Two Sundays ago at the Writers Faire, during a short break from advising students, I stood in the back of a packed classroom and listened to three of our instructors discuss the art of the personal essay. By the time I got there, the Q & A had just begun. A young woman near the front of the classroom stood up.

“Which is better?” she asked, “Online or Onsite?”

One of the instructors caught my eye and I might have dashed out of the room if not for the sixty or seventy people in between me and the door.

You see, as a program assistant for the Writers’ Program, it’s one of the most common questions I hear. It’s also one of the most difficult to answer, no matter how many times I try. Both formats are great, each with their own merits, and, unless you live outside the LA area, there’s no easy way to choose one over the other. So, I turned to the experts for help.

“What I’ve found is that both online and onsite learning accomplishes mostly the same things in terms of education,” says Dan Jaffe, instructor of both onsite and online courses. “Or maybe,” he’s quick to add, “the online learning takes place a little faster because both students and teacher must articulate in writing every single question and comment.” Not so fast, though. “On the other hand,” he continues, “online study is not that great for networking or socializing, aspects of writing study that are more important for some students than for others.”

You see why this is so tricky?

Instructor liz gonzalez concurs. “I don’t think one is better than the other,” she says. “Both have benefits; it just depends on the individual student’s needs and desires.”

Screenwriting instructor Jule Selbo echoes Dan Jaffe’s sentiments. “Online courses allow you to focus on the work while onsite ones give you a bit more of a chance to become friends with classmates.”

Armed with their words and experience, I knew I was closer to finding my way. Still, though, something was missing. A piece of the puzzle had not yet been put into place. That’s when the realization came.

This was something I was going to have to do myself…

This past summer quarter, I decided to conduct an experiment. I would take an onsite and online class at the same time. Perhaps this way I would finally find my own answer to the question of onsite vs. online. Hopefully, I’d learn a little something about time management along the way.

With that mission in mind, I signed up for an onsite nonfiction course and an online short story workshop. I knew that, like most Writers’ Program courses, I would be required to do a good amount of writing and I would be challenged to improve as a writer. I’m not ashamed to say I was a little bit nervous. Any program assistant worth his salt can’t give in to fear, however, so I plowed ahead regardless of the danger, a brave bookworm in the fight for truth.

Having taken onsite courses before, I went into my nonfiction class with a good idea of what to expect. Week after week, I came to be involved in lively discussions on everything from the benefits of different point-of-view choices to who was or wasn’t in the lead to win the Democratic nomination for President. Through a great deal of laughter and, yes, a few tears, I made new friends and reminisced with old ones. Reading work aloud each week, always careful to preface it with my typical self-deprecating, “It’s not very good”, I learned to relax and take advantage of the constant stream of generous and constructive feedback coming from both the teacher and my fellow students.

Of course, as usual, the online vs. onsite debate came up.

“I drive up from Orange County every week for this class,” a young woman said with a resigned look on her face as she typed away on her Mac.

“Ouch,” I replied.

“Yeah, but what am I going to do?” she asked. “Take an online class?”

“Well, you know,” I responded, “online courses do provide you with an experience comparable to the classroom while saving you from long commutes and high gas prices.”

She eyed me with suspicion. “What, do you work for UCLA or something?”

Quick to protect my secret identity, I changed the subject to the value of third-person-omniscient over first.

My response to the online short story workshop was not quite as practiced. Sure, I knew the essential talking points: the ability to take part anywhere at anytime, the easy-to-use set-up of the Blackboard site, the fact that I wouldn’t have to look someone in the eye when I told them their protagonist lacked a clear motivation. But I’d never actually taken a class before. What would it really be like?

The answer is, put simply, pretty awesome.

Here are just a few of the places I read, responded to, and wrote my own feedback: in the middle of a pack of screaming girls while on a date at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, underneath a mountain of blankets at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, the backseat of a car at 3 a.m., on the bus, on the dance floor during a bachelor party, sitting in the back pew during a wedding ceremony, at the airport, very carefully while eating lunch, and yes, even at work (but don’t tell that to my boss).

More than that, though, I was surprised and happy to find that online students are an enthusiastic and productive bunch. For every story and question I submitted, I found myself with long, well-thought-out responses that continually encouraged me to do the same. Having the chance to sit down with a story, to really read it through thoroughly, enabled me to give the kind of specific and thoughtful feedback that every writer craves. The online format also allowed me to look back at all the work and discussions that had been submitted over the course of the class and use that information to inform my critiques and enrich my own writing.

Just imagine a class that you can rewind and pause at will.

Ten weeks and a few new gray hairs later, I emerged from my experiment with a newfound understanding of the online vs. onsite debate. There may not be a right answer to the question of which is better, but I know now that both are equally worthwhile. Whether I was sitting on the couch in my pj’s with a bowl of cereal or at a desk on the UCLA campus, I was learning some valuable lessons about the art and craft of writing.

It all comes down to a matter of personal choice. If you crave personal interaction and the charge of a group of writers hunched over their work together in a classroom, then maybe onsite is right for you. If you value your anonymity and you’re at your most creative while the rest of the world sleeps, then maybe online is the way to go.

As Dan Jaffe puts it, “It all depends on what the student’s goals are. How fortunate that UCLA Extension offers both options!”

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Daniel Sanchez is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing Online and Onsite.

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