By Zoe Taylor
The opportunity for communication and collaboration is a factor that might make you hesitant when deciding whether to study online rather than in a traditional face-to-face classroom. Despite what the critics say, online education actually increases student interaction and the ability to communicate in a number of ways.
The book Computer Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First-Century University by Teresa M. Harrison and Timothy Stephen (1996) makes the point that “the online learner will be an active participant in the learning process, rather than a passive recipient”. This is because you’re able to construct your own meaning from the content you are receiving. You have a lot of control over your learning because you have the ability to decide what, when and how you learn.
Alan Tudge, a writer for The Australian goes on to point out that a large lecture in which you would sit passively while the lecturer talks at you is transformed into customised and interactive content in online courses. You construct your own meaning from the content you’re presented with, rather than being told what it means by the lecturer. This is referred to as “constructive learning” by Terry Anderson & Fathi Elloumi in their book Theory and Practice of Online Learning.
A lot of successful online courses even allow students to assume some of the roles of the lecturer, and they are therefore able to develop expertise on the topic of their choice, either individually or in groups.
There’s access to the course 24/7, and therefore you have the chance to carefully construct your thoughts. You don’t have to think on your feet. There’s more time to contribute to group discussions than in the traditional classroom where there is a time limit. Each student has the chance to talk in an online learning environment, as opposed to the face-to-face classroom in which time often makes it impossible for everyone to have their say.
Not to mention you’re able to access the information when you are at your best, ensuring you’re fully able to focus and actively engage with the content and online discussions. Only you know when you’re most switched on, and therefore when you will absorb the most information, and you can choose that time to log in to your class, rather than being forced to go to class at a time that you may not be at your best. So if you concentrate better late at night, rather than in the morning or during the day, then you can log on at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm or even midnight – it’s up to you.
Remember those barriers you may have felt in class when group discussions were happening? The barriers that would keep you from contributing because you were self-conscious? Those barriers are gone in online courses. Everyone feels a lot more comfortable putting forward his or her ideas in an online environment because there’s the opportunity to re-read what others have said, and carefully construct and edit your response.
There’s also no risk of being cut off by a more assertive classmate, which can be very daunting in a face-to-face classroom discussion. There is less opportunity for conversation domination by more confident students and more chance for those that struggle with reluctance to speak up in a classroom environment.
Materials for online courses can be designed and manipulated to suit different learners and learning contexts. It can actively respond to contrasting learning cultures, motivations and techniques, therefore making communication and group work in a learning environment more accessible to those who were once apprehensive at the thought.
And contrary to popular belief, group work is highly encouraged when learning online. It is also easily achievable through the limitless ways in which you can reach people. Facebook Messaging, Skype, Email and other online communication tools are your friends in the online learning world. As these technologies continue to update and improve, and more communication tools are developed, opportunity for educational collaboration continues to increase.
“It’s a common misconception that students who go to school online never talk with other students or their professors.” states Sarah Bass in a blog entry entitled Key Differences Between Online Learning and Traditional Campus-Based Classes. She rebuts comments made by critics like Professor Paul Johnson, who argues that communication skills are difficult to acquire when you’re “studying on your own” (which we have already established is not the case – you’re never alone when you study online).
Bass states that online students actually do have ample opportunity to work in groups. “Your social interactions with students and professors depend on your own habits,” she says. “If you want to have social relationships with others in your program, you’ll have to reach out in the same way as you would if you had just met someone in a classroom.”
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