Both online education and on-campus learning environments have unique characteristics and increasingly more similarities. These characteristics provide challenges for the instructor to meet the needs of the students while continuing to transmit content information. As educators are “the single most important factor in a student’s success” (Tracey, 2007). Instructors of higher education need to carefully weigh the characteristics of teaching in each environment to evaluate how they align with their professional goals and skills.
One of the greatest drawbacks in an online environment is the lack of face-to-face communication. Moore (1993) proposes that there are three communication strategies needed for education. They are learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction and learner-learner interaction. Educators need to ensure each type of interaction occurs in learning environments.
The first type of interaction is the learner-content interaction. The learner must intellectually interact with the course information. This piece is essential in the distance learning environment since the learner must be highly self-motivated. “It is the process of intellectually interacting with content that results in changes in the learner’s understanding, the learner’s perspective, or the cognitive structures of the learner’s mind” (Moore, 1993, p 1).
Professors can demonstrate to students how to achieve this personal relationship with content information through the traditional methods of lectures and a knowledge of the material. However, the most influential skill needed to change the lives of students is the professor’s personal passion for learning. Through this passion for learning, professors also express their expertise in their field. Without this desire to be a lifelong learner, the content can be nearly irrelevant (University of Alberta, 2010).
Learner-to-instructor interaction comes next. This type of interaction has been labeled as the most essential by learners. “What students wanted 20 or 30 years ago and still want today is for instructors to interact with them. Even with all the modern day technology in teaching tools, nothing can replace face-to-face contact” (Iordanov, 2010, p 1). However, several studies have been completed which substantiate the theory that online education can meet the communication needs between instructor and student (Swan, 2001; Curtis & Lawson, 2001; Wallace, 2003).
Instructors can approach the problem of a lack of face-to-face interaction through a consistent and frequent presence in the online environment. They should appear online four or more times weekly to create a bridge over this gap. The instructor must supply a perception that they are out there paying attention to the student or the student may flounder and eventually disappear from the online environment. These appearances can occur through e-mails, posts in the online discussion boards, comments on grading and even through the posting of the lecture.
In a traditional on-campus environment the interaction between teacher and student may be face-to-face but the quantity of personal interactions may be limited due to time constraints and the number of students in the course. Smith (2001) continues this thought. “This differs from face-to-face classes where, because of time constraints, a relatively small percentage of the students can participate in the discussions during one class session. Because of the lack of physical presence and absence of many of the usual in-person cues to personality, there is an initial feeling of anonymity, which allows students who are usually shy in the face-to-face classroom to participate in the online classroom. Therefore it is possible and quite typical for all the students to participate in the threaded discussions common to Web-based classes” (p 4).
This anonymity may have some drawbacks but there are some great benefits as well. Many students who feel intimidated in a classroom in front of their peers may remain quiet throughout class or even through the duration of a semester. Yet the same student in an online environment may swiftly share without fear of retribution or judgment.
Moore’s last type of interaction is between learners. The learner-to-learner interaction may be quickly dismissed by many professionals but is essential to individual intellectual development. This type of interaction is defined as interaction between two learners without the intervention of an instructor. In traditional classrooms in an on-campus environment this occurs naturally in group work, projects, social situations and even casual encounters on campus.
This type of interaction cannot be swiftly dismissed by educators as it is an important component to learning (Strijbos & Fischer, 2007; Soller & Lesgold, 2007). Students are capable of interacting with their peers who are moving through the same stages of cognitive development. Additionally, learner-to-learner interaction “not only acknowledges and encourages the development of their expertise but also tests it, and teaches important principles regarding the nature of knowledge and the role of the scholar as a maker of knowledge” (Moore, 1993, p 1).
Moore continues with advice to distance learning educators. “The principle of specialization of teaching activity and use of communication medium must be applied to distinguish more deliberately among the three types of interaction described above. Educators need to organize programs to ensure maximum effectiveness of each type of interaction, and ensure they provide the type of interaction that is most suitable for the various teaching tasks of different subject areas, and for learners at different stages of development” (ibid, p 1).
Learner-to-learner interaction can be accomplished through collaborative learning which is “an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together” (Smith & McGregor, 1992, p 1). Approaches in collaborative learning can vary from classroom discussions, research teams, small group work, structured tasks and many other options which are conducive to learning together.
University of Illinois (2010) trains their instructors in the use of different variations of collaborative learning to be used both on campus and in online classrooms. These options are learning contracts, discussions, lectures, self-directed learning, mentorship, small group work, projects, case studies and forums. Collaborative learning in online education can be more developed than in a traditional classroom through a variety of instructional means. “Instructors have found that in adapting their courses to online models, they are paying more attention to the instructional design of their courses. As a result, the quality, quantity, and patterns of communication students practice during learning are improved” (p 1). This institution has demonstrated that collaborative learning does not need to be confined to on-campus sites. This valuable method of teaching can be used in both learning environments.
Creating an online collaborative learning environment requires some additional skill sets. Dixon & Dixon (2008) suggest an increased determination to keep consistent interaction in the online environment. This should be accomplished through monitoring online discussions and the encouragement of students to communicate with one another. Since discussions may be limited in an online environment, instructors need to plan carefully each discussion point, motivate students to participate and manage the discussions effectively through monitoring, evaluating, participating and correcting misconceptions. Before beginning discussion points for collaborative learning, instructors need to set the ground rules for the interaction and inform students of their expectations. Additional networking outside the confines of the virtual classroom should also be encouraged.
Timely communications and quick feedback can often determine the success of a program and an individual’s success as a student (Dennen, Darabi & Smith, 2007). In the past, on campus, questions were addressed almost immediately. However, current research shows that much of education between on-campus and online are definitively similar. Many students on-campus utilize the same methods to communicate with their professors as do online students (Kelly, Ponton & Roval, 2007).
Many professors make themselves more available to their students through technology. The traditional office hours of faculty are not being used as they were previously. Therefore, many educators are modifying the outdated mode of office hours to virtual office hours. These professionals are using new advances in technology to open video conferencing sessions with students through the use of programs such as Sykpe or Web 2.0 (Li & Pitts, 2009).
There are many advantages to virtual office hours. Students do not have to face common fears of finding an office as the trek across an unfamiliar section of campus. They also do not experience as much fear in approaching a professor with what may seem a stupid question (Haupt, 2010).
Many supporters of traditional on-campus education over online education use the discussion of office hours as a foundational argument. There is a lasting belief that the face-to-face interaction with a professor and the utilization of office hours is an essential component to every educational experience. Yet, with the gradual addition of virtual office hours, researchers are seeing little difference between the modes of communication for students and instructors. With the increased improvement of technology, virtual office hours are even making a mark on campuses. Many educators are leaning toward this venue of communication as they are addressing issues with their students (Myers, Bishop, Rajamon & Kelly, 2010). Virtual office hours also takes the form of instant messaging or chatting.
Other means of communication between teacher and students is the use of texting. Professor McDonald at Georgia State University encourages his students to text their questions to him during the lectures. Students will then see their questions flash across the screen at the front of the classroom to be addressed (Inskeep, 2010). Other professors use texting to remind students of big projects, assignments, exams or simply to make themselves available to students (Novicki, 2010).
Blogs have also shown greater influence in the field of education. In both the on-campus environment and the online environment, discussion time can be limited. Setting up a blog encourages students to interact with each other and with the content. They also can have access to the professor who would monitor the entries. “ Using blogging in the college classroom is a great way for instructors to increase student engagement and to generate discussion that may not otherwise come forth in the formal classroom. Not only does blogging help to stimulate student engagement, but it also helps to cultivate job skills for future positions following graduation” (Anderson, 2010, p 1). Thus, the discrepancy of timely feedback as a comparison between the two modes of education has mostly become a moot point.
All of this technology requires a new set of skills for instructor in the traditional classroom and the virtual classroom. In the Journal for Transforming Education through Technology, Turner (2005) creates a list of 20 necessary technological skills every educator should possess. This skills include basic skills such word processing skills, spreadsheets, database, slideshow presentation skills, web navigation and searching as well as e-mail. Other skills beyond the basics includes the ability to operate additional equipment like digital cameras, electronic blackboards, scanners, detachable storage devices, PDAs and equipment which may be specialized to their content area such as eBooks, writing devices or graphic calculators. Other needed skills related to technology are copyright information, computer security, software installation, computer networking, ability to download software or information from the web and other specialized technological knowledge related to the content area.
The amount of information required for a teacher to possess is increasing daily. Yet, teachers are not left floundering alone. Professional development seminars and online education are available to the educator. Many institutions also provide training and support for educators. The Southern Regional Education Board (2003) admits that an effective technical support center with knowledgeable staff is a requirement for a successful online program.
Cheating has received great attention in higher education but appears to initiate even more in online programs. Plagiarism “which is the uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else’s words or ideas” (Purdue OWL, 2010, p 1) continues to be an educational concern. Specialized web sites to help students avoid plagiarism such as Purdue’s online writing lab have been designed to help students avoid this travesty. In contrast, educators also have resources in both online formats and through software to track plagiarism.
Rowe (2004) comments “the prevention of plagiarism has been the subject of much attention, but insufficient attention has been given to other problems of dishonesty in online assessment” (p 47). In a survey, 75% of college students admitted to cheating at some point during their higher education career without being caught (Dick, 2003). However, Kaczmarczyk (2001) provides evidence that students may actually cheat less in an online environment. Despite this information, cheating is still an issue to be considered by every educator.
Since cheating comes in many formats, instructors need to be informed of the variety of ways students attempt to deceive. Rowe (2004) puts forth the three most serious encounters of cheating.
- First, students may get the answers to assessments prior to the assessment. This may especially be a dilemma with the increased amount of information online. Students from previous courses frequently post answers.
- Second, there may be an unfair ability to retake assessments. Some students have found a way to retake their assessment multiple times until they receive a satisfying grade. Students accomplish this by using the back button on their web browser. When this fails, many students will break the connection with the online university’s server and simply begin again. Other students use the developed skills of a hacker to manipulate assessments.
- Third, students can receive help during their assessments. This is accomplished by receiving help from friends and family to simply getting the information for another reliable source. Other students have gone as far as to have someone else take an exam for the student.
There are countermeasures to prevent cheating in higher education. Some online programs use proctored exams to ensure honesty (St. Cloud State University, 2010). Group work is used in some situations to help minimize cheating. Yet, the best method to minimize cheating in online learning environment has been discovered to be through the written paper.
Through repeated submissions of the written work of a student, educators become familiar with their voice. One professor shares “Recently, I was grading student papers from an upper level psychology course and as I made my way through the stack, one stood out from the rest. In contrast to most of the others, this paper was easy to read, made several important points, demonstrated analytical and creative thought, was free of misspellings and grammatical errors, and did an excellent job of analyzing a particularly complex area of psychology. The assignment met or exceeded all of my expectations for an undergraduate paper. I knew immediately that something was amiss” (Landau, 2010, p 1).
Although the instructional environments of on-campus learning and online learning are different in many ways, there are also more similarities. As technology continues to develop and evolve, many of the barriers of distance learning are being eroded. Educators should carefully evaluate each environment including their strengths as they weigh their professional opportunities and challenges. The decision to teach in either venue should align with the instructor’s personal teaching philosophy.
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By Tracy Atkinson
Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.