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Conflicting Visions of Online Ed

At the university where I teach we are engaged in a debate familiar to online educators: which delivery methods will we embrace and why? When discussing online education it is important to clarify how the experience will be "delivered" to students and how well the delivery method complements the instructional styles of various instructors.

I have a decided preference for courses that include either some face to face meetings or live "synchronous" communications between the instructor and students. My preferences as an instructor reflect my preferences as a student, but only when I consider the best instructors I had throughout my education.

Online education can refer to any of the following:
  • Distance learning via teleconferencing technologies hosted in a traditional classroom setting;
  • Synchronous learning conducted by an instructor specifically for remote students only;
  • Hybrid learning, in which students meet sometimes in classrooms and sometimes online;
  • Complementary online learning with work and materials online, supporting traditional lectures; and
  • Asynchronous learning, in which students access materials and lectures at flexible times.

The preceding list represents only some of the approaches to online education found today. Every approach has some situations in which it is the right approach for students and the instructor. However, these approaches are not equal in my mind for a variety of reasons. This is not meant to suggest delivery methods I would rather not practice are "wrong" for students. Situations must dictate delivery methods.

Based on my experiences, fully asynchronous online courses are not as rewarding to teach nor do they excite students as much as those courses with "live" interactions among students and instructors. This week I asked a colleague what is the difference between a fully asynchronous class and a correspondence course? Though we asked students to interact in online discussion forums and to exchange work remotely, many of these interactions are superficial and fail to match classroom discussions. With asynchronous courses, I am left feeling that I could have sent students a CD-ROM of my lecturers, notes, and assignments.

I understand that I can record lectures, produce videos, and create multimedia content in a variety of ways for students in asynchronous courses. However, how would such content differ from suggesting to students that they can download content from the History Channel, The Learning Channel, or any of a dozen other educational content providers? There is an amazing amount of content available via iTunes, websites, on-demand television, and other services that exceeds any content I could produce. In fact, I have used PBS and History Channel content in my traditional classroom, but the showings include pausing the video to discuss the information and encouraging students to debate what they had seen.

My first preference for online education is the hybrid model, with students meeting in traditional classrooms for one-third to one half of class sessions. I find that this improves camaraderie and helps prevent misunderstandings in online discussion forums. Knowing each other face-to-face seems to help students interact more effectively online. Plus, I am better at recognizing when students are confused or misunderstand information when I see them face-to-face.

When a hybrid model is not possible, I prefer synchronous models of online education. With today's technologies I can easily video chat with students, even if I cannot see all 20 to 30 students. With live chat students are able to ask questions and engage in discussions in real time. Some professors have used Twitter for this purpose, while others use text chat, instant messaging, or "whiteboard" applications that allow students to interact while the professor is lecturing. Live interactions are interesting to students and seemed to increase the retention of information.

At this time, the university where I teach has embraced asynchronous online education. The justification for this is entirely student convenience, not pedagogical effectiveness. Enabling students to access courses at any time allows the university to market our courses to nontraditional students seeking flexibility first and foremost. I must admit that I find this troubling even though I recognize the students should be served by higher education.

To me, the university experience is meant to be an exchange of ideas. It is an active experience in which the students are engaged in debate and discussion, not merely learning from a professor or the materials provided by a professor. Asynchronous discussions, as I wrote earlier, seems superficial. I have compared discussion forums between hybrid and asynchronous courses and am convinced there is a difference.

I hope to encourage the university to consider synchronous online courses and distance learning, which at one time was a major strength of the institution. I believe in distance learning, especially with advancements made in teleconferencing in the last five years. I will do all I can as the coordinator of a program to stress the value of real-time interactions in the learning process.

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