Monthly Archives: February 2015

Technology and Online Learning: Barrier or Blessing

I was asked this week to blog about the differences and similarities between the face-to-face lessons designed by my classmates and the online lessons they prepared on the same topic. Unfortunately a migraine headache tore me from our synchronous class meeting after watching only a few presentations, and even what I saw was lost to the pain and fog that was already starting to overtake me at that point. I wanted to view the presentations on the recording of the class, but in two different links sent out by my instructor, the audio was so chopped up it was impossible to follow.

I thought perhaps it might be my internet connection causing the video not to buffer, but I turned off all other devices in the house, used the computer hard-wired by Ethernet cable to the modem and got the same results on two different browsers. I even tried lowering the video’s streaming speed down to 144p. At that speed I could no longer make out details on the screen well enough to see the lessons being displayed, but the audio did not improve. My internet speed clocked out at 12.77 mbps, so my internet speed was not the issue, and on Chrome I could see that the video was indeed buffering. It had buffered out to about 15 minutes but the audio became choppy and difficult to follow after only two minutes. So, not the internet; both copies of the video were bad.

Unable to follow the directions for the week at this point, I found myself frustrated. I could try to blog about the two lessons to which I had physical access, one of which was the one my partner and I prepared, or I could find an off-topic posting that might satisfy the spirit of the posting requirement. I decided to blog about the ways that technology can both benefit and become a barrier to online learning.

In a face-to-face setting, if I had to miss a class or leave class early due to illness, there would not be a way to “record” the lesson. If I was not attendance, I might be able to count on the notes of a good friend or get copies of the handouts from the instructor, but for the most part, what was presented in class would be lost to me. In an online synchronous class, the ability to record the sessions is a huge benefit to students that miss class. Even students that attended the session can go back and review the recording, pausing and replaying sections which they found confusing or difficult until they felt they understood the concept being presented. While a face-to-face instructor is usually happy to review a concept with a struggling student, a student may be embarrassed to admit they find a concept difficult and would rather learn it in the privacy of their own home than in their instructor’s office.

Unfortunately, these opportunities are only as good as the technology. In this case, the recording failed to render correctly, leaving a student like me without the opportunity to participate in the lesson. In my life, two uninterrupted hours of quiet to watch a lesson is something that must be scheduled, so by the time I discovered the video was unusable, my time to find alternatives was pretty much up.

Technology can become a barrier and a blessing in other instances as well. I’ve been working with the faculty at my school to raise awareness of online accessibility for students with disabilities. While the advent of online education has opened opportunities for some students who had never considered attending college before because of the logistical challenges they would face attending school, online classes also have some disadvantages when educators do not take the time to ensure their materials are accessible to all students.

Examples of some barriers faced by students with disabilities could include PDF documents which are not readable by screen readers or improperly tagged, images without alternative descriptions, online forms without meaningful labels, poor color contrast, small font size, uncaptioned videos, webpages that do not provide multiple means of navigation, and video and audio used without transcripts provided. In the case of this lesson, even had the audio been adequate, a hearing impaired or visually impaired student would be at a disadvantage because the only captions available to those students were the ones automatically generated by YouTube. While YouTube’s speech-to-text feature is much improved over tools like this from the past, it is still very inaccurate. Captioning is possible with web conferencing tools such as Adobe Captivate but must be completed by an after-market vendor and it is very expensive. Educators find themselves caught in a vicious cycle; by law, the course must be accessible to everyone, whether they have a known student with disabilities enrolled in the course or not, but some aspects of accessibility such as captioning are too expensive to complete unless a student specifically requests it. Fortunately, the law does allow for exceptions when the cost of accessibility puts an unreasonable burden on the school, but the educator must apply for the exception and get it approved.

Flexibility in the online environment can also help keep technology from becoming a barrier. Different students learn best in different ways. By offering multiple means of presenting the same information, each student, including students with disabilities, can pick the method of learning that works best for them.

Online instruction is not the same as traditional instruction

While I firmly believe that online instruction can result in equivalent outcomes as face-to-face instruction, I think the pedagogy involved in teaching online is entirely different. Learning online tends to be more learner-centric and active than what takes place in a traditional classroom, which tends to be more faculty-driven where learners are passive recipients of the subject-matter-expert’s knowledge. In an online environment, instruction is often given asynchronously and impersonally. In this form of delivery, the instructor does not know immediately by non-verbal cues that his or her students’ are not “getting it”. Students need self-checks built into the learning environment to help them determine their own level of understanding so they can determine when they need to go over the material again or ask for assistance or clarification. Student motivation and self-regulation are essential ingredients to student success. Also critical is prompt and frequent instructor feedback. Because the instructor is not visible to the students, building an online presence meets an important part of the learners’ needs. Learners also need to participate in an online learning community with other members of their course. Establishing and setting the tone for this community is the responsibility of the instructor.

The role of the online instructor is typically changed. While in a traditional classroom, the instructor may be the key source of information and may spend the majority of his or her time delivering lectures or speaking individually with students, in an online environment, the students are acquiring much of the knowledge on their own from outside sources. The role of the instructor therefore is changed to that of a facilitator of knowledge; one who uses his or her expertise to guide the student to the sources of the knowledge, helps to correct misunderstandings, helps the student make connections to prior knowledge, and engages the student in discussion with his or her peers to facilitate social learning opportunities.

When I met with my teammate to design our instruction, both of us agreed that this was the case. However, rather than influence our online design, our knowledge of online design impacted our face-to-face design. Our topic lent itself to a student-led constructivist approach to design even in the traditional classroom, so we used a face-to-face design that ended up looking very similar to our online design just because we covered our face-to-face instruction using a non-traditional format. The classroom design was very active, hands-on, and collaborative. The online design was the same. I think the reason we both approached our traditional instruction this way is that both of us design online instruction by trade. We are accustomed to determining the best way to find a student-centered, active, hands-on, constructivist approach to online course design. As neither of us design for the traditional classroom very often (unless you count faculty professional development), this design felt more appropriate than a lecture.

Research into Online Learning Theory

After the research I’ve done the past week, I have enough articles about interaction and active learning to feel like I can support those aspects of my theory of online learning well. I will need to do a bit more research into constructivist learning in the online environment to feel I’ve covered that topic adequately, as well as look up a couple articles I’m missing from the perspective of social learning.

In terms of my own personal research interests, after reading the article this week by Kang and Im (2013), I wonder whether their findings about social interactions factoring negatively into student’s perceived learning achievement would hold true in the US. Our society is very social in nature and places a high value on social learning. I think the authors’ conclusion that this may have been a cultural finding related to the social values of Korean students may have been an accurate observation. I would like to try a replication study of their study here in the US to see if the same factors proved to be of importance in the same order. I think we would find that students here place higher emphasis on the social connections to learning than their interactions with the content.

Secondly, the Kang and Im (2013) study was based on perceived learning outcomes. I would be curious as to how the students’ perceptions compared to reality. I would love to do a correlation study between students’ perceived thoughts about how these factors impacted their learning outcomes and their actual measured achievement of the learning outcomes. It would be interesting to see if the students who rated their perceptions of learning most highly were also the highest performing students on the assessments.

I have just finished collecting data for a study on how an instructor’s interactions with students in the threaded discussions affected students’ perceptions of instructor presence in the online classroom. We used Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s (2010) Community of Inquiry (CoI) model for this research and the CoI Survey (Arbaugh et al., 2008). This survey model showed good validation for measuring social, content, and instructor presence in an exploratory factor analysis we did with a pilot group of students the prior semester, but the three-factor model did not focus clearly on instructor presence the way I would have liked. The Kang and Im (2013) article opened my eyes to another instrument which might have been more effective at measuring instructor presence in this experiment and may have provided more accurate results. If the instructor I am working with wishes to continue this study after this semester, we may attempt to try a different instrument or to develop and validate one of our own based on a combination of these two instruments.


Arbaugh, B., Cleveland-Innes, M., Diaz, S., Garrison, D. R., Ice, P., Richardson, J., … Swan, K. (2008). Developing a community of inquiry instrument: Testing a measure of the Community of Inquiry framework using a multi-institutional sample. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(3-4), 133–136. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the Community of Inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13, 5–9. Retrieved from

Kang, M., & Im, T. (2013). Factors of learner-instructor interaction which predict perceived learning outcomes in online learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(3), 292–301. doi:10.1111/jcal.12005

Asynchronous Vs. Synchronous Tools to Promote Online Learning: Which is Better?

I think the discussion on whether online learning is better fostered by asynchronous or synchronous tools depends on the tool and the way it is being used. For example, Huang and Hsiao (2012) found that learners tended to rely heavily on email as a form of asynchronous communication with the instructor, but the authors found that email does not lend itself to effective teaching. Instructors stated that misunderstandings often required several communications back and forth to clear up, and that they often had to repeat themselves.

Asynchronous communication via discussion board, however, has several benefits. Instructors report that the conversations generated through online discussions are richer and deeper than those produced in a traditional classroom, and that all students have and equal opportunity to participate online (Huang & Hsiao, 2012).

However, these forums lack social presence, as students and instructors both often feel a disconnect from one another (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006). Asynchronous forums also need to be carefully formatted and monitored to avoid becoming a place where students just “report in” (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel et al., 2006). Finally, learners and instructors are concerned with the lack of non-verbal cues in an asynchronous environment, fearing that meanings may be misconstrued (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel et al., 2006).

On the other hand, not all synchronous tools are equal. While no significant pedagogical difference was found in one study comparing classes taught using asynchronous or synchronous text-based communications such as a chat board (Johnson, 2008), other studies indicate that learners find the asynchronous chat tools of little benefit and often do not take advantage of them (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel et al., 2006). These latter studies report that students and instructors find the chat-based communication limiting, slow, and prone to interruption.

Synchronous web-conferencing offers many benefits for instructors and students alike. Primary among them is the ability to establish social presence. Instructors and student like that they are able to see and speak to one another and establish a real relationship (Huang & Hsiao, 2012). This format also facilitates a more spontaneous, natural dialog between instructors and students (Huang & Hsiao, 2012).

The major disadvantage to using synchronous tools, especially web-conferencing tools, was convenience. Since many students opt to take a web-based class because of other commitments that make attending a face-to-face class difficult, time is often a constraint for these students. Additionally, students may attend an online class from many different parts of the country or even from another country, making coordinating a meeting across multiple time-zones a real challenge. In the study by Huang and Hsiao (2012), the major reason instructors opted not to use synchronous online tools such as web-meetings was the risk of alienating some or all of their students. They felt that the benefit of the synchronous format was outweighed by the possibility that potentially only half of their students could attend the live session as scheduled.

Personally, I have taken classes that used both methods. I prefer the classes that have a synchronous component because they leave me feeling more confident in my own performance as an online learner, provide me a time of accountability by which I need to be prepared to discuss the topics for the week, and give me a sounding board of other like-minded professionals off which to bounce the ideas I have forming in my brain. I think I learn better in the social context of the synchronous session than I do just reading the discussion postings, but then I am an aural learner. I need to hear something to understand it. In the absence of a synchronous session, my husband becomes my sounding board, but he cannot respond back to me intelligently on the topics about which I am learning. The synchronous classes have not always been convenient, but I’ve managed to find a way to make them work. I think they really work to my advantage.


Huang, X. S., & Hsiao, E.-L. (2012). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in an online environment: Faculty experiences and perceptions. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(1), 15–30.

Johnson, G. (2008). The relative learning benefits of synchronous and asynchronous text-based discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1), 166–169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00739.x

Stodel, E. J., Thompson, T. L., & MacDonald, C. J. (2006). Learners’ perspectives on what is missing from online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry framework, 7(3), 1–24.