Research is active in the field of distance education in Canada; especially when topics relate to the use of technology mediate distance education. An interesting paper published in the July 2005 issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Education by researchers at the University of Concordia in Montreal, Canada, exemplifies this (Lobel, Neubauer and Swedburg, 2005). They conducted a thorough matched study between two sections of the same university course: AHSC/230 – Interpersonal Communication and Relationships. One section was in a traditional face-to-face format (F2F) while the other section was offered by distance education mediate by a synchronous non-turn taking virtual classroom called LBD eClassroom (limited to text and static image interaction, no audio or video). In hopes to examine if the delivery mode affected the qualitative or quantitative forms of student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction, they fixed as many variables as possible between the two sections. During one term in 2001, the same professor, facilitators, course materials, instructional strategies and assessments were used in both sections of the course. The only difference was the delivery mode: synchronous F2F versus synchronous at a distance.
Three particular findings proved very interesting. The first relates to differences in group dynamics among the sections. The course had components of large group work and of small group work. In the first class of the semester, students are assigned to one of four small working groups and are oriented in general to the course structure. Such a task was relatively simple in the F2F section and analysis of the personal learning journals of students in the first week of class showed that their session was “highly personal from the outset, with feelings of collegiality and camaraderie that appeared to deepened [sic] over time.” Conversely, the online section reported drastically different feelings largely due to the fact that they were faced with a technical learning curve in the first session that impeded their ability to communicate effectively. The analysis of their weekly learning journals showed that “most students reported being uneasy, feeling chaos, and sensing frustration – feelings which over time were replaced by a slow-growing sense of closeness.” This finding can serve as a rational for the inclusion of a pre-course synchronous orientation session in the course (i.e. a getting started activity offered the week prior to the start of the course to address all the technical difficulties in a safe atmosphere). Once the technical learning curve is surmounted by each student the barrier to communication disappears and students are free to interact with each other in a positive way. It is often said that the tone of a course is set in the first meeting of the class; therefore, taking steps to remove known barriers affecting student-to-student interaction on the first day of class can contribute towards the success of a course.
The second finding which they describe involves a quantitative measure of interactivity. Detailed analyses of matched classroom sessions showed that the overall percentage of participation differed. Generally they reported that all students in the online class participated in some form during the session (i.e. 100% participation). Conversely, this was not the case in the F2F class. The percentage of students participating ranged from a high of 82%, during discussion-based classroom activities, to a low of 10%, in lecture-based classroom activities. Clearly there is a marked difference in how students behaved under these two course delivery methods. The implications of this finding can be profound to the instructor cadre. If one wants to foster an environment with a high degree of participation from each student then the synchronous online classroom may be better at doing so than traditional F2F classrooms especially in the absence of formal incentives that might artificially induce student participation, such as grades.
The third finding that they present in their research study related to discussion time. In a F2F classroom where group discussion is taking place, the predominant form of student-to-student interaction is a turn-taking form of communication. For example, one person speaks while the others listen and then the next speaker speaks. In a non-turn taking online classroom however, student-to-student interaction can take place simultaneously in different threads. For example, a student can be participating in several text-based discussion topics simultaneously. To support this notion, the researchers determined that in the same 30-minute real-time interactive phase, online students communicated enough written information between themselves to account for a total effective time of communication of 76 minutes (i.e. based on a conversion factor that 15 written words is equivalent to six seconds of speech). This observed hyper-communication effect has the potential to create interactions with are richer, deeper and more vibrant than similarly structured F2F sessions. Distance course developers will be interested in this finding and they can leverage this observation to effectively dilate time giving them more opportunity to meet learning objectives reaching into the highest cognitive levels.
These three major findings could prove very significant to the future of distance learning. In the past, significant energies have been invested investigating the idea that there is either no significant difference between online and F2F education, or that distance education is inferior (van Schaik, Barker, Beckstrand, 2003; Warren & Holloman, 2005; Wyatt, 2005). However, one could hypothesize that if the findings in this research article were distilled into best practices for synchronous online learning and then applied and effectively leveraged within an appropriate course design, that the resulting course might potentially foster a more effective learning environment for students. Further research into how students quantitatively and qualitatively interact online will undoubtedly provide the next generation of online learners with enhanced educational opportunities.
Lobel, M., Neubauer, M. and Swedburg, R. (2005). Selected Topics from A Matched Study between a Face-to-face Section and a Real-Time Online Section of a University Course. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Retrieved October 22, 2005, from http://www.irrodl.org/content/v6.2/lobel.html
van Schaik, P., Barker, P., and Beckstrand, S. (2003). A Comparison of On-Campus and Online Course Delivery Methods in Southern Nevada. Innovations in Education & Teaching International, 40(1), p 5-16.
Warren, L. L. and Holloman, H. L. (2005). On-line Instruction: Are the Outcomes the Same? Journal of Instructional Psychology, 32(2), p 148-151.
Wyatt, G. (2005). Satisfaction, Academic Rigor and Interaction: Perceptions Of Online Instruction. Education, 125(3), p 460-468.