Home > My Thoughts > Can learning online be a more ‘human’ experience than learning face-to-face?

Can learning online be a more ‘human’ experience than learning face-to-face?


Let me start by saying “I definitely think so”!

Well, I have started this blog to hopefully generate some interesting discussion about the issues surrounding the design, implementation and management of innovative, successful and appropriate online learning and teaching strategies for teachers today. This is my first post!

I have been teaching collaborative design related courses online for about 8 years now, and it has been a constant learning curve. However I have to say that my most rewarding teaching and learning experiences have been online, and if my students are telling the truth, the same can be said for many of them.

For me this has been a great source of interest – given that many academics (and students) still feel that elearning is an isolating, inferior, cost cutting, lazy way of teaching. Teaching online is just like any other form of teaching – it can be done well, and it can be done, erm, let’s just say ‘not-so-well’. For many years online learning suffered a poor reputation from many institutions throwing up poorly conceived content, usually in the form of course notes or lecture powerpoints, with no thought of how to engage and motivate students in this new environment. Anyway this is an old story so I won’t go into detail now, the point is that many teachers still don’t know how to effectively teach online, and this in turn results in dissatisfied students, crying that their online course is some kind of cop out by the institution – in fact a year or so ago, the students at my own institution rated their online learning experience so poorly that an entire department was axed and the whole approach to online learning reconsidered.

Back to the point of this post though. I have developed, supervised and taught in an online masters program since 2007, after teaching various online electives before that at undergraduate level. Students are participating from all around the world, and from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds. Interestingly, the age ranges of these students is an equal spread from around mid twenties to mid sixties, and most students have never learned online before, nor used many social networking tools (yes I was surprised too!).

I have been continually blown away at the level of interaction between the students, and the depth of the relationships that they form with each other in the course of their learning. I have NEVER seen my students invest so much of their personality, knowledge and experience into a class as I have seen in this online environment. They tell me (through informal online discussions, and in formal evaluation reports) that they have gotten to know and trust their online classmates better than any they have known in a traditional face-to-face learning environment, and I have to say so have I (I can remember everyone’s name for one thing, whereas in a face-to-face class I would master this task 2 weeks from the end of semester!).

The reasons for this I think are varied, but primarily I think this has to do with the following:

  • The feeling of anonymity that comes with interacting from behind a screen
  • Everyone gets the chance to contribute equally – no time limits or confidence problems speaking in front of a crowd
  • The design of the assessment tasks – focusing upon collaborative process and idea generation
  • Most interestingly – students’ preconceived reactions to a person’s age, sex or appearance and even disability are eliminated, meaning the social dynamics are more equitable

I have found that the willingness for students to help each other and share knowledge is much higher than in a normal classroom where social cliques are more prevalent. Of course a lot of thought has to go into the course design and the teaching/moderation of the course in order to foster a good level of interaction and trust, but I have found that the natural inclination of students in this course has been to be open, honest and high contributors on the whole.

In short I have found my online teaching to be a much more ‘human’ experience than any face-to-face teaching I have done before. I have gotten to know my students better, and have seen the trust they share with each other deepen improve their learning outcomes.

I would love to hear from other online teachers out there about their thoughts on this, have you found something similar with your online students? Why do you think this is, and how can we enhance our teaching practice to maximise the potential of the social dynamic it creates?

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  1. Randall Fujimoto
    January 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    I would add to your list of reasons:
    The sense of empowerment that online learning brings to students because they know that many other people will actually be reading what they post (on discussion boards, etc.) instead of just one person (the instructor).

    Knowing that you have an active audience that is ready to provide feedback on your thoughts is amazingly empowering to the online learner and something that is difficult to achieve in F2F courses.

    Thanks for your excellent post!

  2. January 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts Randall! And thanks for being the first person to post on my new blog other than me!

    You make some excellent points here about the power of the online COMMUNITY. And I think that is the key word for creating truly engaging online collaborative learning scenarios. We use peer feedback a lot within our courses (supervised by the lecturer), not only to provide students with a fast feedback loop, but to enable students to practice the critical analysis skills they learn in the course, and to solidify their new knowledge by actually putting it into practice in the appraisal of a peer’s work.

    I find it very interesting that students are remarkably honest in their feedback to each other, and your point about empowerment may have something to do with this.

    I really appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Claire
    January 13, 2010 at 6:28 am

    “Most interestingly – students’ preconceived reactions to a person’s age, sex or appearance and even disability are eliminated, meaning the social dynamics are more equitable”

    Just a note about the observation above – it is heartening to see that interacting online allows students to operate more or less bias-free.

    This may be an obvious point, but in my experience one of the ways in which elearning can be more efficient than traditional lessons is the pace of interaction: students have time to digest the material and don’t have to respond hastily, resulting in a more measured review of the subject in question; conversations no longer have to be linear, multi-themed threads can be accessed at any point and students can easily bring up and expand on topics; each student works at their optimum concentration levels as they determine their hours of work (something I wish I had more control of!).

    Am looking forward to more of your cogent arguments for online education.

  4. January 13, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    ‘Everyone gets the chance to contribute equally – no time limits or confidence problems speaking in front of a crowd’

    I believe this is also largely due to the underlying expectations of the community for everyone to contribute equally. Of course, the teacher’s expectations are clearly stated in the course outline just like in F2F classes.

    But in an e-learning scenario, all of a student’s comments, publications and overall contributions are recorded and literally in your face so it’s a lot easier (and quicker) to detect freeloaders and anyone who may be slipping under the radar. Learning online, especially through group work, necessitates an amplified sense of positive peer pressure.

    In terms of harnessing this phenomenon as an online educator, well like you said: ‘students are remarkably honest in their feedback to each other’, and if somebody is letting the team down there is often a public outcry from the rest of the team, so the students are playing the role of ‘moderator’ for you. I doubt they would be so forthcoming about slackers face to face.

    As long as all comments exchanged remain pacifistic (and this is where the teacher would step in if they were not) I’d say that online learning is indeed a very enriching, ‘human’ experience.

  5. January 13, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for those really well observed thoughts Nicole! You raise very interesting points about the new kind of peer pressure or social responsibility students can feel belonging to a larger learning group online.

  6. Greta
    January 13, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I am intrigued by this notion of a confidence, ’empowerment’ and ‘social responsibility’ that is apparent in online learning. Having participated in two online courses myself I have experienced the positive and negative approaches to online teamwork.
    I found there to be a false sense of equality in some online classrooms. Not everybody is given a fair chance at equal contributions. In both online subjects, students were not keen to engage in back-and-forth group discussions. Most members were more inclined to submit their post (with as much information as possible) and get their weekly mark and go, returning next week for the new discussion topic. Creative and original responses are limited and most information repeated by each student (“first in best dressed”). Each post was too long and only those few who were prepared (and organised enough) to read each post and contribute lengthy discussions would benefit from what was being said. This behaviour made what could be a wonderfully collaborative forum, very individual.
    Yes, this creates an overwhelming pressure to contribute equally, resulting in essays rather than discussions. To me this is not a positive form of peer pressure.
    Confidence is a big issue in online learning. The people with lots of academic confidence (literacy and research skills) advance, while those who are more gregarious in personality (with stronger verbal/discussion skills) are at a disadvantage.
    Obviously this is my subjective opinion from my limited experience. However, it is becoming clearer to me that the role of the educator to gauge and control these dynamics, class structure and response really determines the experiences and outcomes of the class.
    It was a very ‘human’ experience indeed (and not an altogether negative one) – that didn’t stray too far from those of a face-to-face class. It is a shame that the stigma ‘of elearning [as] an isolating, inferior, cost cutting, lazy way of teaching’, still exists when the effectiveness of class co-operation and collaboration are still as challenging online as they are face-to-face. It is an exciting avenue of learning that should be explored…with confidence.

  7. January 14, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Thanks very much for your input on this topic Gretta. You make some very valid points and it is good to hear from the student point of view. I guess I was painting a utopia-like picture of what an online community is capable of, but of course, and with any class, there are always difficulties along the way.

    However I think your post highlights the importance of good moderation on the teacher’s part. Of course there will as you say always be those students who wish to participate more than others, again no different to a face to face classroom, but I have seen the levels of disparity between contribution and more importantly, engagement lessen when assessment is relevant so that students feel they are getting something out of putting in the effort, and from a strong presence of the teacher in the discussions and group work as a guide, and sometimes a mild disciplinarian if required…

    You mentioned…
    “…get their weekly mark and go, returning next week for the new discussion topic. Creative and original responses are limited and most information repeated by each student (“first in best dressed”). Each post was too long and only those few who were prepared (and organised enough) to read each post and contribute lengthy discussions would benefit from what was being said”

    I find it interesting that you say creative and interested responses to a discussion are limited. In fact I have found the opposite to be true in many online discussions. I am often, as a teacher, led to places in an online discussion through the sharing of ideas and opinions, research and related topics in a discussion, to places I never thought that discussion could possibly go. An interesting discussion takes true engagement with the subject – enough for students to actually put thought and time into their responses – something you mentioned that many did not do in your classes. Also the nature of how we search for information online these days means if any research is done into the topic, so many new branches of related topics undoubtedly arise, giving new material for inclusion in the discussion and analysis by the students.

    The fact that you mention that you felt that those students with good information literacy and research skills fare better in online collaborative discussion than those with strong verbal or discussion skills alludes to the fact that the discussions you were engaged in were not regarded by students as a collaborative sharing of ideas at all, but merely a box ticking exercise? For surely if a student has good discussion skills they would be able to something to the discussion. For me in my courses, the ability to recite facts gleaned from research doesn’t count much in a discussion at all without the ability to relate the research to the discussion itself, and the critical analysis and relevance of the information being presented.

    To me this again reflects on how the courses you experienced were taught or designed. If the students are not engaged enough to join in the discussion and actually get something out if it (ie learn something), then I think the type and topic of the discussion should be reviewed by the teacher, so to its integration with the learning outcomes and assessment structure of the course. I’d also be interested to know if the teachers in these cases had a good online presence and good rapport with the students?

    Student engagement in collaborative online work is paramount for trust building (ie, knowing the others are going to turn up and put some effort in – otherwise why would you bother doing the same!?), and the formation of a learning community that can sustain and create interest in the learning process.

    This is why I believe that so much work needs to go into online course design, and especially the way it is taught. It takes a while for an online teacher to get a sense of the timing and flow of a course, of the frequency of interaction required to maintain a rhythm in the course and to keep students motived. That’s why I feel so strongly about the need for teachers to be trained in online pedagogy and for them to be able to shift their perceptions of what teaching practice is before they teach online… One of the reasons we are now developing our Learning to Teach Online project http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/learning-to-teach-online/about-the-project

    Thanks again Gretta, this was a really valuable contribution. I hope you’ll be back to so so again in the future!

  8. Randall Fujimoto
    January 15, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Very interesting discussion you have going on here, Simon (and glad that I got in the first comment!). I totally agree with you that online course design is extremely important to the success of the course. I think both teachers and students are now starting to figure out how much different online learning is compared to F2F, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing some really good, innovative online pedagogical ideas in the future.

    Re: Gretta’s comment about student engagement in the discussions, I agree with you that proper setup of the discussion will encourage actual discussion of opinions rather than just statement of facts. Questions should promote critical thinking, which leads to students thinking, posting, reflecting, and providing feedback. I’ve found that appointing a group of students to moderate specific discussions gives them additional insight on not only the topic but also the process of online learning.

    Hope to keep reading more interesting comments here. Of course, now the challenge is to see if your next blog post gets as much feedback as you’ve had here 🙂

  9. January 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

    HAHA yes I too have been wondering about the repeat performance of my next post – I’ll have to give it some serious thought!

    I am very glad though that we have had input from the student side, as we as educators can really learn a lot from listening to such feedback. I have found that many teachers don’t seem to listen to well when student performance and direct feedback indicate they are doing something wrong. Hopefully teaching will continue to become more of a two-way dialogue, and pedagogy will continue to improve.

    We have found that having discussions with peers who are teaching online really helps everyone improve. We ran several ‘Course Author Fellowship Programs over the last few years’ to train interested staff in planning, writing, and teaching fully online courses. The great thing about these programs was that all courses, while completely individual with different aims and subject matter, were developed in a group of academics who had no experience teaching online before, but were willing to give it a go.

    We had a mix of academics who were near retirement age, fresh faced tutors, believers and even a couple of skeptics over the years, and all from different disciplines. We got together once a month over a 6 month program to discuss progress, revise each others learning outcomes and structures etc. Because there was such a variety of disciplines involved, we were able to really hone course content because the tendency for academics to write courses, descriptions and assignments in such a way where they demonstrate their own knowledge, but make it damn difficult for anyone learning about the topic to follow what is going is pretty common. Everyone was quite vocal about changing the language, and testing each other’s courses to see that they were easy to navigate and had a good sense of constructive alignment.

    We formally evaluate all of our courses (here they are out of interest http://bit.ly/5RNVOi) every time they run as well, and teachers get a copy of both quantitative and qualitative data to reflect on, but I must be honest, some reflect (and improve) a lot more than others.

    This also brings up an interesting dilemma – as an online postgraduate program director I am responsible for all of the online courses we run here, so I naturally want them to be engaging, effective and worthwhile for the students and the teachers. However as online classes can by their nature be a lot more open, the teaching practices of colleagues can be laid bare. Some teachers feel very off-put by this, and I know in my institution the silo mentality is rife within many face to face classes – so much so that it is not uncommon for tute groups to not share course material or adhere to common teaching schedules! Many of our online teachers however welcome advice from colleagues about their online teaching practice, as with most of our ‘Fellows’ from the programs I mentioned above. But I find there can be a fine line between a big brother syndrome and keeping a collegial eye on what other teachers are doing – at least from appearances sake. Teachers can get edgy (and rightly so!) if they feel they are being watched. However when you oversee a program and have students discussing their experiences with you it does make it hard to let sleeping dogs lie when there is a problem.

    Hopefully the dialogue exists between peers to facilitate smooth exchange of ideas and advice, but it can get difficult when some teachers don’t heed the warning signs from their students, evaluations and peers. This is what I am trying to build here at COFA anyway, a collegial atmosphere where teachers can change they way they define teaching, from a solitary practice to a more open, collaborative practice. It might never e perfect but we’ve got to have something to strive for eh!?

    Hmmm I’d better go put on my size 9 boots ready for the start of semester! 🙂

  10. January 18, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Hi Simon,

    We deal with trade apprentices. We find their interactions with the subject matter are excellent, but their interactions with other students online are limited. Even after much ‘educating’ on how to communicate with other students and the benefits of doing so, they’re not inclined to do this.

    Could this be to do with the level of education? I know not many people like to talk about it! I myself ha applied for one of your post-graduate courses online, and know that I am interested in this purely for personal and professional development. This is learning that I’ve chosen.
    With trades online, and possibly even under-graduate studies (would be intereseted to see if this is true from your experience) could there be more of an attitude of ‘just get it done’ and less of an attitude of ‘learn as much as I possibly can’?

    Maybe I just have a lot to learn with this age group and training field of students!!?

    I definitely agree with your points though. The fact that students can really construct who they are from the ground up, and not be judged with pre-conceived ideas, certainly helps them to be less inhibited and more friendly/helpful/talkative!

  11. January 18, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Hi Talia and thanks for posting! You have asked a very interesting question, and personally, I am not sure that level of education is a factor is how much someone participates in social/collaborative learning interaction online.

    In terms of postgrad vs undergrad, in my experience of teaching both online there has been no set pattern for who interacts more. It has gone both ways in the past, and many factors, such as class dynamics, personality etc can effect this.

    To me, I think the biggest factor is relevance of what is going on to the individual learner.

    I think the best example of this is the multitude of forums out there about just about any interest topic you can think of. The members of these online communities can be of a very varied educational background, but they are drawn together by a common interest – something relevant to them that they would like to learn more about. These are most definitely communities of practice and a powerful way to learn, and because the users of such forums usually have a strong interest in the topic at hand, they will usually engage with the community, and the more they engage the more they learn, because there are no course notes or assignments to facilitate this. You learn by sharing ideas, contributing to the greater community and learning from the wisdom of those who have built up a reputation, and a kind of peer reviewed expertise in the community. The more a person engages and shares with the community they more they learn and become more central to the community itself – Lave and Wenger (1991) coined the term ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ that describes this process nicely. Worth reading if you haven’t already done so. I can also suggest reading some of Michael Eraut’s work. He has done a lot of publishing on the notion of community and collaborative learning – particularly from the viewpoint of different types of knowledge building that can only come from interaction (in he workplace particularly) that you may find useful.

    I should also point out that all of our online courses are designed to promote interaction between learners. In fact, they necessitate it! We (COFA Online) follow a collaborative learning model, and students cannot simply come and engage with the material and submit assignments – they would fail the course. We have compulsory (and graded discussions, peer review – not graded but required, team works etc) as part of the assessment structure.

    Therefore course design plays a large role in how active students will be with each other. If the course follows more of a distance model, where students can access material any time, and can complete assessments individually and submit them to get their mark, the motivation can be incredibly low to interact with other students – in many ways it may detract attention form the main goal of the course, which is to learn and pass. If the assessments are designed such that it requires interaction – and if that interaction is RELEVANT and HELPFUL to the learning process, then you’ll find it will take off!

    So some suggestions I could make for your particular case (for what its worth!) would be:

    – decide if student interaction is really beneficial to the type of learning you are dealing with
    – look at the assessment requirements – do they necessitate any kind of interaction?
    – is interaction directly related to the learning outcomes of the course, or is it ‘tacked on’?
    – what interaction skills do the students need in the ‘real world’ contexts of their professions? Perhaps build on this and make the learning scenarios echo this situations.

    Anyway… just a few thoughts from what I have experienced… Hope it was a little helpful.

    • January 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks for the reply!

      In thinking about it, we don’t require students to interact with each other. I definiitely belive that interaction is important (heck, that’s what the whole apprenticeship model is based off- learning from others more experienced!), but our assignments require students to interact with people in their workplaces, not online.

      I feel any intereaction we force them to do online would be ‘tacked on’ as you say, and because online communication isn’t necessary for their work skills it wouldn’t be something employers deem as important, or worthy of the extra time it might take.

      Thanks for your ideas/thoughts! It’s definitely helped me to clear up what I think/know we need to do, and what’s right for our students. 🙂

  12. January 18, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Well I’m just happy to be able to discuss ideas back and forth here – that’s what I hoped starting a blog could do, so glad it was helpful to someone! 😀

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