On Line or Face-to-Face: Which is the better way to "talk"?
Technology is smoothing out how students and professors communicate.

by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's
Source: http://www.petersons.com/distancelearning/articles.asp

Not too long ago, distance learners really were at a distance. However the electronic marvels of e-mail and the Internet have drastically changed how distance learners communicate with their professors and with each other.

No longer must distance students wait days for responses. Usually e-mails are answered faster than phone calls or faxes. No longer must distance learners hope their local libraries have the resources they need. Students can access vast amounts of information via the Internet and in many cases even hook up with the library located on the campus of the distance provider.

Some reservations about online education
Yet with all the benefits of cyberspace, distance students aren't able to meet face-to-face with professors and classmates, which might cause some concern for those considering distance education. Although much attention is given to online innovations in distance education, Michael Lambert, Executive Director of the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C., observes that the majority of institutions aren't set up yet to offer online learning. Many institutions haven't caught up with the technology that would allow them to mimic as closely as possible a face-to-face environment. Video is still the primary method of delivering distance education, followed by print. As online teaching catches on, distance education providers increasingly will be utilizing new technology to offer their courses and degrees to an eager public.

But as online learning becomes more and more popular, educators are warning that a teaching environment without some kind of face-to-face interaction isn't suited for every kind of degree level or course. For instance, they feel that graduate students are better able to handle the lack of personal interaction than undergraduates who need the sense of community that being on campus offers.

"Certain subjects, such as chemistry or physics labs, can be problematic," contends Mary Beth Almeda, Director of the Center for Media and Independent Learning at the University of California Extension in Berkeley, California. Courses that demand a lot of teamwork or small group activity can pose significant hurdles for distance students. However, Almeda believes that creative teaching and further developments in how distance education can be delivered will overcome even those

Questions about the role of the professor
In the process of developing the interaction in distance learning, academia is taking a close look at the way on-campus professors and students communicate. Many feel that online communication encourages greater involvement. "Those of us in distance education are fond of saying that the professor is moving from the sage on stage to the guide on the side," quips Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for Distance Learning at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Distance students must take greater responsibility for their education. They can no longer passively sit listening to the "sage on the stage." They are as much a part of initiating interaction and class participation as the professor. (For more on this changing relationship, link to the article, "Virtual Professor + Virtual Student = Real Education," listed below.)

"Compared to being one student dozing off in the back of a lecture of 400, you tell me which is more interactive," says Jeff Edwards, Director of Marketing at Western Governor's University in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Online students have very spirited discussions when the professor puts up a question, and everyone is required to participate," says Edwards. Distance students might be scattered geographically but their professors seem to maintain closer contact with them and talk to them on a more regular basis than they would with the students in a classroom setting.

Maybe you won't see the raised eyebrow, but you'll be able to think before you respond
Comparing face-to-face and online communication, Frank Mayadas, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks in New York, New York, observes that in a conversation with someone in the same room, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice certainly add to the connection. On the flip side, he notes that participants in an online conversation can reflect about what they want to say before replying. "They never have to give off-the-cuff answers," he contends. This benefits shy people or those who like thinking before speaking. People who would ordinarily dominate classroom discussions can't readily do so when discussing topics on line. Students on line benefit from being able to go back through a threaded discussion to digest what was said. In a live conversation, unless it's recorded, that's not possible.

Perhaps online students are more in touch
Video conferencing, live chat rooms, threaded e-mail exchanges, even phone conferences are all methods that distance education providers use to connect students to the classroom and to each other. Boland finds there is more interaction between online teachers and students than between on-campus teachers and students. Pam Dixon, a columnist and author of seven books, one of which, The Virtual College, was published by Peterson's in 1996, surmises this is because faculty members have to micromanage online students far more intently than those on campus. "Distance education students end up with a better education," she contends. "All test scores show this. They've had to learn and produce."

The assumption is that in distance education, the instructors are removed from the experience. But just the opposite also can be true, says Almeda. "In the distance education model, it's more of a tutorial relationship, which is especially true for print-based distance learning," she states. In addition, outside professionals can be electronically brought in to offer their expertise. At Georgia Tech, distance education students in engineering benefit from industry experts who would ordinarily not be able to come on-campus on a regular basis. On line they can, no matter where they're actually located.

As for student-to-student interaction, Dr. Paula Peinovich, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Regents College in Albany, New York, a pioneer in distance education, gives the example of a 10 p.m. online chat session that was set up for their distance students. At first administrators were unsure of student response, but they quickly found that students loved it because it gave them a place to meet and support one another. Regents College also hosts an electronic peer network for student feedback. Taking communication one notch higher, Regents students can talk with a student adviser online every Tuesday night while prospective students can visit a monthly open house to sample distance learning.

As distance education providers wrestle with how best to facilitate online communication, they also tend to agree that a combination of face-to-face and virtual contact is the optimum, particularly for degree programs. "Research suggests that the best programs involve a mix of on line and on site, particularly if the course is not a casual one," says Peter Ewell, Senior Associate at the National Center For Higher Education Management in Boulder, Colorado.

Fortunately for distance learners, institutions are finding multiple options and ways to advance communication. As institutions make use of the technology, more and more distance students will be able to fully participate in challenging discussions, work closely on team projects, and build quality relationships with professors.

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