Ten Tips for Finding a Writing Class: Number Nine

Everyday for ten days, I’ll post a new tip for finding a writing class.

Number Nine: Traditional or Online Learning? 

Back in the days of Mac Toasters, when I was doing my undergraduate degree, the University I attended offered correspondence courses. They were accredited the same as regular courses, but you could study from home. Several people I know took one or two of these courses along side their regular class schedule, arguing that since they could study ‘at any time’ it would be easier than trying to fit another class into an already busy timetable.

Now remember, this was back before the internet. (Actually, I did have an external dial-up modem for my Toaster. I was with the ISP Prodigy, and I was the only one in the dorm online. Ah, those were the days of waiting fifteen minutes to upload a geometric message board to talk about local bands. But I digress.) So, in order to take one of these correspondence courses, the University sent you Xeroxed materials in the post once a week – or I believe you could pick them up on campus – and you had to then return a completed homework assignment based on the material. They would correct the homework and send it back, and at the end of the semester you took an exam. There were no video lectures, no group message boards, no emails, no live or even virtual interaction with other people.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anyone who completed a correspondence course. I think everyone dropped the class within a few weeks. Without classroom contact it was easy to get behind in homework assignments, not understand information, or even just forget what work needed to be done.

Obviously, things have changed.

My first experience of a contemporary VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) was when I did my Postgraduate Certificate in Education in 2006. I did it online. I was a bit wary at first, because these old correspondence courses were still coming to mind. But as I was studying for a qualification to teach English as a second language, the online aspect ended-up being a huge benefit. There was only one other local person on my course, all the other students lived and taught around the world. Regularly speaking with people in other countries gave me access to global pedagogy. We could compare and contrast our own experiences of teaching in different parts of the world. For example, a Chinese woman teaching English to Chinese students, was very different than the British woman teaching English to Italians, and my own experience of teaching English in Scotland to people of various nationalities was different yet. We could compare and discuss methodology and culture in ways that a normal classroom would have made difficult.

When studying a topic that lends itself to a global market, like teaching English as a second language, the benefits of studying online become obvious. But what about something like creative writing? A field that can be very personal?

As technology continues to rapidly develop, many online course have video lectures, live online tutorials, and use Skpe and Second Life based workshops, thus making the VLE appear as ‘personal’ as a traditional classroom.

You can find a number of online classes, webinars and internet tutorials for creative writing, which have several of benefits. They are often more flexible than the traditional face-to-face class, and you could find yourself in a VLE with students from all over the world – a prospect many writers find exciting. Additionally, due to the flexible nature of such online courses, you might have access to authors and teachers that you normally would never meet. Obviously, it’s easier and cheaper for that famous author to pop online from home for an hour and do a guest webinar, than it is for an organisation to fly that author to a location, set up a space, and put up that author in a hotel. Currently, there are some really exciting things happening online.

One advantage to be found in online courses is the flexibility, but this flexibility can also be a big drawback. Without the one-to-one lessons and the structure of regular meetings, it’s easy to skip lessons and get behind in work. Also, the people you meet in a creative writing class can turn into life-long writing buddies, and this is less likely to happen in a virtual environment. Finally, when lessons are explained via uploaded text or video stream, some students become nervous asking questions, or there is less of an opportunity to become interactive. Group interaction is such a large factor in creative writing class success.

Personally, I’ve set up online classes that have been a success while others have been a failure. Currently, I’m coaching a student through writing a novel, and we’re doing the entire process online. (He’s in the US and I’m in the UK.) But, about a year ago, I attempted to start an online creative writing forum for some of my former students, but due to the fact that I didn’t put enough security on the site (a lesson well learned), random internet-crashers were finding the forum and this made my close-nit group of students nervous, causing the forum to die.

As with anything, there are benefits and drawbacks to online classes, and you should think about what you want out of the class and the type of environment you’re most comfortable with. Those who are already in other online environments (such a Second Life or various gaming environments) will be comfortable with the format, while others truly need that face-to-face interaction. If you live in a remote area or you work an awkward schedule (perhaps you work the night shift), do think about taking an online course. Start with something small like a webinar, then if that goes well look into an online class.

Just remember to keep an open mind, and do a little research first.

Two minor post scripts:

1. While I was completing my online English language course, I did not have the internet at home. I did this year-long postgraduate qualification using the local library’s free internet service. So, it goes to show that you can do an online course without having the internet in your home.

2. For those in Britain (and I believe some Commonwealth countries) don’t forget about the Open University. They’ve been teaching through non-conventional methods for thirty years, and from the beginning have found ways to cross new technologies with face-to-face learning, so that the student has the best of both worlds. 

Go to:
Tip Number One: Be Realistic
Tip Number Two: Stop Making Excuses
Tip Number Three: Research
Tip Number Four: Know What You Want
Tip Number Five: Help from Friends
Tip Number Six: Ask for References
Tip Number Seven: Pay What You Can Afford
Tip Number Eight: Don’t Change the Class
Tip Number Ten: Keep and Open Mind

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