Frustrated studentI have written previously about my summer online courses. The first time I did so was way back in 2009 when I complained that the online textbook severely crippled the learning experience. Since then, I have taken several more, with one more to go before I obtain my second full specialist qualification.

So, has it improved? Have the last seven years brought any improvement to the software, the technology, the user experience and so on? Is the full potential of the digital age at last realized?

In a word: no. A thousand times no to all of that and everything. Take a deep breath; we’re going in…

As in previous years, the course is web forum based. You log in and there is a tabbed side-bar with various sections, then a main screen to display the content you choose. The modules include the ‘lecture’ for each module (which used to be plain-text, but is now a click-through slide show of plain text), a barely functional gradebook (more on that in a second) and the forums, which are the heart of the course.

For each module, the syllabus offers several readings in addition to the ‘lecture,’ and several tasks or discussion questions. You are required to post these on the forum, and respond to other’s posts, in a way that proves you have done the readings. This leads to a lot of stilted conversations such as ‘Yes, I agree with you. As Smith says in his 2014 article…’

That said, I understand the necessity for such a set-up in a distance course. My complaint is with how this is all implemented. Take the gradebook, for instance. You assume that you would click on it and see a list of your grades for the various tasks, right? Nope! You see a hyperlink to the course organizer. From there, you can scroll down to the module you want, click on that to open it, wait for the slideshow to load because it will slow down the page if it isn’t loaded, scroll down to the assignment for the module, click on that and THEN see the gradebook. It would be like driving to the grocery store and finding that all of the fruits and vegetables had been taken out of the bins and replaced with paper copies of a map you can use to drive to the farm. Why on earth would somebody design a forum software this way?

Secondly, they seem to have given no thought to how a real person would actually want to navigate this content. It took almost a week for them to add a link to the forums onto the sidebar, for instance. It’s the most important part! Why was it not there on day 1? Apparently, people complained (before they fixed it, you had to open up the link for each module, same as I described above, and navigate down to the link for each section of the course) because it got an update and is now in the sidebar. The gradebook also got fixed so that clicking on it actually did open up a list of your grades. But it boggles my mind that in the seven years I have been doing this, they still have not figured out a way to have one-click access to the things people need.

Another issue involved the course readings. The good news is, they have done away with costly textbooks at last. All of us can use our course log-ins to access the on-line database at the university library. The list of readings each come with an article ID we can paste in the search box to read each article. Unfortunately, the formatting of these articles has not been standardized. Some of them are a PDF download. Others cannot be downloaded at all. Some open up in a second window, others do not. Some have hyperlinks, others do not. And so on; you get my drift. One assignment required us to consult an article which listed 25 websites, choose a website and review it. The article was not hyperlink-enabled, and since it was a locked PDF, could not be copied or pasted from either. You had to manually re-type the URL! That just blows my mind that seven years into this, we still have to manually do that. They still have not figured out a  better way, after all of this time?

The other difficulty is that because the library database is a separate piece of software and is not integrated into the forum software, you have to have multiple windows open if you can to get any work done. I gave up on my tablet and have been grateful for my new Macbook Air, which is much more portable than what I had before. One poor classmate of mine spent a weekend in the hospital with her son, who broke his toe in a swimming pool accident, and reported that while she was able to keep up, everything took three times as long to do on a tablet because they aren’t really set up for multi-window work. I sympathize!

I understand that technology is harder to do right than most people think it is. I understand that there is no perfect system and there will always be bugs and glitches in something like this. I am not saying everything has to be perfect just yet. But it startles me just how little things have improved in all the years I have been taking these courses on-line. It’s not that we should have progressed to perfection just yet. But we should have progressed a little. We haven’t. Why?

Previous articleSolar-powered libraries: WiFi in the middle of nowhere for e-reading, other purposes
Next article‘Cli-Fi’ takes over Matter’s current issue
"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. When my daughter was in high school, about 2009, she had to retake a class and chose to do it online over the summer. I can’t really remember the specifics, only that it was well-laid out, easy to follow, communicate and see your assignment grades.

    Also, now that the Great Courses lectures are available from Amazon Instant Video, my husband and I have really enjoyed them. Add some tests and a discussion forum, and you have a great class, taught by some of the best teachers out there. The one my husband is watching now is taught by a man who has taught history at West Point for decades. He is also an engineer, making the lecture really interesting.

  2. One or two courses hardly qualifies as an indictment to online learning.

    I’ve taught writing through easily a dozen different groups and sites, and I’ve never been unhappy with them with the mild exception of a bulletin board that went weird for a day.

    My siblings have taught via colleges and organizations, and they’ve had no complaints even with complex courses that involved videos, Skype, grades, etc.

    Like all things, online courses can be good or bad so you have to ask around before you spend your money.

  3. The problems you describe arise from a bureaucracy desperately trying to prove that it still has some value by enforcing unnecessary controls. The same kind of thing happened when I was teaching computing in the 1990s. Once the government decided that the industry had to be ‘regulated’, we went from a situation where highly talented and creative people were delivering the content that the students needed to a situation where any clown could ‘deliver’ a course by plodding through an ‘approved’ manual — which, because of the time and effort it took to get ‘approved’, was invariably several years out of date. A whole profession of ‘course administrators’ appeared who added little or nothing to the quality of teaching, but existed solely to generate and handle paperwork.

    At some point in the near future Generation Y is going to realise that they can learn anything they damn well please, any way they please, without having to sign up for expensive ‘managed’ courses. Once employers get the idea too we can expect a sudden and dramatic collapse in this kind of bureaucratic nonsense.

  4. Marilynn, it is not ‘one or two courses.’ It is about seven, over as many years. And as I said, what bothers me is not that it is imperfect per se, it’s just that there has been so little progress in that timespan. Hyperlinks that have to be manually copied, seven years later? You don’t think that’s a little sloppy?

  5. Was this course offered on Moodle or Blackboard, Joanna? It has elements of both. From an instructor perspective (and I teach in-person), Blackboard is brutal to use. We spend plenty of class time helping students navigate the system in our class and their other classes. It’s clunky and weird as you describe.

    That said, we are developing some online courses that may improve somewhat on these clunk-tastic experiences and if you’d like to give some feedback and assistance, this would be really appreciated!

    Learning is not passive. It should be active. We do have tools that can help that, but the older systems used by traditional education like Blackboard and Moodle are cobbled together stuff (I’m not a programmer but I can tell when they “add” or “upgrade” and it’s all piecemeal even to this day).

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail