Communication Currents

Face-to-Face or Online Instruction? Face-to-Face is Better

June 1, 2008
Digital Communication & Gaming, Instructional Communication

When students are asked why they chose to take an online class, the most prevalent answer would probably be “convenience.” This response is not surprising considering that the primary reason for online education is to serve students who are unable or find it difficult to attend on-campus classrooms. Online courses accommodate students by allowing them the flexibility to attend school at a time and location that is convenient for them. Even though online courses are a growing trend, students need to consider the differences between online education and a traditional classroom education before deciding which form of instruction to take. More specifically, are important communication variables, such as peer and teacher interaction, meanings, and messages compromised when courses are offered online? What role do these variables play and how do they affect students?

An online course delivers most, if not all of the class content through the Internet. Student and teacher interaction is primarily text-based and the learning environment is independent of a location. Although audio and video components may be integrated into the course, written text is the main medium of communication between students, their peers, and the teacher. Some online courses are also time-flexible, where students and their teachers do not need to be involved in the same activity at the same time. Sounds like a good deal, but is it?

Consider the fact that online courses physically distance students from the college community. This distance often times affect students' experiences and success. Online students are physically separated; thus, the resources and interactions available to students through faculty, peers, and other campus offices on campus may not be used or considered. This can result in a decrease of opportunities for academic and social integration, which are known predictors of student success for those who take traditional classes. In essence, students who take online courses miss out on the on-campus experiences that connect them with faculty and students and that help them through their college career. Without these retention factors, students may be less likely to persist in school and complete their degrees. In addition, students may feel alienated and isolated. Traditional brick and mortar institutions, however, provide students with a community where they can engage, interact, and support each other.

A second problem is that online education requires students to be self-disciplined. With online education, the instructor delivers the content, but students must take greater initiative to access, learn, and understand the material. In addition, students have to actively seek help. This type of independent learning can be especially challenging. Some students may not yet have learned the skills to be effective learners. For others, they may lack the motivation to learn independently. Students, especially those new to higher education, may become easily discouraged when faced with particular academic challenges and drop out. Online education makes it harder to maximize student learning outcomes because the resources that foster learning in face-to-face environments are substantially diminished.

In other words, online instruction may not provide sufficient student support. In face-to-face classes, students have their classmates, learning centers on campus, professors' office hours, tutors, and teaching assistants to support and help them with their various learning needs. These resources guide them, clarify and reinforce the material, and allow them to succeed in their education. Teachers understand the value of these resources and forms of support. As online courses become more popular, teachers are trying to find new ways to incorporate these resources and forms of support into their class. The problem is that student drop-out is increasingly high in online courses and these resources and forms of support need to be more effective in combating student attrition.

For faculty, online course instruction may be more time-consuming, impersonal and relationally unrewarding. When teachers set up online courses, it takes a great deal of pre-class organization. The material that they teach in a traditional classroom setting must be transformed to fit the online medium. Teachers need to generate creative ways and sound practices to teach and translate the material from one medium to another so that messages and meaning are not lost. This increases preparation time for teachers. Furthermore, instructors may be untrained and unfamiliar with the tools and technology available. This makes their job of translating and developing sound classroom practices more difficult to accomplish.

After the online classroom has been created, teachers may find that they lose out on the relational rewards associated with teaching a live audience, building relationships with students and mentoring because they are distanced by space and time. For example, teachers enjoy expressing their passion and excitement to students through their tone, gestures, and facial expressions as they lecture. To what extent can these nonverbals be conveyed online?

Teachers also enjoy interacting with students inside and outside of the classroom. Students who take traditional classes find it easier to meet with their professors and to get to know them because they can see their professors before and after class. Also, students are already on campus and can talk and visit with the professor while they are at school. Online courses do not provide the physical proximity that encourages these kinds of interactions. Although online instructors have office hours, students have to go out of their way to visit their professors on campus. This distance factor alone reduces the chance that students will meet with their professor. Online students can chat with their professors in real time or via e-mail, but again the medium is limited in its ability to re-create the many nuances associated with face-to-face interactions.

The relationship building, interaction, and nonverbal modes of communication may seem minor, but they have large effects on teachers. They combat teacher burnout by creating job satisfaction. Although the opportunity for teachers and students to interact still exists in online courses, online education is a more limited environment that cannot reproduce the same depth of interactions that occur face-to-face.

It is also important to note that not enough is known about the suitability of online instruction to particular learning objectives. For knowledge that requires simple memorization, online courses can be very effective, such as recalling the basic structure and elements of an organization in a lower division organizational communication course. Even though online instruction may be effective at meeting lower-order learning objectives (basic facts, recall, and comprehension), can we expect the same for higher-order learning (evaluation and synthesis of information or internalizing values and practices)? For example, in face-to-face graduate courses, students in empirical and rhetorical courses demonstrate their understanding and mastery of communication theories by teaching the theory to the class, providing their own critique of the theory, and answering questions. How can students demonstrate this type of mastery in online courses? And are their online experiences in these classes reflective of the kind of situations that students will encounter later on in their careers, such as giving face-to-face presentations. The same concerns hold for hands-on and skills-based instruction. For example, how suitable is online instruction for teaching public speaking, argumentation and debate, and interpersonal communication skills? These questions need to be studied and answered in order for students to make sound educational decisions.

Last, the prevalence of online courses has given rise to online degrees. However, research shows that employers do not value online degrees as much as they do degrees earned through traditional instruction. Studies show employers overwhelming prefer candidates with traditional degrees over online degrees. If this is the case, students who earn their degrees online are at a disadvantage when seeking employment. One explanation is that with the boom of so many online degree-granting institutions, some have been fraudulent establishments and others have been organizations that have not been accredited. Employers, therefore, question the education and training of students who have earned their degrees from unfamiliar institutions.

There is no doubt that online courses have their benefits. Online instruction can reduce classroom costs for colleges and universities. Students who work or have other responsibilities are still able to take classes. Classes are more accessible and convenient. Certain courses can be effective at accomplishing learning objectives. But with these benefits come expenses. The advantages and disadvantages of online instruction need to be considered; online courses may not be suitable or appropriate for everyone and for all instructional objectives.

About the author (s)

Arleen R. Bejerano

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Doctoral Candidate