The Online Advantage

By Thomas Royce Wilson, PhD

Overview: This article addresses the bias that some educators have against online education, and it examines research findings to determine the validity of that bias.

Bias vs. Research

Nearly 70% of U.S. colleges and universities consider online learning critical to their long-term strategy. About one third of higher education students take at least one online course, and that percentage continues to grow. However, despite the popularity of online learning and its integral value within institutions, administrators report that more than two-thirds of their faculty doubt the value and legitimacy of online education (Allen & Seaman, 2013). (It would be interesting to know how many of those online doubters have actually taken or taught an online class.)

Much of this bias against online learning comes from the mistaken notion that the course delivery method (computer, chalkboard, textbook, campus classroom, fully online classroom, etc.) determines student learning. In reality, our pedagogy, (instructional design and instructor facilitation) influences learning more than the apparatus or delivery method that we use (Clark, 1983, Kozma, 1994, Mandernach, Forrest, Babutzke, & Manker, 2009, McManus, 2000).

A bad writer using a fancy new computer is still a bad writer. A good writer with a pen and yellow pad is still a good writer despite the medium. If the good writer wants to write using a different medium (i.e. a computer), she must be willing to change her approach because trying to write on a computer screen with a ballpoint pen does not work well.

The principle of adapting one’s strategy to optimize the medium applies in education. A bad instructor in a brick-and-mortar classroom is still a bad instructor. A good face-to-face instructor who is willing to adopt new strategies for the new medium, can become just as effective online. Giving a modality the credit or blame for student performance denies the crucial role that we instructors play in helping students achieve desired learning outcomes (Girod & Wojcikiewicz, 2009).

Faculty distrust of online learning fits a historical pattern. Throughout U.S. history, disruptive educational technology, dating back to blackboards and books, has unnerved defenders of the period’s educational status quo (Russell, 2006). Think back to the anxiety that must have erupted in faculty meetings in the late 1800’s when the typewriter came onto the scene. “If we let students use typewriters, they will become lazy, penmanship will decline, and learning will suffer.” Of course, online learning involves more than just technology, and the fear of the new and unknown transcends hardware.

New approaches have always sparked debate about their value, effect, and use in education…and that’s a good thing. Just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it is good. We humans tend to resist change, but close-minded cynicism can cost us opportunities for improving our lives and the lives of our students. To overcome our doubt or possible bias against online education, and to counter the reckless impulsiveness of those who chase the latest new educational fad, we should all step back… take a breath… and look at the findings of educational research.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) conducted a meta-analysis of hundreds of educational studies that have taken place over three decades (US, 2010). The meta-analysis found that, on average, online students performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. I’m not an advocate of what is known as “media-comparison” research, but I sight that DOE study for those who might still think that online learning is somehow inferior to campus-based instruction.

Research indicates that other factors (e.g., instructional design, instructor facilitation, student readiness, etc.) have much greater influence on student learning than the technology or location used for instruction. Rather than comparing where we teach, we need to focus on improving how we teach, whether face-to-face or online (Clark, 1983; Girod & Wojcikiewicz, 2009; Kozma, 1994; McFarlane, 2011, McManus, 2000).

Embrace Advantages of Online Discussions

The campus-based and online modalities each have advantages and disadvantages. In the area of class discussions, online asynchronous forums may have the edge over face-to-face discussions (see Table 1). When we embrace and activate those advantages through our online pedagogy (i.e., instructional design and instructor facilitation), students benefit.

Face-to-Face Discussions

The Online Advantage

Every class period, a few students answer most questions. Most students answer only when called upon, and many never participate in classroom discussions(Ortega, 1997)

Every online student must participate in online discussions (Rossman, 1999).

If students are called upon, they must produce an answer instantaneously or say they don’t know.

In asynchronous discussions, students have time to reflect on their communication for minutes, hours, or days before responding (Heckman & Annabi, 2003).

If students are called upon, they must answer based on what they understand or can recall.

Before posting online, students have time to verify their answer by researching multiple sources and synthesizing the information (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2003; Ortega, 1997).

Verbal, spontaneous responses tend to be relatively brief, simple, and shallow.  

Asynchronous, written responses can contain more substance, detail, and depth than spontaneous verbal responses. Students can proofread, revise, and reflect before posting (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2003; Wu & Hiltz, 2004).   

Even if every face-to-face student wanted to give a comment on every classroom topic in every class session, there would not be enough class time for 100% participation plus planned activities such as lecture.

Every online student participates in every discussion, and time is not a barrier (Rossman, 1999).

Shyness, English as a second language, disabilities, and other factors can present obstacles to participation in face-to-face classroom discussions (Murphy & Coleman, 2004).

Online discussions are inclusive, giving a voice to those who may be marginalized by traditional classroom dynamics (Murphy & Coleman, 2004; Ortega, 1997).

Due to time constraints, face-to-face classroom discussions limit opportunities for continued dialog.

Discussion forums provide opportunities for students to learn through ongoing dialog with peers and the instructor using multiple responses, questions, and comments that extend beyond the required minimum (Curtin, 2002; Lo, Johnson, & Tenorio, 2011; Xie, 2013).  

Face-to-face discussions provide little peer-to-peer interaction.

In every forum, online discussion boards require peer-to-peer interaction, which can include collaboration, inquiry, sharing of ideas, and more. Peer interaction supports critical thinking (Hausfather, 1996; Moore, 1989; Wilson & Stacey, 2004).  

Learners have little control over their learning in traditional classroom discussions.

Online discussions give learners control over when they participate in discussions, which discussion threads they participate in, which posts they respond to, and in what way they want to participate. Learner control produces better outcomes and higher satisfaction (Amabile, 1996; Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005).  

Face-to-face students produce verbal answers.

In online discussions, students can communicate their understanding with combinations of text, graphics, multimedia, audio, video, weblinks, and cited sources.

Face-to-face discussions have no lasting record of the academic interaction that took place.

Online students can revisit discussion board records to review topics, resources, ideas, and solutions that emerged during class discussions.

The lack of permanent discussion records does not allow instructors to analyze the depth of student thinking during interactions. Therefore, students seldom receive formative, specific feedback on their classroom interactions.

Instructors can view discussion board conversations at their convenience, analyze the content, and give specific feedback to help students deepen their understanding.

Table 1. Advantages of Online Asynchronous Discussions

Of course, just creating an online discussion does not guarantee learning. Discussions must have certain key elements for effectiveness. The discussions must align with student learning outcomes (SLOs), contain well-designed prompts, and be facilitated by an engaged instructor. When a discussion has those essential attributes, your students can benefit from the advantages that online discussions present.


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Copyright © 2021 by Thomas Royce Wilson

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