By Danika Kimball
Critics of online education have long stressed that the loss of face-to-face interaction between student and instructor is detrimental to learning. As such, many have argued that online learning is an inferior platform when compared to the traditional brick and mortar classroom. But since it’s a given that online classrooms are here to stay, it will become increasingly important for professors to facilitate online courses in ways that promote interaction and collaboration when face-to-face learning is not an option.
The scholarship on distance learning affirms that access to engaged and approachable instructors is incredibly important to student success. Studies by Boston University professors Lou Chitkushev, Irena Vodenska, and Tanya Zlateva, confirm that there is a direct correlation between instructor and course quality and student success. While students must avoid a plethora of online learning mistakes, they also need a professor who is engaged in their individual success–rather than one who merely provides oversight as students navigate the course.
“Interaction with instructors has been linked to increased learning and satisfaction,” notes educational researcher Joseph McClary. “High-quality online education requires instructors to engage with students on an individual level rather than merely provide oversight as students proceed through the course.”
Nat Sleeter, a PhD candidate at George Mason University recently evaluated two online asynchronous History courses for K-12 instructors, in which the courses emphasized the importance of communication between instructor and participants.
Students received an individual email from instructors, rather than a group email–which they note, although time consuming, helps combat the isolation that students often feel when taking online courses. They also point out that students received personalized feedback upon completion of a course module.
This personalized feedback is especially crucial to students in humanities courses, where multiple choice quizzes aren’t the best platform for determining a student’s mastery of a subject. And furthermore, Sleeter writes, “In post-course surveys, participants are nearly unanimous in rating the feedback and interaction with instructors as excellent and as an important feature to their success.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to these courses demonstrates that by simply engaging with students, they no longer feel lost and isolated in an online classroom. And while online courses differ drastically from their in-person counterparts, and opportunities for interaction both between peers and professors are different–but different does not necessarily mean worse. In fact, there are many circumstances in which better participation is fostered in an online platform.
“Rather than attend to the ways in which interaction in online courses is deficient, I would like to suggest that we focus on the kinds of developing interactions that online learning environments can foster,” Sleeter notes. “Online courses…seem to lower the barrier for students to ask questions of their instructors…Similarly, some students are more likely to engage in an online discussion with instructors or other students absent the pressure of speaking ‘in public’.”
Rather than tearing down online education as a platform, those involved in education should instead be proactive, as improvements in online education can lead to improvements in many learning environments. Online teaching has limitations–of course, but as has been proven, those limitations can be overcome by fostering communication between teachers and students. By prioritizing communication and feedback between teachers and students, learning will improve in a variety of learning platforms, not just online.