Communication Currents

Face-to-Face or Online Instruction? Is That the Best Question?

June 1, 2008
Digital Communication & Gaming, Instructional Communication

The proliferation of online degrees and courses is generating a buzz throughout college campuses. Live classroom interaction and communication between student and professor has been a hallmark of the college experience for decades but this traditional teacher-student interaction is being challenged by the growing number of online courses and degrees as students demand a more convenient way to earn a college degree. Are remote connections between student and teacher in online environments harming the education process when communication is not conducted in real time?

As one who teaches classes live and online courses, as well as courses that blend the two modes of teacher-student interaction, I find advantages to each mode of delivery. The discussion surrounding the tension of believing live classroom interaction is symbolic and representative of a good education and online instruction is something less than a good education is suggesting one must reside on one end or the other of a losing argument.

It appears that anything other than face-to-face teaching and communication runs the risk of being considered less than good education. Are we in fact asking the right question when we say when we ask if online teaching and learning can be a good education? Likewise, we could ask: Is good education achieved with 250 students in a large lecture hall? Is good education achieved through 10, 12, 13, or 14 week semesters? Is a good education accomplished with essay, true/false or multiple-choice exams? Is good education achieved through study abroad, service learning, experiential learning, housing students in high rise dormitories, or having a winning football team?

Such questions fail to take into consideration three very real issues in higher education today--student learning styles, changing demographics and access. The online teaching and learning environment is responding to these critical, student driven needs.

We know that student learning styles vary dramatically and an awareness of those learning styles can assist instructors in delivering course content to the diverse learning styles present in the classroom. A simple step of assessing and identifying student learning styles in an online class can be achieved through a quick quiz that illustrates to the instructor and the student how an individual student learns best.

Online course platforms provide students with alternative ways to engage with the material in the course. Online instructors have the ability to accommodate the major learning styles through a simple rearrangement of course material. This allows students to select the method that best suits them. Accomplishing this task in a live classroom is possible, but incredibly labor intensive.

Colleges are predicting a 25% growth in students taking at least one online course. Students appear to be as satisfied with their online courses as they are with their face-to-face classes. Moreover, online learning outcomes continue to be judged as equivalent or superior to face-to-face instruction at most institutions.

As students become more dependent on technology, online course delivery provides essential learning tools that cannot be replicated in the live classroom. Infants and toddlers are savvy users of the motor and cognition skills required to scroll, click, and drag as their learning toys preview the basic skills they need upon entering their first formal classroom. What may appear clunky and counter-intuitive to a seasoned face-to-face instructor is second nature to college students today. This new way of learning is rapidly exploding in K-12 school systems. Students regard technology as a way of life and a right in our society. Higher education instructions must rapidly and thoughtfully respond to the demands of this demographic. Using a technology-based response does not suggest a good education is sacrificed nor does it mean faculty are not interacting in vital and relevant ways remotely.

As the non-traditional student demographic increases and the traditional college age student population decreases, the norm of going to college to participate in the highly valuable socialization of our future citizens of the world is subject to a shift that is driven by new learners and how they want to earn their degrees. This movement will naturally give rise to entrepreneurial market opportunities that will attempt to capture the online education market through out of the box programs that are often lacking in proper accreditation and academic oversight. Questionable responses to a ripe demographic cannot be avoided in a free economy, but the suggestion that all online degrees and programs are subscribing to the quick market response is a mistake. Academic rigor and quality can be assured in online programs when responsible higher education administrators and faculty are committed to ensuring accreditation and when learning standards remain unchanged in online environments.

Because of the availability of technology, the shifting demands of the marketplace, and the limited access of the traditional four-year degree, online education is one strategy that when properly structured through responsible academic oversight, can address our country's restriction of offering a college education to the privileged few. Not everyone can pause in their life for four years to what is rapidly becoming an insular and confining structure that may be well suited for a high school graduate, but is considered irrelevant to a returning war veteran or busy parent.

Motivating factors for increased faculty participation in online teaching environments suggest that the top motivator for faculty is a more flexible work schedule and the top demotivator is inadequate compensation for perceived greater work than for traditionally delivered courses. The issue of inadequate compensation needs to be addressed as we shape future online curriculum to meet the needs of students.

The decision to teach or enroll in an online course or degree program is a decision that each individual faculty member and student must make according to their individual needs and preferences. It is similar to the choice one makes when deciding to use a GPS device or a printed, foldable map to arrive at a destination or when choosing to listen to a musical performance in a concert hall or on an iPod. The proliferation of digital media has illustrated that social interaction, communication, and education can be delivered in a virtual, portable environment that ensures accessibility, accommodates a wide variety of learning styles, and responds directly to a mobile demographic of students. These breakthroughs in technology not only have the potential to be good education, they are good for education.

Good education is education that seeks to expand knowledge beyond the walls of the campus. Instead of waiting for students to come to college, online programs reach millions of new learners who could never put their lives on hold to attend college in a traditional manner. Online programs have the ability to respond to individual student learning needs and styles in ways that cannot be duplicated in the face-to-face classroom. Teaching in a live classroom and in an online classroom has allowed me to refine and adapt my communication skills to each environment. Teaching the same course content in both modes has taught me a profound, but very basic lesson in communication—the message and its meaning can be delivered in a variety of effective ways.

In this complex world of interpretation and rapid information exchange, I need as many ways as possible to assist me in my teaching. Watching students learn in live and online environments has allowed my teaching to remain fresh and hopefully relevant to both student audiences.

About the author (s)

Cynthia A. Suopis

University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Director of the University Without Walls