Apprehensive about studying online? After teaching theology online for five years, Randall Woodard became an online student, himself – and experienced the power of online learning from a new perspective.

By Dr. Randall Woodard,
Assistant Professor of Theology and Religion

I have to admit that when I first started teaching online, I was apprehensive about online education.

I'm one of those students who really appreciated and got a lot out of my classroom experiences as an undergrad and grad student. I earned my bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees all in traditional face to face formats.

For me, being in a room with others, feeling well prepared through prior reading, listening to an expert lecture about important ideas, and hearing the ideas of other students offered in a real-time discussion was a meaningful and fruitful educational experience.

This was how I learned well. It was also my only experience of learning, having only taken classes this way.

I came to Saint Leo University in 2008 to teach theology and religion classes at University Campus. In my second year at Saint Leo, I was asked to teach religion and theology online and was still unsure about it when compared to traditional learning. I've been teaching online for the past four years -- and have grown to appreciate the education value of this format.

But it was not until I took a few online courses in the instructional design program this past year, that I realized the true advantages of online learning from a busy, working adult's perspective.

Three reasons why I believe in online education.

Looking back, there are three things I have learned by being an online student that have made me a believer in online education.

1. I've found that online education, although different, can bring about each of the elements I appreciated about on-ground education, but in a different kind of space.

 Each of the courses I have taken modeled the same positive elements of the classroom, but using the online "space" rather than a typical classroom. The content expertise, my own hard work, and the input from peers all remain, but take place in a modified way – through the podcasts, the clear learning objectives, the interactive materials, and in our discussion boards. The experience took some adaptation on my part, but it was all there.

2. The transition from the classroom to an online asynchronous model is the only way I could have taken course and continued my education.

As an adult with a busy full-time job, kids in sports, and more housework than I care to even admit, all of the instruction takes place on my time. I no longer have a long chunk of time each week that I could use to drive to class, be in the classroom and study the way I did as an undergrad or as a younger grad student. I've been pleasantly surprised at how well online learning fits into my schedule.

3. I now appreciate how well the courses are designed for effective learning.

While designing courses myself as an instructor, and now while taking classes as a student, I've appreciated the blend of two different forms of expertise that goes in to the development of online classes.

When each course is created, the content expert for the specific course is partnered with a professional instructional designer who works closely with the faculty member to, not only share the class material, but to do so in a way that truly engages adult learners. This blend of a professor with an instructional designer makes for a particularly effective learning experience.

When these two different professionals work together to create this "space" for learning, incredible content meets fantastic instruction.

I've learned a lot over the past few years while designing, teaching and now, taking online courses. I have to admit, that although they are different and that online education has a learning curve, I have experienced how effective, convenient and similar the online experience can be to face-to-face traditional instruction.

I've become a believer and a thankful student because of Saint Leo's online programs!

What has made you a believer in online education?

Randall Woodard has been teaching in the Department of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at Saint Leo University for the past five years and loves the student-centered teaching environment and passion for learning that he finds at Saint Leo. Outside of the classroom, he serves as a taxi driver, maid and 1.5 star chef to his three wonderful kids.

Image Credit: hockadilly on Flickr/Creative Commons

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