Despite the growing number of virtual students, many academics still believe outcomes for online education are inferior to those of face-to-face instruction, according to Babson Survey Research Group's most recent annual report, Online Report Card - Tracking Online Education in the United States.
In my experience, the opposite is true.
Many who doubt the effectiveness of virtual classrooms have not been exposed to thoughtfully designed, rigorous courses that use technology purposefully to engage students and achieve better learning outcomes. Following are some of the most common misconceptions about online learning.
Myth 1: Online learning denotes a single model.
There are many, often contradictory, definitions of online learning. When you read, think or talk about online learning, it is important to be specific. While there are endless possibilities, with new ones developing each day, there are two fundamental categories of which you should be aware: asynchronous and synchronous. These terms distinguish when the interactions between and among students and teachers occur.
In a fully asynchronous classroom, students work independently, and to some extent on their own schedule, although rigorous programs have regularly scheduled due dates to allow for meaningful professor feedback on formative assessments. Fully synchronous classes are online interactions that occur simultaneously between and among students and professors. These may include real time video, and often all students can see the teacher, and vice versa.
Online courses may have both asynchronous and synchronous components; in addition, traditional classrooms may include components of online learning. We call these blended or hybrid courses; the flipped classroom is one example.
Myth 2: It is impossible to connect in an online classroom.
Connection is important to promote student engagement, and therefore deeper learning and outcome achievement. Many who have no experience with online learning, or who have experience with poor quality online classrooms, assume that the physical distance necessarily creates an inability to connect among professors and students. In my experience, the opposite is true. Not only are students and professors shocked at how connected they are in a virtual course, but in fully synchronous learning venues, some students say it is an even more intimate learning experience than the physical classroom.
With thoughtful implementation, technology can actually increase connection. There are more ways to connect in the virtual classroom than in many physical classrooms, which can be large, impersonal and lack adequate audio or visual technology. Some of the tools I use for connecting with students online include: class websites and blogs; pre-course surveys to get to know the class, collectively and individually; class hashtags for social media; group collaboration with professor guidance; and implementation of user-friendly communication tools, such as Remind.com's texting service, Google Hangouts, or Skype video chats.
In addition, more frequent, personalized communication with students, either through email, text, audio or informal video, can dramatically increase the connectedness of a virtual course.
Myth 3: Online courses are commoditized and lack rigor.
Many professors and students alike assume that online learning means students can take as little or as much time as they need to complete assignments. This is not true. Quality online programs demand a high level of engagement, interaction and participation.
For example, the fully asynchronous courses I teach combine flexibility with interactivity and collaborative learning. Courses include pre-recorded videos and podcasts that I have created and produced specifically for my class. Students progress through units each week, with regular assignment due dates, peer collaboration and a high level of professor interaction and feedback, unmatched in many traditional classrooms.
With thoughtful implementation of the proper tools to achieve the desired learning outcomes, the virtual venue not only allows, but in many ways encourages, customization and personalization, the opposite of commoditization. Student-centered instruction that allows for active learning prevents the course from becoming a spectator sport, promoting rigor as well as relevance to the learner.
4. Online learning is all about the technology, not the learning.
The use of technology in the classroom is not a new idea; my '80s elementary school classes were filled with film-strips, overhead projectors, and media carts with a single television and VCR. These technologies were used to expose our classroom in rural North Carolina to a broader world and therefore, enhance our opportunities for learning. While the capabilities of today's technologies are certainly greater, the goals of their use should be no different.
Learning, not the delivery media, venue or other tool, should always be the driver. Good instructional designers and educational technologists begin by listening to the teacher, determining what the learning outcomes are, and selecting a tool only if it helps achieve those outcomes. When done properly, a professor's ways and means are not lost but in fact enhanced by technology.