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.

Why Learn/Teach Online?

The major reason we have moved so many courses online is student demand. Online education is more convenient for students. The face of education is changing. The higher education landscape includes more non-traditional students; the majority of students are no longer 18-21 year-old single students who either do not have jobs or work part-time. Rather, the large majority of college students are older, working adults with families and other responsibilities. The traditional model of classes meeting during the day on campus does not work for many of these students. An asynchronous learning model, particularly one which lends itself to self-paced learning and credit for life experiences rather than a seat-time based model, is much more appealing to these students.

Even among grade-school students, online education affords students who would struggle in the traditional classroom options they would otherwise not have. Customization and individualization allows both struggling and gifted students the chance to work at their own pace and pick their own curriculum to match their needs and interests. Online delivery provides instruction on demand, anytime and anywhere, while many online programs provide full access to qualified instructors should individual assistance be needed. Students who have fallen behind by a few credits can take advantage of online classes to make up a course or two in order to graduate on time with the rest of his or her peers.

I hate that people feel the need to compare online courses to face-to-face courses by asking whether online courses are “as good as” their face-to-face counterparts. First of all, the US Department of Education(Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009) has already done a meeta-study and compared the learning outcomes between online and traditional courses, and they found no difference. Students learned as well from either venue. Secondly, you can find exceptional and horrid examples of both. I have attended online courses where I was permitted to engage in a rich, in-depth learning experience where I worked with my peers to construct new knowledge and make connections to prior knowledge. I walked away from those courses feeling like I learned far more than some face-to-face courses where I sat for 90 minutes a week and listened to the instructor drone on, read a chapter or two a week from the text-book, and took two multiple choice tests covering what I’d “learned”. What constitutes a good example of a traditional course and what constitutes a good example of an online course are typically quite similar. They engage the student in an active learning process with other students, the instructor, and the materials. If the student is a passive recipient of learning and the instructor or the textbook are the primary sources of knowledge, the course is not going to be good, no matter what format.

For me as a student, convenience has been the major difference between traditional and online courses. When I was taking my traditional courses toward my bachelors’ degree, I had to ride a bus 90 minutes one way to get to school, sit in a physical classroom to attend class, move from class to class, stay on campus until classes ended for the day, which was sometimes late in the evening, and then ride the bus 90 minutes to get home. I missed dinner with my children and husband two nights a week. I spent $30 a month in bus fare, and that was with my student discount. I could not hold a job and go to school because the school work interfered with any possible work schedule, so we lived in a very slummy part of town because it was all we could afford on one income and owned only one broken-down car. On one occasion a blizzard trapped me halfway home as bus service was suspended between transfers, and my husband had to venture out on bald tires to come rescue me.

Online classes mean I can hold a full-time job, come home and spend time with my family, and then work on school in the evening. Even on the nights when I have a synchronous class scheduled, it is still more convenient to attend class from my bedroom, dinner in front of me, than to sit in a classroom 22 miles from home. I feel like I still know my fellow classmates thanks to our annual meetings and the wonders of technology, such as video chat and social networking, but I have the convenience of being where I need to be when I need to be there.

This will be my first semester to teach online, but I work with online instructors quite a bit and can already see there is a big difference between formats for the online instructor. First of all, there is a lot of responsibility in the beginning to prepare the course. Creating and setting up an online course takes an online instructor at least three times longer than preparing to teach a face-to-face session. An article by Boettcher (2006) estimates 1000 development hours to move a traditional 3-hour course to the web. Secondly, because the online instructor must act in the role of a facilitator rather than a lecturer to be effective, provide prompt and thorough feedback, establish presence and encourage active learning from his or her students, the act of online teaching requires far more of the instructor’s active time than that of a traditional instructor. An instructor in a traditional setting can rely on non-verbal cues to communicate his or her message or to locate students who do not understand, and because he or she is physically present in the classroom, is confident that misunderstandings can quickly be cleared up by student questions. In an online classroom, non-verbal messages are absent, so the instructor must be sure his or her messages are communicated clearly and frequently, and must prompt for student feedback as well. All this takes time and additional effort.

I do think that you cannot be a passive learner and do well in an online setting. I think there are a lot of learners out there with the mistaken belief that online classes will be easier. Some think that asynchronous means they can wait till the last minute to do their work, while others think they just need to pass some multiple choice tests they can cheat their way through to get the grade they want. There have, unfortunately, been some very poor examples of online courses that have fed into these rumors, or online instructors unwilling to flunk students who came into their classes unprepared for the work. By and large, though, online courses are at least as rigorous and typically require much more work than a traditional course. Students that take online courses should be able to handle working independently or in groups, should know how to manage their time effectively, and should be self-disciplined and able to advocate for themselves. If they lack these skills, they are probably better off taking traditional courses.

As far as resulting in different learning outcomes, I do not believe that we will find that in the long run. Initial studies do not indicate that. I think instead of format making the difference, we will find that course design makes the difference, and the way students are taught, such as passive versus active learning. Whether online or face-to-face, students will learn in a well-designed course better than they will in a poorly designed course.


Boettcher, J. V. (2006). How Much Does It Cost to Develop a Distance Learning Course? It All Depends…. Retrieved January 25, 2015, from

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. U.S. Department of Education (pp. 1–93). Retrieved from

My Brief Definition of Online Teaching and Learning

Online learning is often done asynchronously and independently, requiring the learner to construct much of his or her own learning and form connections to prior knowledge alone and independently. To support and strengthen this type of learning, an excellent online instructor will develop an online community of learners, whether in a synchronous or asynchronous environment, ensuring learners have opportunities to connect and engage with not only the material in meaningful ways, but also the instructor and other learners to ensure that knowledge construction is social in nature. Although the assignment was to define online learning IMHO, I cannot take credit for these ideas, as my opinion has been developed through readings from Garrison, Anderson, & Archer (2000) and Palloff & Pratt (2011).


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Collaboration: Community of Inquiry framework. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87–105. Retrieved from

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Final Reflection on Systems Theory

This course gave me a chance to investigate educational systems in a new way. I had never taken the time to consider the school where I work as a complex activity system, nor to break down and evaluate the challenges the school faces from that perspective. This course allowed me to see that this school has many common traits to other complex systems, and that the problems and challenges it faces are not unique. Systems thinking and critical theory can be used to help evaluate the system and its challenges and determine the best course of action that works for our school and the goals of the stakeholders.

I was originally not enrolled in the Systems Theory class. The course I was supposed to take was dropped due to low enrollment or lack of an instructor and everyone who was enrolled in it was transferred into this course. At the time I was positive I would not enjoy this class at all, and that the course held no relevance to my work. I could not have been more wrong on either count. Of the two courses I’ve taken this semester, this course has held my attention the most. It has been this course that I’ve most enjoyed and that has proven to be the most relevant. Already on a number of occasions I’ve had the opportunity to apply systems thinking to problems or challenges I’ve faced at work.

The process of doing a micro-system analysis on myself also helped me learn a little bit about myself. I think I’ve grown a little as a person as I’ve analyzed my own behavior and thought about how I interact with my own environment.

In the future, systems thinking and critical theory will be tools in my tool belt for analyzing and breaking down complex problems and determining how organizations function within their environment. Having these tools will make me a better problem-solver and allow me to analyze situations differently. I now have the ability to break a complex problem or organization down to various components and look at it in a new way. This skill will come in handy a lot in education.

Reflections on Systems Thinking and Task 3

I have found systems thinking to be very interesting and a valid way to analyze complex problems and think about possible solutions. The process takes a very long time, but complex problems require a great deal of thought and consideration, and a process that forces you to break the problem into various components and look at each separately is a good way to give a complex problem the time and consideration it needs.

I am finishing up the last section of my Task 3 final project this evening, writing my recommendations. My initial research was designed to document the problems in my chosen system, and in the process, I located several proposed solutions. One solution in particular really stuck out to me as a strong candidate and the one I wanted to argue for when writing my paper. The entire paper has been building to this solution, and I feel I am in a good position to argue this as my proposed solution and I have plenty of evidence to back my claim. The way the motion picture model helped me to lay out the paper provided the ground work for this argument, and I feel good about it.

As I wrap up this course, I need to complete Task 3 and be prepared to present on it on Tuesday night. I also need to write one final reflection for this course. Several weeks ago when health issues and computer problems left me so far behind, I really did not believe I would be in this good of shape when this final week of school rolled along, so I feel fortunate that I am this close to finishing. The course has been challenging, made more so by my own personal struggles, but I feel like I’ve finished strong. The biggest challenge left is going to be finishing up Task 3 tonight without growing tired or missing a step, as it is already 9:30 pm and I need to reserve tomorrow evening for work in my other course.

I really see myself using systems thinking in my workplace. Working in higher education, there are plenty of complex problems I face which require some time and analysis to resolve. I have already applied systems thinking to at least one issue at work and I foresee this process coming in handy to help me sort out several issues I currently face as well as others of which I am not even yet aware. I look forward to the challenge.