Online teaching veterans hail the format’s virtues

Assistant Professor Jennifer Brielmaier teaches both in-person and online classes at Mason. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communications

George Mason University’s John Cantiello said being asked to choose between teaching online and a traditional face-to-face setting is probably like a parent being asked to pick a favorite child.

The associate professor of health administration and policy said there is just no way to choose.

“I think it would be a little bit boring all online, all face-to-face or all hybrids,” he said. “So I think a good mix is a good way to go. It keeps things interesting.”

Cantiello is among the Mason professors who are teaching both online and in traditional face-to-face settings. That number will increase in the coming years as the university expands its offerings of online classes and programs to accommodate students who prefer to study online for many reasons, including convenience, the ability to learn at one’s own pace or the need to balance work and family obligations.

There are more than a million Virginians with some college education but no degree, said Michelle Marks, Mason’s vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. As a cofounder of the Online Virginia Network, George Mason is making it easier for such students to resume their education, and Mason’s partnership with Wiley Education Services allows the university to greatly expand its online classes and programs for graduate students.

“We are optimistic about our future with education online,” Marks said. “That’s where the growth is.”

Cantiello, who came to Mason from the University of Central Florida (UCF)—one of the first U.S. institutions to offer online degree programs—acknowledges that it might take time to win over faculty who have not previously taught online.

Some faculty, he said, might question whether Mason’s academic integrity and overall brand could be compromised by an expanded online presence. They also might wonder whether program and course objectives can be accomplished outside a classroom setting.

“For all the positive features I can list for one format, I can give you an equally positive feature for the other,” assistant professor of psychology Erin Murdoch said of online versus face-to-face teaching. “I would never argue that it’s the same. But I would point out that online discussions allow all members of the class to contribute. That shy student who would never speak up during a lively discussion in a classroom might offer an amazing perspective when allowed to post on an online discussion board.”

Currently, eight of 10 undergraduate students at Mason take at least one online class.

“Many students who take classes at Mason are not the typical college student who is 18 to 22 years old and this is all they have going on,” said Jennifer Brielmaier, an assistant professor of cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. “I think having these online options help people go back to school and get a degree after they’ve worked for some time.”

“It’s rewarding to provide a way for these students to achieve their goals,” Murdoch said.

Cantiello and Murdoch, who also came from UCF, stressed that faculty stepping into online teaching for the first time should receive training in order to properly develop well-organized courses that feature material equivalent to what is used in traditional classes. That will help provide a comfortable learning environment in which students know what to expect.

“When faculty are partnered with an instructional designer and have received enough support to convert their learning objectives into online courses and programs, they report feeling like they are able to teach a very high-quality class,” Marks said. “I think they feel very excited about what they’re able to do in an online classroom.”

Bottom line, Murdoch said, “Providing an online option for students is important, and I’m glad that Mason has recognized this need.”