to reiterate the absolute joy I have found in online learning—specifically those courses that color outside of the lines and truly foster an exciting learning space. For professors, compiling creative and outside-the-box content, fostering genuine discussions, setting clear expectations, and communicating promptly are all key in ensuring the success of online students. As I finish my last two semesters, I can’t wait to see what my next batch of professors has in store for me!

Jessica Wiese lives in Houston, TX, with her son, husband, and two golden retrievers. She is pursuing her bachelor's degree in sociology with a concentration in social inequalities and anticipates its completion in August of 2021. Her last eleven years have been spent serving a variety of different functions at a therapy clinic for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental delays. Upon completion of her degree, she hopes to pursue opportunities where she can advocate for women, children, immigrants, and BIPOC communities in any way that can make an impact and affect change.