I came across these two questions when I was browsing through my RSS reader this morning, and it made me think about how we can wield distance education to reach the ever expanding clientele schools are educating. Here are the questions:
- Is it possible to learn as much when your professor is a mass of pixels whom you never meet?
- How much of a student’s education and growth — academic and personal — depends on face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students?
- For the entire article go here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/us/05college.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss
What I like about this article is that it shows some of the problems associated with online education as it is widely done at all levels. I think of the courses that don’t allow for student voice, feedback, interaction with other students/instructors, etc. I also think of some of the courses that were offered online from a local community college from my K-12 days as a technology coordinator. The courses were online courses taught without an instructor, where course materials are available online and students complete assignments based solely on readings and online exercises that rarely require any form of higher order thinking. When online education is conducted in this manner, I too find the prospects of a face-to-face education much more appealing than the online alternative.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. With the range of available online technologies today, there are very few technological reasons to not have a meaningful online educational experience. The problem lies with poor instructional design for online learning environments. We cannot simply post instructional materials or as the article mentioned, provide no way for feedback or interaction. The principles of effective instruction are still applicable in online environments just as they are in face-to-face environments. For me it all starts creating an environment that promotes interaction and social presence.
Interaction is key for any classroom. This may seem difficult for online courses, but it doesn’t have to be if the course is designed in a way that promotes interaction in both synchronous and asynchronous methods. In synchronous online environments, this can be done through the use of video conference software, web cams, microphones, chat rooms, and back channels. With some simple moderation all of these can be integrated into most online synchronous courses. In asynchronous online environments, the same level of interaction can be attained through discussion boards, social networks, email, weekly video updates from instructors, or even texting between participants. While interaction is delayed, it doesn’t mean they are or need to be of any lesser quality. All of these means of communication also provide the necessary social presence that is necessary for students to perform well in any learning environment.
Social presence is the level at which a participant in a course feels they are received by others in the course. This can be simply done in a face-to-face course by going to class and interacting with other students and the instructor. However, distance education makes this a little more difficult since participants don’t physically go to class. This doesn’t mean that social presence isn’t necessary or possible in online environments. It just means that instructors have to work a little harder to make it possible for social presence to be established. There are many ways to go about this, but what I have found to be the best way, from my experiences in an online graduate program through Iowa State University, is to provide a way for students to communicate with each other. Provide them with a space that is meant just for them. Let them share stuff that’s going on in their lives, even though it won’t relate to what’s being discussed in class. Life happens so embrace it and use it to make the connections stronger within the course. These interactions are necessary for students to become comfortable with each other and lead to more enriched discussions.
Another way to promote social presence is to have a blended learning environment where students actually meet face-to-face at different times in the semester. This can be done at the beginning of the course, a couple times throughout, or at the end of the semester. Being able to see and hear what someone else sounds like is a great way to establish social presence in an online course.
When it comes down to it, education is all about the interactions and connections being made by students and their instructors. If we fail to create a learning environment that promotes these characteristics, then we will not be able to succeed in online learning environments, or at least not at the same level as their face-to-face counterparts.