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    Thinking About the Online Classroom:
    Evaluating the "Ideal" Versus the "Real"

    Jenny Kindred
    Wayne State U

    I must admit, I don't have the obvious credibility one might think I need in order to write and present a paper about the online classroom.  I do not have direct experience as an online teacher or student, however I became interested in online learning by merging my two primary research interests: communication education and computer mediated communication (CMC). I never had the opportunity to take an online course (I would have signed up willingly) and as of yet, I have not taught online, but I hope to rectify that in the near future. What I have done, however, is observe several online courses from beginning to end. I believe what I lack in personal experience I make up for in objectivity. By thinking about the online classroom with an outsiders perspective, I cannot and have not entered my research with pre-conceived notions about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this method of learning. I have read the literature, I have observed the interaction and I have surveyed the students, all with the goal of understanding more fully this educational medium. It is my hope that my findings will bring to light some issues institutions, instructors, and students will consider when thinking about the online classroom themselves.

    As I was brainstorming ideas for this paper, a fellow colleague in communication suggested I contrast the "ideal" of the online classroom with the "real". Such a comparison is necessary if we are to better understand the processes that occur in the online classroom.  Real online classrooms need to be observed so that students and teachers can more fully understand what goes on in an online context.  Many institutions are either offering online classes now or thinking about doing so. Regardless of one's opinion of this method of learning, the online classroom is probably here to stay as more and more students are demanding alternative ways to obtain an education.

    The ideal that I will contrast with the real gives us insight and information, but obviously cannot speak for all online learning experiences. These conclusions I draw are based on observations of different online learning experiences, and I make no claim that we can generalize these findings to all computer mediated learning experiences. But, broadly conceived, these thoughts and suggestions are important considerations of the online classroom experience.

    In order to draw conclusions about the online classroom, the best approach is to observe the online course in action. From June through December 1999, I had the opportunity to observe two communication courses that were taught completely online. The format for all interaction for these courses was asynchronous; there was no scheduled face-to-face component to the course.  In order to communicate with one another, students would post messages and read messages on the class listserv and discussion board.  The students in these courses discussed course concepts in whole class discussions as well as worked on small group research projects. In addition to observing the actual messages students exchanged online, I  wanted to find out  their perceptions and feelings about their experiences in the online classroom. I accomplished this through the use of a brief online survey that almost every student completed at the end of the course.  Currently, I am observing two online courses that operate in the same manner.

    My research on this topic is exploratory and descriptive. I did not test a hypothesis or conduct an experiment. I wanted a firsthand look at what goes on when students and teachers meet online. How are the discussions framed? How do students interact? How is group work accomplished? What is the instructor's role? How does one "talk" online? What do students think of the online learning experience?  These and other questions will be answered by contrasting the "ideal" with the "real".

    The "ideals" I will discuss are drawn from my review of the online learning literature. The "realities" I will report here occurred only in the courses I observed, however, as I have stated before, the conclusions and suggestions are worthy of consideration by anyone (teachers and students) considering an online learning experience.

    What is so "ideal" about the on-line classroom?

    Much has been studied with regard to the online classroom. At the most basic level, descriptions of how CMC is being used in an educational context, the unique attributes of this medium, and the benefits of such use have been thoroughly explored. Many scholars who have taught online are quick to point out the attractiveness of an online education, and the benefits described are many.

    Kaye (1989) describes pedagogical, structural, and economic uses of CMC in education. For example, pedagogically, the computer enhances cooperative learning; structurally, the computer can store messages for easy retrieval, and economically, the use of computer mediated courses, despite the cost of equipment and wiring, may offer enormous savings for both the student and learning institution.

    Harasim (1989) explains how online education is unique. Computer-assisted instruction is a many-to-many process, it is not dependent on time and place, it is text based, and the use of the computer encourages active involvement by all participants, as well as offers a certain amount of control over the structure of the discussion. All these attributes contribute to several benefits of integrating CMC in educational contexts. For example, through her experiences integrating CMC into the classroom, McComb (1994) found that learning is extended beyond the walls of a traditional classroom because instructors are more available to students. In addition, there is a balance of power with the use of CMC; students are expected to be more responsible and display initiative in accessing the system and contributing to class discussion online. Finally, McComb found that CMC is efficient. It provides quick access to needed resources and helps in course record keeping. Noting another possible benefit of CMC as an educational supplement, Althaus (1997) reported enhanced learning and higher grades earned by students participating in computer mediated discussions.

    The impact of the instructor in the online course has also been examined.  Ahern, Peck and Laycock (1992) were interested in assessing what style of teacher discourse contributed to higher levels of student interaction.  In an experimental design, they manipulated three types of instructor discourse: questions to the group, statements to the group, and conversational style (i.e. a spontaneous and informal comment or question directed toward an individual).  They found that the conversational style produced the most complex student interaction patterns.  Thus, a teacher centered formal style is not necessary to produce interaction in a CMC environment.  They conclude, then, that teacher style of discourse is the most important factor in determining student participation and quality of responses.

    From these few investigations, the consensus is that CMC successfully impacts student education, and can be an ideal way for teachers to teach and for students to learn.  What these and other studies have also illustrated is that there are several assumed benefits associated with the online classroom. In other words, the online classroom is ideal because it enhances cooperative learning, encourages participation and interaction, and promotes convenience.  In the next section, I will discuss each of these assumptions about the online classroom, providing examples of what the realities were in the online courses I observed.

    What is the "reality" of the online classroom?

    "Ideally, the online classroom enhances cooperative learning." At first glance, this seems to be a correct assumption.  Students of the online classroom do not have to set up meeting times and travel great distances in order to work on a classroom project. In the online classroom, no one can make up excuses for not attending a group meeting, because there are no pre-determined meeting times in computer mediated asynchronous discussion.  Students interact by posting messages to a discussion board and can do so at their own convenience.  The group project, then, is completed through frequent interaction online. Because of this, all students can participate and contribute equally to the project.

    It might then, appear that working in a group online is easier than working in a group on-ground (face-to-face).  The groups I observed all indicated that they appreciated the convenience of online group work.   Not traveling to and from a meeting is convenient, but not always advantageous.  Many of the students commented on how hard it was to keep up with and read all the discussion. Students were getting frustrated by the delayed responses associated with asynchronous online interaction.  In addition, students felt the communications lacked a personal quality; not meeting face-to-face seemed to impact they way in which they related to one another.  Because of this feeling, many of the groups actually ended up meeting in person to work on the project.

    In addition, because not everyone is online at the same time, certain aspects of the group project may in fact take longer to complete than in a face-to-face context.  For example, it took several of the groups I observed well over a week to decide the focus of their project. I imagine the same decision could have been made much quicker in one face-to-face meeting.  Walther (1992) predicts that sufficient time and message exchange must occur in order for relationships to develop in CMC. The same argument could also be made for group decision making.  Because of the time delay in exchanging messages, students need more time to make decisions and reach consensus.

    Overall, while the students liked liked the convenience of meeting online, they were frustrated at times by the process itself and the lack of personal interaction.  Most of the groups attempted to arrange face-to-face meetings, and some students even reported feeling better about the project and about their group members after having met.

    "Ideally, the online classroom encourages participation and interaction."  Because of the anonymity of online interaction, people who may not speak up in a face-to-face setting will be more confident about doing so in an online environment.  In addition, asynchronous interaction allows one to contribute at his or her own convenience, thus no one is fighting for "floor time" in order to get a word in. The textual nature of the communication is also advantageous in some respects because it allows students to really think about their contributions and craft a well written statement.  In the classes I observed, all students could contribute to the weekly class discussion by posting their response to the discussion question within a unawake period.  The discussion, then, is not constrained by a short time limit (i.e. an hour long class), and students can post at their convenience.  All of these features of asynchronous communication are important, especially for the shy student.  Finally, if participation is a graded requirement of the course, online interaction provides a structured way for the instructor to monitor the amount of messages students post.

    What makes such a context positive for participation and interaction, however, also has some drawbacks.  Because there is no limit (usually) placed on the length or amounts of messages students can post, there may be large amounts of text for students to write and to read.   For example, if a student comes late to the discussion (later in the week), he or she may not read all the posts that came before.  Likewise, if a student posts early (early in the week) he or she may not return to read the other messages.  Students in the courses I observed commented that they spent a lot of time reading and responding to posts. Some later posts, however, never got responded to at all.   Overall, many students were surprised that the online course was more time consuming (due to reading numerous posted messages) than a traditional class.

    The numerous posts also require a large time commitment from the instructor, even moreso if he or she actively participates in the discussion.  This brings up another concern, and that is determining the quality of the participation.  Giving students guidelines, such as "post two messages per week", may help in grading the participation, but the instructor must go further.  In the classes I observed, the instructor specifically articulated the quantity and quality requirements for posting.  A few students, however, were still unsure of of what constituted a "substantive" or quality post.

    Finally, while online discussion can promote extensive interaction because everyone can participate, an online asynchronous discussion is much different than a face-to-face one.  To meet established posting requirements, the possibility exists that students may post a message that responds to the discussion question only and does not interact in any way with other students.   Students need to understand the parameters of a successful CMC discussion (Colomb & Simutis, 1996).
    For example, in listserv discussion, Herring (1996) describes the basic message structure as containing three elements: a link to an earlier message, an expression of views, and an appeal to other participants. Without these appropriate references, messages become no more than "monologues in sequence" (Herring, 1996, p. 92).  Students in the courses I observed were taught this, in the sense that the instructor explained specifically the importance of commenting on and responding to other's posts.

    "Ideally, the online classroom promotes convenience." Broadly conceived, this is an accurate statement. As I have already indicated above, the students I observed commented frequently on how convenient it was to complete a course online.  Students appreciated the ability to participate in class discussion at their convenience and the notion of submitting their papers electronically.  More than one student praised the benefits of not having to fight traffic and parking!  Students also appreciated not having to attend mandatory group meetings; they all seemed to have busy school and work schedules, and it may have been difficult arranging convenient times for all to meet.

    While online learning may be convenient because it saves time in some respects (e.g. not having to travel to school), the process of participating in an online course can be more time consuming than one might think.  It can actually take more time to complete all aspects of an online course than a face-to-face course.  It takes longer to write a comment than to speak it, and the process of "online listening" (i.e. reading and responding to what others have contributed to the discussion boards) is a time consuming endeavor.  It is possible that if students log on only once or twice a week (the equivalent of meeting in a face-to-face class) they may be overwhelmed with the amount of messages waiting for them.  In the classes I observed, the instructor strongly urged students to log on two or three times a day in order to keep up with the whole class and small group discussions.  The instructor also may find him or herself spending more time attending to the needs of an online course.  Posting online lectures, participating in class discussions and communicating frequently with students can take up a significant portion of time.

    In addition, convenience itself may not make for the best overall classroom experience. In the survey, several students indicated they liked the convenience, but disliked the process of communicating in a delayed, impersonal manner.  One student wrote that "it was a good chance to get more units without attending class. I would do it again for the same reason, but not because I enjoyed the experience."  Even though convenience is a positive attribute about the online classroom, it may not be enough to provide for the social and educational needs of students.

    Conclusions and Suggestions:

    So, what does all this mean for the teacher and student of the online classroom?  Is this educational context the ideal way to learn?  The answer may not be so clear-cut.  Like many things in education, the answer may be "it depends."

    Online learning may be ideal in certain situations.  To make the online classroom successful, I suggest several things.  First, instructors should participate in any online discussion, either directly or at the very least by providing summaries.  In this way, the instructor can highlight examples of insightful online discussion by the students.  Second,  instructors need to consider their students' knowledge of the technology and knowledge of online interaction in general.  It may be necessary to teach online interaction skills, at a basic level, before the start of any online course.  The instructor of the courses I observed provided detailed information about online collaboration and online "netiquette", which was an important addition to the content of her class since many of the students had never before taken an online course.

    Taking into consideration the realities of the groups I observed, there are several things that instructors and students can do to make the process more ideal.  First, students should be given as much time as possible to plan and discuss their group projects.  Even if the project is not due until the end of the semester, groups can be formed early on.  Second, instructors can provide the groups with access to listservs, discussion boards, and real-time chat so that they have many different choices of interaction.  Third, groups should be small (3-4 students) and structured.  The groups I observed all had assigned leaders and this helped them get off to a good start.  Finally, students need to be conscientious about logging on daily to prevent the group interaction from lagging.  Again, instructors can assist students by making sure they are aware of their responsibilities as a group.

    There are many other aspects that need to be considered, but I obviously cannot cover them all in this short paper.  For example, the type of student, course content and method of interaction will all impact the processes that occur in the online classroom.  The concerns I have discussed here, however, need to be considered for all online courses with any type of student.  The online classroom poses challenges to both student and instructor. While students need to learn technologies and become skilled in online discourse, instructors have a responsibility as well. Implementing an online course, or any CMC component to a regular face-to-face course should not be done hastily, but rather a solid rationale for its use is necessary if student learning outcomes are to be reached. This informal observation I have done ultimately raises more questions than it answers. While there are perhaps many benefits of implementing online classes, instructors and students alike need to recognize what is the best use of this technology in order to achieve the most benefits.


        Ahern, T. C.,  Peck, K., & Laycock, M. (1992). The effects of teacher discourse in computer-mediated discussion. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 8, 291-309.

        Althaus, S. L. (1997). Computer-mediated communication in the university classroom: An experiment with online discussion. Communication Education, 46, 158-176.

        Colomb, G. G., & Simutis, J. A. (1996). Visible conversation and academic inquiry: CMC in a culturally diverse classroom.  In S. Herring (Ed.) Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross cultural perspectives. (pp. 203-222). Amsterdam: John Benjamin Publishing.

        Harasim, L. (1989). On-line education: A new domain. In R. Mason and A. Kaye (Eds.), Mindweave: Communication, computers and distance education (pp. 50-62). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

        Herring, S. (1996). Two variants of an electronic message schema. In S. Herring (Ed.) Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross cultural perspectives. (pp. 81-108). Amsterdam: John Benjamin Publishing.

        Kaye, A. (1989). Computer-mediated communication and distance education. In R. Mason and A. Kaye (Eds.), Mindweave: Communication, computers and distance education (pp. 3-21). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

        McComb, M. (1994). Benefits of computer-mediated communication in college courses. Communication Education, 43, 159-170

        Walther, J. B. (1992). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective. Communication Research, 19, 52-90.

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