May/June 2003 // Commentary
Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning
by Mark Kassop
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Mark Kassop "Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning" The Technology Source, May/June 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

How good is online education? Debate about the relative quality of Internet-based courses has raged almost since the advent of this new teaching and learning medium. In my opinion, the answers are being settled rather conclusively at my school and 18 other community colleges sharing courses in the New Jersey Virtual Community College Consortium (NJVCCC). I have taught more than 50 online sections of sociology to more than 1,200 students at Bergen Community College and Thomas Edison State College. As the distance learning coordinator at Bergen Community College and as chair of the NJVCCC, I have worked closely with faculty members and administrators throughout New Jersey and other states to create, deliver, and assess online courses.

Can online courses match traditional face-to-face (F2F) courses in academic quality and rigor? Can online courses achieve the same learning objectives as F2F courses? Can students learn as much and as well online as they do in F2F courses? Not only is the answer to these questions a resounding "yes," but there are many ways that online courses may actually surpass traditional F2F classes in quality and rigor. For the record, I am writing from the perspective of a long-time (30+ years) classroom instructor, a sociology professor, a day-to-day user of the consortium's WebCT course management system, and a person who truly thrives on interaction with students. I still thoroughly enjoy the classroom environment, and I believe that it is a sound arena for teaching and learning; however, as this article will suggest, I am distinctly impressed with the early successes and potential of the online environment as a teaching/learning medium.

Here are 10 ways in which I believe online education excels:

1. Student-centered learning: Academics have recognized for years the shortcomings of the faculty-centered classroom, but it has been difficult to break away from the paradigm. Whether the classroom instructor uses lecture, discussions, role playing, small group activities, or any other technique, it is still the instructor running the show. In an online environment, however, the instructor soon takes a back seat. Students are empowered to learn on their own and even to teach one another. Particularly in the discussion group mode, students have the opportunity to explain, share, comment upon, critique, and develop course materials among themselves in a manner rarely seen in the F2F classroom. In a recent online discussion about the meaning of deviance, students in an Introduction to Sociology course were asked to cite a human behavior that is considered deviant in all cultures. Twenty-five students contributed more than 125 responses in a week-long exchange in which various students suggested that rape, murder, homosexuality, terrorism, child abuse, and other behaviors are universally deviant. Other students noted how certain cultural contexts could make any of those behaviors (and all other behaviors) nondeviant to one or more groups of people, depending on their perspectives. Students served as instructors to their classmates, and together they worked toward learning goals more effectively than if they had been provided with the answer by the instructor.

2. Writing intensity: For many years, our colleagues in the English department have told us that the best way to teach students how to write more effectively is to have them write more often. Online education has made this maxim a reality. On average, online courses are far more writing-intensive than traditional classes have ever been. In both F2F and online classes, major assignments are submitted in written form. But in an online course, general discussions, requests for elaboration or assistance, answers to directed questions, group projects, most assignments, and many tests and quizzes are in written form as well. The consensus among my online colleagues is that when instructors require that students submit carefully written and proofread assignments, the quality of many students' work improves over the duration of the course. Those writing teachers seem to be on to something!

3. Highly interactive discussions: One of the most exciting features of an online course is the discussion forum. In the traditional F2F classroom, the instructor asks a question, and the same four or five extroverted students inevitably raise their hands. They offer spontaneous, often unresearched responses in the limited time allotted for discussion. In the online environment, discussions enter a new dimension. When an instructor posts a question on the asynchronous discussion board, every student in the class is expected to respond, respond intelligently, and respond several times.

Many online students have indicated that this is the first time they have ever "spoken up" in class and that they enjoy the opportunity. Similarly, instructors say that it is a pleasure to hear the surprisingly compelling ideas of the more introverted members of their classes. Many online instructors have also observed that the relative "anonymity" of online discussions helps create a level playing field for women, homosexuals, students with physical handicaps, and members of other potentially marginalized groups, as they can participate in class activities without being stigmatized. Moreover, the format gives non-native speakers of English extra time to contemplate questions and compose appropriate answers.

In addition to prompting more discussion, online education fosters higher-quality discussion. Before students respond to an instructor's discussion question or to classmates' posted comments, they can refer to their course materials and think through their answers. As a result, students have the opportunity to post well-considered comments without the demands of the immediate, anxiety-producing F2F discussion, which often elicits the first response that comes to mind rather than the best possible response. See Exhibit 1 for a sample discussion exchange that illustrates this point and others made within this article.

Finally, asynchronous discussions are not limited to a few minutes of live class time; they frequently last for a week, and it is not unusual to have 100 or more student postings during that period of time. When was the last time that you saw that many well-reasoned responses in a F2F setting from the majority of the students in attendance?

4. Geared to lifelong learning: In their everyday lives, individuals do not have a teacher at their side to direct them in their acquisition of new information. One of the roles that we need to perform as educators, then, is to teach students to find and learn information on their own or in concert with their colleagues. The online environment fosters self-motivated education. Students direct their own use of Internet links, search engines, discussion boards, chat, e-mail, and other media. While such resources cannot guarantee student initiative, they establish a framework that gives precedence to the autonomy of the learner.

5. Enriched course materials: I distinctly remember the time I showed one of my highly respected history colleagues a publisher-created online course site that gave students the opportunity to "visit" recreations of battles, military museums, and various primary source documents. "Wow!" he said. "This site offers my students so much more than I have ever been able to give them in the classroom." This response is typical. A well-constructed, creative online course can take anthropology students to cultures all over the world, archaeology students to active digs, art students to the finest museum collections, and business students to corporations large and small. World-class resources can be accessed, viewed, and studied 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If they wish, instructors can pair these virtual experiences with physical ones for an expanded benefit. An art appreciation instructor that I know requires his online students to visit a local museum and write a report on selective works that they either strongly liked or hated.

6. On-demand interaction and support services: Help is only a click away in an online course. Instructors can offer many types of interactive learning aids on their course sites (e.g., flash cards, immediate feedback tests, and PowerPoint presentations). Contact with the instructor and classmates through e-mail can occur any time, not just during traditional (limited) on-campus office hours. Students can also use e-mail, chat rooms, and discussion boards to establish impromptu or scheduled study groups that defy conventional time and space restrictions. Just as importantly, an online course site can make a whole host of campus services available to students, including registration, academic advising, financial aid information and forms, services for students with disabilities, 24/7 libraries, and online tutoring through Smarthinking or similar vendors.

7. Immediate feedback: Even though they do not see a teacher across the classroom every day, online students generally have greater access to instructors. Traditional students rushing off to their next class or off-campus jobs often cannot squeeze in a question to their instructor. Online students, however, can and do e-mail countless questions to their professors and frequently engage in a dialogue that would be hard to duplicate in the F2F world.

On a more formal note, online tests and quizzes can be constructed with an automatic grading capability that provides immediate feedback and references to text and class notes that explain the correct answers. Assignments, including grades and editorial comments, can be returned to students more promptly and usually with more detail than in the F2F environment. There is no need to wait for the next class to return an assignment.

8. Flexibility: Students with family or work responsibilities are often unable to commit to a traditional course because they cannot be in the same place at the same time for 15 consecutive weeks. Even if a course schedule is acceptable, limited enrollment may be a problem: A student who attempts to register for a Thursday night course only to discover that it is closed has no other immediate options. The advantages of online learning, however, include ample opportunities for students to pursue coursework at any time that fits into their busy lives.

The height of this flexibility may be the well-publicized program, which I teach in through its partnership with Thomas Edison State College. All students are on active duty, and they belong to military units throughout the world. With the computers provided to them, students can keep up with coursework while they are involved in field exercises. Moreover, the courses are structured so that students can submit assignments in a manner that permits them to fulfill their military obligations. In a recent class of 25 students, the participants were located in Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, Alaska, Hawaii, and all four time zones in the continental United States. Some of the students were preparing for deployment to the Middle East, and others were engaged in unexpected field exercises. Nevertheless, during the 12-week course, most students had the opportunity to read assignments; participate in threaded, online discussions; write and submit papers; and have questions about assigned material and college policies answered in a timely fashion by me and the college staff.

9. An intimate community of learners: Strange as it may sound, one instructor after another notes the surprisingly close relationships that they have developed with their online students. They say that it is common for participants in online courses to develop a strong sense of community that enhances the learning process. Probably as a result of the relative anonymity of online courses, students are much more prone to open up and reveal information about themselves in e-mails and on discussion boards than they are in the F2F environment.

Although some instructors may discover more than they wanted to know about their students, my online teaching experience disproves the notion that online courses are impersonal and do not foster relationships, either between students and instructors or among students themselves. I still regularly receive e-mails from a midwife several states away who took an online course from me several years ago. I "know" her husband and children and many of the families that she has worked with, as she would routinely submit assignments with a personal e-mail at 3 a.m. when she returned from delivering a baby.

10. Faculty development and rejuvenation: As a faculty member with more than 30 years of experience, I am thrilled to see and hear my colleagues venture into this new academic mode. Creating an online course takes them back to the excitement and work of creating a course for the first time. Undeniably, teaching online is more work—frequently much more work—than teaching in a classroom. However, I have heard from very few faculty members who are not energized by the creative process of achieving the same instructional goals in an entirely new format. The thinking, planning, research, learning, and effort that goes into constructing and teaching an online course has rejuvenated many faculty members who were frankly going through the motions after numerous years of teaching the same courses, semester after semester, in the same classroom environment. As a result, many of our senior, most respected faculty members are actually leading the movement into online education. They are not scared of the Internet, and they quickly master the consortium's WebCT Campus Edition course management system.

Admittedly, some faculty members have learned that their teaching styles do not work in the online environment (just as some students have discovered that their learning styles make online courses unworkable for them). However, over a very short period of time, a significant number of my peers—including many who were skeptical at first—have adapted and discovered the satisfaction of creating and teaching online.

In conclusion, online education is one of the most exciting enhancements to contemporary education. Online education is neither right for all students nor right for all faculty, but it frequently meets the needs of both for an exciting, high-quality educational experience. As with any instructional mode, the quality of online courses varies, but the potential—often met and still expanding—is on a par and in some respects even better than with the traditional F2F mode. Admittedly, it is up to future research to support or reject the impressions I have reported in this article. The important point, however, is that online education can be done well, and the demand for it is such that we all have to work to make it better. It is here to stay for all of the right reasons.

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