It is not an all or nothing choice.
You can choose what option is right for you, and your students—and you don’t have to make the same decision for all courses or course offerings at once.
Allow yourself to learn from your successes, and your mistakes–enjoy the journey!!
Conferencing is but one approach one of many instructional strategies. This idea is particularly suited to promoting in-depth discussion and reflection among class participants which makes it suitable for graduate and teacher reflection contexts. Its primary purpose is to create a supportive community context for the exchange and development of ideas.
Studies on the effectiveness of online learning have used a variety of methodologies to investigate this issue, and what follows is a very brief summary of some of the highlights from this body of research. One of the first paradigms asked the question “Can the same amount of learning occur with and without the technology?” Studies in this tradition typically used two groups, one taught in the traditional way and the other taught exactly the same way but with the inclusion of a particular technology. Nearly all these studies resulted in the outcome “no significant difference” and there is a review of several hundred of these studies in a rather nifty website called The No-Significant Difference Phenomenon (Russell, 2001). Clearly the limitation of this approach is that it assumes that all the potential “difference” lies in the technology itself and not perhaps in either how teaching is mediated through that technology, nor does it consider that the technology itself might make different kinds of learning outcomes more salient.
Studies then started to look at other aspects of the online environment, and possibly because of the increased popularity as an adult learning medium, the important question became: “Does online learning provide an effective and satisfying learning experience for learners?” A common outcome measure of a lot of studies in this line of research was level of student satisfaction and reports of students’ learning experiences (e.g. Frederiksen, Pickett, Shea, Petz & Swan, 2001).
From these studies it seems clear that people value the opportunity for interpersonal interaction and that the creation of these virtual learning communities can have positive effects on learning as long as there is enough time and opportunity to participate so that people feel included (Rovai, 2002; Wegerif, 1998). The critical factor seems to be a balance of well-organized information with the opportunity to understand and integrate that information in a supportive community context (Black, 1997; Wegerif, 1998). This is precisely the kind of environment that well-designed online conferencing can provide.
Increasingly, research is looking at more detailed assessments of how collaboration actually supports learning and how it can be set up and encouraged. There has been a proliferation of work in a variety of educational contexts, schools, university graduate and undergraduate programs and teacher education programs, all of which emphasize the importance of the discourse-rich communicative contexts, which can often be supported and enhanced by online components (e.g. Communities of Learners, Brown & Campione, 1994; Knowledge Building Communities, Scardmalia and Bereiter, Learning Circles, Riel & Polin, 2004) It is also possible to deliver an online course in a completely traditional teacher-centred way, where students are marked individually on a series of assignments and the online component simply allows the delivery of course materials and the exchange of assignments.
Many Web-based courses are delivered this way, the Web provides a centralized way of distributing materials–somewhat like the materials for correspondence courses and individuals download these and work individually to complete assignments via e-mail etc. which are sent to the instructor.
The advantages are varied, including practical considerations such as
• convenient and flexible access, distance becomes less of a barrier, and
• asynchronous communications allow extra time to reflect on issues and to consider responses.
In addition the research suggests there may be a number of positive cognitive consequences, although there is a relatively small body of detailed research on learning outcomes that extends beyond questionnaires of learner satisfaction, drop out rates etc. The collaborative electronic context may change traditional power relationships making them somewhat more flattened, where both instructors and peers can provide feedback and direction in the course. Patterns of interaction instead may flow among students, who, to a greater extent than in face to face contexts can define directions in a course that may not have been anticipated by the instructor. This can be a positive thing, but the shift in instructor’s role is important to recognize from the outset as this new structure can provide new and additional learning opportunities.
In fact, one of the interesting things about technology is that it potentially allows such new opportunities for learning to emerge.
Instructors have reported positive changes in the following areas:
a) the learning possibilities opened up by peer
b) supporting shy or less verbal students who may speak up more in the online environment –asynchronous interaction can allow them more reflection time.
c) extends class time–spend more time thinking about the issues.
d) Ideas go in different directions from those raised in class, i.e. broaden the perspective–or alternatively deepen the thinking.
Many people use a mixed model, having an online conference for sustained discussion and reflection on issues outside of class time, but maintaining face to face classes.
Other courses meet mostly online but have a couple of face to face meetings to establish community and some hands on experience to learn about setting up their compute systems. Others may meet once or twice at the end of the course for tests etc. Others are fully online