When the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program offered its first online course back in the spring of 1995, Introduction to Fiction: Learning Fiction Fundamentals On-Line, the staff could not envision how popular and practical distance learning would become—not even the course instructor, Harry Youtt. Thirteen years later, Harry still teaches online courses for the Writers’ Program, along with his wife Judith Prager, and he looks back on those early days with the wry smile of a pioneer.

“Everything had to be imagined,” says Harry. “Students had to imagine their instructor, and vice versa. And they all had to imagine a virtual classroom. The surprising thing was that without any nexus to reality, the experience was quite disconcerting.”

Today, the Writers’ Program offers nearly 50 online courses per quarter in creative writing, nonfiction/memoir writing, and in screenwriting, and several long-time classroom instructors have made the leap into the “disconcerting” realm of cyber-learning. We gathered together a few of these bold transformers to give their impressions about the respective benefits of apples versus oranges, or in-class versus online instruction.

“You either have talent or you don’t,” says Tod Goldberg, a stalwart Writers’ Program instructor in multiple fiction genres, and former UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award winner in Creative Writing. “The form of the classroom isn’t going to change that. I will say, however, that because of how I conduct online classes, with lots of professional guests from magazines and journals and publishers and such who simply wouldn’t be able to come to a classroom at UCLA, of late I’ve seen more of my online students finding publication than my in-class students, or at least at a faster rate. It helps when a writer has met an editor, even online, and then submits his or her work to them.”

“I’d say online courses encourage more interaction,” notes screenwriting instructor Karl Iglesias. “I suspect it’s due to the fact that most online students tend to be from out of town, even from foreign countries, and feel excited to have the opportunity to attend UCLA Extension and interact with professional writers/instructors, so they take advantage of their time and ask more questions, post more comments.” Karl has taught the courses Writing for Emotional Impact and Writing Great Dialogue in the classroom, and now presents them in an online format.

“I find that the online students perform better and are more committed,” notes Erica Byrne, longtime instructor of the courses Introduction to Screenwriting and Beginning Writing for the One-Hour Drama, and recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor of the Year Award in Screenwriting. “But that is not to say the onsite students aren’t dedicated—they just don’t seem to go the extra mile.”

Screenwriting instructor Chrys Balis, a recent winner of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Distance Learning, offered this interesting sidebar: “Students get my input throughout the week, unlike a three-hour timeframe one night a week. I share with them my experiences and foibles. We joke. We know what’s happening in each other’s lives. It’s simply conversation in a written format. Also, you get to hear more from those students who in a classroom setting might not be the big talkers. With the distance a computer provides, they open up.”

“Performance is different for each format,” Judith Prager asserts. “The classroom interaction is so conducive to better performance because both the live feedback and the immediate reaction by classmates stimulate the imagination and the ego. We once had a 14-year-old boy in our live class and he was quite a good writer. The adults ran to catch up and it was a lovely spectacle, one which we don’t think would have been so apparent online.” In contrast, Harry notes, “The online format enables students to interact casually with other students as they flex their creative muscles, in ways that simply are not available in a once-per-week classroom setting.”

As the conversation continues, one big question comes to mind: If online courses provide such great benefits to the students, how does that translate into the instructors’ workloads for their respective classes?

“The workload and time commitment is much more intense online,” says Erica. “Given the fact that you deal more one-on-one with every student, it takes more time. Also, since all feedback must be typed, that too is time consuming. I talk much faster than I type!”

Tod concurs, but for different reasons. “Unlike the regular classroom, where you have your three hours and then however much time during the week you might devote to reading time and class prep, teaching an online class is an everyday affair,” he says. “Because the message boards tend to be very active with questions and thoughts and just general chatter, I always feel compelled to check in every day and answer questions, field thoughts, respond to queries, and just read along while other people are discussing things.”

Chrys gives a more measured response. “For classroom work you prepare bullet points for the lecture of the day and open up the rest of the time to either exercises or review of script pages. You can riff from there. Obviously, you also read script material and prep your handouts. Online, not only do you also read all script materials and prepare ‘virtual handouts,’ but you must write 5-15 pages of a lecture each week, making it read like a good book—both in terms of organization and entertaining delivery. Then you face the multitude of postings (up to 200 a week!)—questions on your notes or the material, new ideas that come up, etc.—and you’re typing away. So basically, for a classroom course, your overall work time (prepping and teaching) is about five hours a week. For online work, it can be twelve or more….”

“Because the lectures were already written and posted weekly with the click of a button, I thought online teaching would be less time intensive,” adds Karl, “but it ended up being more time consuming in terms of typing out answers to questions, comments, and feedback.”

As our discussion gradually winds down, I’m getting the distinct impression that while in-class courses provide the traditional advantages of immediate teacher-student interaction and discussion, online courses require a little more elbow (or finger) grease from the teachers, with students receiving comparatively greater benefits as a result. This can only mean one thing—that in the next 13 years, many more Writers’ Program instructors will be taking the plunge into the digital classroom to maximize their interactive talents.

(If this brief discussion has sparked your interest in Writers’ Program online courses, then you should participate in our Cyberhouse event coming June 5-8, where you can go online, have your questions answered by online instructors, learn about the online format, and even enroll in many Writers’ Program online courses at a ten percent discount. Click HERE to learn more and register for free in this unique online event.)

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Marcus A. Hennessy is a member of the Writers’ Program staff.

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