The study found "On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction." This is a surprise finding for those that believe online learning is inferior. This report sparked discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) listerv. It also got me thinking about my Royal Roads e-Learning experience.
Points raised in the AoIR listserv questioned whether the study’s population was representative enough to make such a claim. Some suggested that online learners are more motivated and have a tendency to be over-achievers. With my Royal Roads classmates there were a large percentage of over-achievers, but this could also be due to the program being a graduate degree and marketed to working professionals.
Others AoIRers thought that online learning had the advantage over F2F as it tends to encourage greater teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction. I agree with posters who believed that such interaction is more apt to instill knowledge than just listen-to-learn lecture classes.
In my experience of online learning at Royal Roads, there was a great deal of such interaction (via Moodle forums). While it had challenges, it definitely was a compelling and enjoyable way to learn.
There are challenges affecting interaction in online learning:
1) Time zones challenges – As students are from across Canada and some from abroad, real-time communication (e.g. chats, Skype calls) can be very difficult. Often I or other classmates couldn’t attend at the chosen time or had to do so at an ungodly hour.
2)Managing volume – Our courses had about 40 students. At this number both real-time online communication and forum postings was difficult. One professor attempted to do Q&As via chat and Skype call. At first, there were no rules in place to manage the volume besieging the professor and chaos naturally ensued. Even with a few ground rules in place, there were still people who joined late or weren’t following the conversation and asked questions already answered. It was also difficult to follow forum postings with that many classmates and with some people posting lengthy epistles. We also introduced the voluntary rule of limiting posts to 100-300 words or less to help, but still speed and selective reading was the only way to manage.
3) Presence of the professor - The volume of postings also affects a professor’s ability to participate. Either the professors spend an insane amount of time reading and replying to everything or selectively respond. All my professors responded to specific questions posed to them in designated forums. For these types of Q&A forums to work, it is important that timely responses be made or someone will resorst to calls, emails, or give up on that venue. Royal Roads professors were incredible in replying to such posts day, night, and weekends. When it came to the general forum, professor behaviour varied. Some commented on most postings, while others only a handful. Some offered insight or a helpful link, while others simply offered a quick response or simple encouragement.
4) Teams – Royal Roads randomly assigns students into teams of 5-6 for the duration of a course. This made managing the quantity of interaction more manageable and allowed one to get to know one’s classmates better. However, this is not without challenges. When the teams meshed well, it was great. But if they didn’t, the discussions languished. Considering that inevitably it seems out of a group of 6 at least 2 will not participate at all or at the bare minimum, it did seem one was communicating with the same couple people a bit too much.
5) Quality of writing – Some postings were hard to read whether due to their untenable length, mistakes, or an inability to adequately organize and articulate thoughts. Forums by their nature tend to be more conversational than other forms of writing, but nonetheless it would help if some people spent a bit more time writing and editing to ensure clarity. Some people are just not good writers and never will be.
6) Time commitment – Courses that required posting could result in a significant time commitment (worsened by the workload of obligatory readings and assignments). Some courses had tight deadlines for postings. This added up to more of a time commitment than occured in my offline studies.
The benefits of more discussion-based learning were:
1) Get to know my classmates much better - Participation is usually a component of offline learning classes, but online it tends to be essential. Most of the F2F classes I have been in have had a large percentage of classmates that never or only rarely participate even when encouraged to do so or graded on it. With online learning I got to hear from all my classmates and regularly, so I got to know all of them and some of them (particularly those assigned in my teams) very well. Living in residence or participating in campus organizations is the only way I found that comes close to this degree of interaction.
2) Depth of subject-matter interaction is better than offline - I have found that students tend to talk rarely about academic topics with peers outside of the classroom. I enjoyed hearing my classmates’ perspective and experience on course material. I also enjoyed getting feedback from classmates on my thoughts. One Royal Roads class had a professor provide uniformly negative comments, so the positive feedback from classmates was really beneficial.
3) More engaged and more often - I have attended good lectures; I’ve fallen asleep at others. Offline classes (even with tutorials) tend to be about 3 hours a week, so even the best of them has a fleeting engagement. Regular posting can foster deeper and more constant pondering. I really did feel that I learned more as a result. And when the material was personally interesting, it was exciting to learn.
Quality and quantity of interactions I found were predominantly affected by the following factors:
- Optional versus required posting
- Seeded versus free topic posting
- Team versus all-class posting
Requiring posting tended to result in huge quantity, serial monologues, and monosyllabic replies. Students focus on meeting the requirments, impressing the professor, and appearing as if adequately participating rather than prioritizing actual interaction and conversation. It also meant that those not inclined or confident to participate are heard from. When participation was optional, only the same keeners tended to chime in, but these students tend to be more interesting and engaged. Even requiring participation did not result in some people actually participating, so optional participation does not work for these students at all.
Seeded forum threads helps students delve into the discussions, but can fail to spark discussions of interst to students. This can result in students just going through the motions making for unispiring reading. Allowing students to post on their own topics resulted in some of the most interesting and educational discussions.
Having the entire class post results in an overwhelming volume, but increases the odds that one will find someone discussing the topics you find interesting and offering insight. Confining postings to small teams makes managing the volume easier, but limits the breadth of discussion.
My experience of studying online showed the complexity involved in setting up systems and norms to adequately foster interaction. When done properly or through happenstance, the experience can be more engaing and effective than F2F education.