I have been asked about online discussion, and online teaching in general in the past, and I have formulated some thoughts on the subject.
My history with technology
Back in high school, although mainframes and terminals were used to print our schedules and grades, the average person wasn't using computers and there were no PCs. In college, geeks may have studied programming (ie, basic, cobol, etc.), we had to submit typewritten papers [where you had to throw out the page and type it over when you made a typo], I typed papers on my high school graduation present Smith Corona for $1 per page, and I hated technology.
After college, Lotus 1-2-3 debuted, businesses bought one PC for each office, and I learned how to work a spreadsheet. In graduate school, I spent many late hours of my first year in the computer lab, and for the second year, bought my first home computer - a 286. In my job in administration during the early & mid '90s, I became known as the resident computer expert, and email replaced the phone (and I was thrilled. I hate phones, all of them - but cell phones especially. I don't want to be contacted everywhere. There is some technology I still hate! I got a Blackberry in February, but I use it exclusively for email. I don’t give out the number, or answer it if it does ring, or check the voice mail.).
In the PhD program, distance learning was in its infancy - amazing to take a class with a cohort at a distance connected to us via real-time video and audio - there were many freezes and the audio was terrible - but we felt like pioneers. Today you can whip out your desktop camera, record yourself, and post it to youtube! Now the Internet is everywhere. Wireless is at cabins in the woods. And since 2000, I have been an "early adopter," as an instructor in the online world. A lot has changed for me since the late '70s!
My relationship with educational technology today
I have taught online since 2000, during summer session since 2001, on campus during the evening since 2002 and daytime since 2003. I have been a "telecommuter" since 2000 - this was true even at my last non-teaching 9-5 job, although since 2003, during the academic year, I spend two days per week on campus. But the rest of the time, I do my work via the 'net with only computers and animals for companions - and in the summer I work 100% from home, teaching only one online class (and doing advising of graduate students via email).
The importance of instructor presence in online classes
In the discussions, I do read the posts, but I very rarely jump in. I will if it is getting really out of hand, with flames, silliness, rude behavior, etc., and I have had to do this on occasion. (Not for the past several semesters, though.) Sometimes I will if I notice that I am being asked a direct question, also. I set the topic and rules, and then I allow students to manage the flow on their own. In the group-led discussions that are a part of the regular semester length class during the Fall and Spring semesters, I always post something in answer to the group's questions. (There is no time for group work in the 6W2 summer class.)
I have found that when I involve myself in the regular discussion too much, it tends to stifle students to some degree. That may not always be true, but there is some tendency. On the other hand, student comments indicate that satisfaction with online learning increases when the instructor is at least somewhat active. So, in terms of general feedback, I give all students a status update twice, I do the same thing with final grades, I try to give helpful comments on essays, and I write feedback to the whole class every module. I rarely react to journal entries, but sometimes I do. (Some semesters I have reacted to many journal posts - particularly during summer session, when I have a lot more time.)
I notice many online students comment that they did not know me or others in the class, that they did not feel a sense of community, and that they felt very much on their own. I also note a difference in my class evaluations – it seemed students in my on campus sections give more positive evaluations than online students. This remark isn’t at all humble, but what the heck: in all of my classes, whether online or on campus, my student evaluations are very high – 4 point something, often very close to 5. This is the highest in my department, in fact – and it is something for which I am very proud. So I don’t like that the online class generally comes in slightly lower.
I always answer "Ask A Question" posts and email as soon as I notice them. In recent semesters, I have been scheduling real time chats every so often, and including audio lecture – also efforts to increase class community. Research from the SUNY Learning Network indicates that for students, instructor feedback is one element that increases satisfaction with the course. I think most online professors try to give as much feedback as possible, given the time constraints of the delivery method. I check the course almost every day; sometimes it is difficult over the weekends because I spend many of them away from the Capital District (this hasn't been true this fall). I would love to respond to everything, to interact with students much more than I do, but this course takes a lot of time already. Any time I must make changes to the material - I try to stay current and tweak the assignments, and I make revisions every semester, before and during it - I have to set aside a big chunk of time. During the academic year, I have two on campus sections and the online class, a responsibility to the students I advise in the graduate programs, and one section of a different class.
In 2008 I converted the online component of my on campus classes from WebCT to Blackboard, and this online class from SUNY Learning Network/Lotus Notes to UAlbany/Blackboard, which was very!! time consuming. I am an adjunct (the horror!), and so I wear a lot of hats, but full-time faculty have different demands - research, committee memberships, conferences, etc.
Except for Summer 2007 (maybe because it was twelve weeks, or because it started right after the Spring semester ended), the summer class size tends to be larger, and I take on freelance projects for professional development, and to guarantee a cash flow. Plus in the summer there are the garden and pool...and last summer Lyme Disease (this summer and fall, Bob’s illness, my sprained ankle and my recent H1N1).
Do I feel isolated from students?
Do I get to know students using this method?: yes, it is not really different than on campus. I am an instructor that tends to get to know my students rather well. I keep my class sizes to 30 or less, that helps. I work at being approachable, without pretending that I am somehow "hip" (sure, I think I am, but students almost never think a late 40s professor is :-). But I always get to know a few students better than others regardless of the method of delivery; on campus a handful of students participate in class, and talk to me at break, or come to my office, linger after class, or send me email messages, but the vast majority keep to themselves. Apart from responding "here" when I call their name for attendance (yes, in the on campus sections that counts) there are always some who rarely speak. Sometimes I remark that I know their faces, and the online students' names!
Schedule may be more important than delivery method - I see my on campus day class students twice per week; often I feel I know them better than students in the night class. One could argue that I get to know my students better in the online world than face-to-face simply because of the discussion being always available, required and evaluated. Discussion is one area where the online world shines, in my opinion.
Class size makes a big difference, too. There have been semesters when the online class was small, when I got to know students better "electronically." (I think Summer Session 2007 class is an example; it was only 12 students and it was awesome.) When students take more than one class with me, I tend to get to know them better than their peers, regardless of the delivery method.
I do think students get to know each other better on campus. I am always thinking of changes to the group-led and student-led activities for this reason, even though I know the majority of online learners favor independent, self-directed learning and are not fans of group work. (But building class community is beneficial, and research strongly supports group assignments as being valuable.)
This semester, the online class is 21 students, and the two on campus sections are 29 each. In general, my classes are usually 25-35 students. The largest section I have taught was 43 (Summer ‘09); the smallest was Summer ‘07, at 12. I have not had a class that I would consider somewhat unsuccessful since Spring 2006, when the day class was very engaged, the night class not so much. It varies by section, and by semester, although I believe I am getting better at being an instructor - I've been at this 9 years and I am still having fun and learning. I am reflecting right now on how the change to Blackboard has altered the dynamics. Some things are better, and other things are not.
The power of discussion
In the online class, students must participate. Discussion is always focused and on topic. In my experience, students in the classroom as a whole do not participate as much in discussion. There are always a few students on campus who really liven up class, of course. And the number grows during the semester as the atmosphere becomes more comfortable. We have group activities that are intended to stimulate in-class discussion. Although my classes are probably more participatory than the average college class, to be honest, the results are mixed. Most students do talk to each other during the group, but when the time to report out comes, there are always dominant students, and silent students. (Possibly the group talked about going to happy hour, and not the class material :-). Seriously, most are just shy, but some of them come to class unprepared, and that is the reason for their silence. (I think not doing the assigned reading is more common in the on campus sections.)
For the past several semesters, I have been very lucky (or else, as I already mentioned, it is that I am getting better at facilitation after 9 years of teaching), in that all of my classes have been more participatory than usual. I have taken a lesson from my online approach, and now I emphasize on campus students and groups asking questions of peers on the material I have outlined, as much or more than responding to my queries. In some classes, students participate a lot, and I do not have to prod or make that many comments myself. In other classes, the students do not seem all that engaged, and I believe there is an excessive amount of teacher talk (sort of like now :-). Sometimes I even wind up hoarse! Or they scowl, hoping if they are silent I will let the class out early, or drift off into text messaging, thinking I won't notice (I am not kidding).
In fact, some of my on campus students react in the online discussion I have set up in BLS more than they do during class, but using BLS as a companion for on campus classes is no match for this completely online class. (I do think BLS has been an improvement over WebCT in this respect.) Also, a few of the on campus students are Luddites, and really dislike that I assign BLS, or anything that requires the computer, except word processing.
I assign a journal to students in the on campus sections too. It is a way for me to get to know my students (and it is my favorite assignment), and after I read the journals I find I remember student names - but it is also to teach students the value of reflecting, and to practice writing.
Learning styles and online learning
It is true that online learning is not everyone's cup of tea. Independent, self-directed learners prefer it, it makes life easier for those with difficult schedules or who live a distance from campus, and students who are shy about speaking in front of others often find their voice via electronic discussion. On the other hand, students who like the immediacy of the classroom, the nuances of body language, the reminders, pointers and reassurances about assignments, miss the classroom.
This is anecdotal, but interesting - in my experience, the range of students in the online class is very wide. During summer session, the students tend to be very strong, for the most part. I speculate that students who attend classes in the summer are among the best students in the university - whether on campus or online. However, often during the academic year, but in the summer too (when in the larger sections I usually get a few students who are taking the class solely because they failed something in their college career, and need something, anything, to graduate - they are always either extremely motivated, or just plain awful) it is in the online class where I have found both the strongest, and the weakest students. The strongest students make my job very easy, they bring so much insight and energy to every topic. I wonder about the weak students, if perhaps they expected the class to be a piece of cake, for some reason do not drop it when the unpleasant reality sets in, and instead are not making much effort, or if they are good students in the classroom, but are just in over their heads with the online format - or if they are weak students in general, and are aiming to squeak by with a D-.
Plagiarism and online learning
One other drawback that I have found over the years is that plagiarism has been more common in the online section. It isn't completely absent on campus either, sadly, but it is almost epidemic in the online class. I find at least one student per year. Whether cheating is something that has always existed to the degree I have encountered it, or if it has been facilitated by the Internet, or a lack of absolutes in terms of morality and ethics in modern society, or the focus on getting a piece of paper and a job rather than learning, or careless professors who do not check or let offending students get away with a light penalty, I do not know.
But in the 15 or so times I have discovered plagiarized essays, 85% of them have been in the online class. Perhaps the anonymous nature makes it more tempting, perhaps the stern nature of my remarks to the class in the opening lecture on campus are taken more seriously, perhaps being online so much with the seductive cheathouse.com and other such vendors just a few clicks away makes it easier? (But if it is the last one that is confusing because on campus students do a lot of work on the computer as well, with all those same temptations.)
The recorded audio remarks about academic dishonesty that I posted a couple of semesters ago in the course introduction do seem to be helping (or at least since I created them, I have not found a cheater - could be an oversight on my part, or a coincidence).
My hybrid class experience
In the Spring of 2008, I experimented with having the evening section be a hybrid: that is, half online, half in the classroom. I expected it to be the best of both worlds, but instead it seemed to turn out to be the worst of both worlds. I did not find it satisfying. The students liked it better than I did, although they complained a lot about how confused they were (and in the end reported that they learned a lot). I decided not to do it again, although the experience made me more flexible in my teaching, in that it allowed me to better handle when I must occasionally cancel a class. Now I go ahead and do it, with minimal disruption, by requiring some online work instead. Snow or feeling under the weather suddenly became no problem.
The possibilities suggested by Second Life…whether online students are more engaged than on campus students (NYT, Chronicle)...whether learning styles impact who likes and dislikes online learning...whether communications technology disrupts the power balance in schools and is resisted as a result (Hodas)...the negative impact of television watching on infants...whether on campus classes are "sensuous" experiences that cannot be replicated on the computer (Kelly)...what Dewey would have thought of the Internet (Kelly)...Dale's cone of experience...the idea of a basic skills erosion due to technology is interesting (Jeynes). Can cashiers make change any more without the help of the cash register? Can we write coherently without spell check? Can we remember a fact without Google? Somewhat related - is technology changing communication entirely? Think about texting. Didn't we used to get together with friends in person to chat? Do we really need to ring up our significant other when we are in the market to ask whether we need salad dressing and if so, what kind? What happened to making a list, or an independent judgment about such trivia?
To sum it all up
I find the intrusion of texting and cell phones annoying in classrooms, but as with so many technological changes, we can't simply wring our hands and complain, or make one more autocratic rule. We have to find new, innovative ways to harness its power. Technology is merely a tool. And it isn't going away. How we put it to use in a positive way is the question.
Whatever the differences, in my opinion the learning outcomes of the various sections of the class are similar, regardless of the delivery method, or the semester. This is supported by student grades, which show the same basic distribution.
Update: Happy Thanksgiving!