Online Courses — Just a Fad? Or Taste of The Future?

Evaluating the effectiveness of online courses compared to traditional face-to-face courses.

My first exposure to online classes came the summer before my sophomore year of high school. My school had an option for students to participate in an online gym course over the summer (no it’s not a typo, I really did say ONLINE gym). Like most of the other students taking this course, I decided to enroll because I assumed it would be a lot easier than the usual high school gym class during the school year. Plus, I wouldn’t have to wear the “fashionable” sulky gray gym shirt and blood red knee length gym shorts.

But wow was I wrong! This online course demanded so much more than the normal gym class. It was required to have at least 45 minutes of exercise every day, and half of this exercise time had to be in your target heart rate zone. To monitor this you had to wear a heart rate monitor each time you exercised. On top of the constant exercising, every week there was a health module that needed to be completed with multiple worksheets, a quiz, and a test. While this was a lot more work than the traditional gym class, I am so glad I took it online. I was probably in the best shape of my life that summer, and I actually learned a lot about different health issues. Who would’ve thought that taking a gym course online could actually be just as effective, if not more effective, than taking it in the traditional setting?

It is not hard to see the internet evolution that has embarked on the education system. Online textbooks, email, and web sharing are just a few of the drastic changes that have taken place in education. With these tools, the development of online courses has crept its way into the learning game and is exponentially growing with each passing year. About one-third of all college students take part in online courses, this is about a 30% increase from the year 2010 (“What We Know”). A study concluded that roughly 90% of public higher learning institutions offered online education options, and almost all public institutions incorporated online courses into their long-term academic plans (Crawford-Ferre and others). Online courses have emerged as an alternative form to the traditional face-to-face classes for undergraduate students and it seems as though online courses are not just a fad,

but are here to stay.

Online courses are taught completely over the internet without scheduled meeting times. There is still an instructor but almost every form of communication is done through the internet whether its email, video chats, a class website, etc. No online class is instructed exactly the same. The various tools of the internet allow for different methods to teach an online course. With the new addition of online classes, experts have been questioning whether these courses are really as effective as traditional face-to-face classes. Some scholars believe that online education lacks the necessary components for effective education and diminishes the imagination of students. While others see online education as branching out of the classroom walls and bringing forward new possibilities and strengths to education (Fedynich). Through my research and personal experience, I strongly believe online courses can be just as effective as traditional face-to-face courses for undergraduate students.

For effective education, three types of interactions should take place. These include student-instructor, student-student, and student-content interactions (Moore).

Some might think without a teacher to verbally explain information, learning new ideas and concepts would be very difficult to nearly impossible. However, having a teacher lecture new information is just ONE form of a medium to relay information to students. Just because information is being received by a different method, does NOT make it less effective. The medium acts as just a carrier of content and is unlikely to affect learning (U.S. Department). According to this statement, a face-to-face interaction is not superior to online mediums.


Student-Instructor Interaction

A decent portion of online courses revolve around synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods (Fedynich). Examples of these methods are email threads, discussion boards, chat rooms, forums, video and audio technology, webcasts, etc. Emails and discussion boards are considered asynchronous because they can consist of a wait time in between responses. Mediums like webcasts and video lectures are synchronous because it is a direct communication, much like face-to-face interaction (Banna and others). These certain teaching methods take the place of student-instructor interactions that occurs in a face-to-face classroom setting.

Anthony, Peter. “Online IB Diploma Programme Psychology: Discussion Forums.” Pamoja. Web. 3 Dec. 2015

The communication aspect of this interaction can take place over many different sources like emails and discussion boards. The actual teaching-learning part of the interaction could take place through video lectures or online activities. According to Banna and others, “…the social presence of the instructor is an integral component of a successful online course…” Through all of the different mediums offered by the internet, the important student-instructor interaction still remains in an online course as long as some sort of synchronous or asynchronous methods are used.


Student-Student Interaction

Another critical aspect to education is student-student interaction (Cochran). To be able to reflect this interaction in online courses, the use of discussion boards, chat rooms, and other cooperative activities should be used in teaching.

For example, in my current online class, the student-student interaction is portrayed by sharing and commenting on student’s blog posts. This allows students in the course to share their ideas and opinions with one another and gather feedback from someone other than the instructor.

With these technological learning tools, interaction is not limited to just a specific time period a few days a week in a classroom. Rather, student-student interaction is accessible anytime, any day, any place. Another plus to online interaction is that it gives less expressive, shy students a chance to voice their opinions and engage in online conversations with peers.


Student-Content Interaction

The third key interaction is student-content interaction, or in other words, the interaction between a student and the information being taught and expressed in lecture. Online courses allow this interaction to be on par with traditional face-to-face courses. One form of online student-content interaction can come from the ability to use an online textbook. The main difference that I have noticed with regular textbooks and online textbooks is static verse interactive images. Interactive images aren’t really images at all, but rather interactive video clips, like the interactive image below.

For example, in a hardback Biology textbook there would be a diagram with arrows and lengthy explanations showing the process of mitosis. In an online textbook, the process is actually shown virtually and each step can be experienced visually. Instead of verbally saying that a cell splits into two smaller cells, online interactive diagrams show this process. This allows a direct student-content interaction via online techniques.

Some online courses rely on the use of interactive activities to portray information. I have experienced classes where lab activities were required to be completed for each lesson. These labs consisted of multiple activities that required personal interaction to be able to complete the lessons. . These labs consisted of multiple activities that required personal interaction to be able to complete the lessons. An example of this activity could be labeling and placing all of the human bones on a body. This would require students to engage with the information being taught in order to complete the assignment. These types of lab activities mimic the concept that is used in actual science laboratories classes. Science courses that have a lab portion put the information being taught in the course subject into practical use in person rather than theory.

Online content interaction provides this same sort of basis for learning information. Students are able to work with the information being taught to better understand the topic. One study even went as far to conclude that student-student and student-teacher interaction could be minimal or even eliminated as long as the student-content interaction is at a strong, high level (Jaggers). In the case of online courses, student-content interaction should be at this strong, high level to effectively portray information from teacher to student.

According to Jaggers and others, “…frequent and effective student-instructor interaction creates an online environment that encourages student to commit themselves to the course and perform stronger academically.”

When students feel these interactions taking place they are motivated to try their best in the course. Being able to replace all three of these interactions that take place in a face-to-face course allows online courses to match the effectiveness in teaching material as traditional courses. These interactions are claimed to be the way to a successful learning experience (Banna and others). The overall goal is still being achieved for each individual interaction in an online course, it is just being achieved by different methods and different mediums to relay information. In a study of online instruction, students claimed that the degree of these interactions were what caused them to be satisfied or unsatisfied with the course (Cole and others). This emphasizes that these three interactions are vital to the effectiveness of an online course.


Why Take an Online Course?

A huge advantageous aspect to online learning is the possibility for students to have control of their learning experience. With everything being online, students can re-watch lecture videos and redo activities if they feel it is necessary to help them grasp the subject. A student can also choose when he or she wants to work on the course. This allows students to pick when they want to learn and when it is convenient for them (Fedynich). Picking when to absorb information can ensure that the student feels focused on the subject material. A student may not always feel focused or “in the zone” when they HAVE to learn at a specific time of a certain day, as in traditional courses.

For students with difficult schedules, flexibility of an online course can be a crucial factor when deciding whether to enroll in an online course (Crawford-Ferre and others). Being able to work through an online course at one’s own pace could open up more free time for a student. If a student usually has to sit in class for 50 minutes to get through one lesson, but an online course only takes this student 20 minutes to complete the lesson, this allows 30 extra minutes of free time. This free time could be spent studying for a different course that needs more attention, which would be advantageous for the student. In a recent study, students in online courses experienced better time management and organization during studying compared to those in traditional courses (Fonolahi and others). A reason for this might be that freedom of completing course assignments on one’s own schedule allows students to better plan study schedules for their personal convenience. The flexibility and possible control of learning are intriguing aspects of online courses.

“Providing education in the online mode can be equivalent to providing education in the face-to-face mode” (Fonolahi and others).

While I strongly believe that online courses can be just as effective as traditional courses, I also believe that online courses need to be DONE RIGHT in order to be effective. This requires the learning environment to accurately portray the three types of student interactions in a meaningful way. Chances are that lack of these interactions in an online course could result in the learning process being diminished. To make online courses just as meaningful as traditional courses, instructors should receive sufficient training and support before being able to teach an online course (“What We Know”). This would ensure that the necessary interactions are in place to be as effective as possible.

If you are in an online course or thinking about taking an online course, check out these online class tips.

My experience has been nothing but positive in online courses. All together I have taken a total of three online courses and each one of them brought their own unique aspects to the table. I was immersed in my first online course in the year of 2011, my second in 2013, and one now in 2015. Over the course of these four years I saw immense growth take place in online courses, from different forms of communication to different forms of relaying information to students. My first course allowed communication only through direct email to the instructor and students. The second course had a giant discussion board that could be accessed by the instructor and anyone taking the course. Now, my current online course has incorporated intricate blog posts for each student and a class website to communicate information.

For anyone considering an online course, I highly recommend it. It is a great experience for anyone looking to add some flexibility to his or her schedules, and it gives students an opportunity to learn how to better manage their time. However, if you consider yourself as someone who often procrastinates work and doesn’t put full effort into school (you can be honest with yourself, no judgement) then maybe online classes are not the best decision for you. While these classes can be very beneficial to a student’s schedule, they can also be very easy to fall behind in. From my experience, you really have to keep up with the work in order to fully succeed, just like traditional courses.

Check it out here to see what classes VCU offers online!


Works Cited:

Anthony, Peter. “Online IB Diploma Programme Psychology: Discussion Forums.” Pamoja. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Banna, Jinan, Meng-Fen Grace Lin, Maria Stewart, and Marie K. Fialkowski. “Interaction Matters: Strategies to Promote Engaged Learning in an Online Introductory Nutrition Course.” MERLOT: Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 11.2 (2015). Web. 4 Nov. 2015.

Cochran, Justin, et al. “The Role Of Student Characteristics In Predicting Retention In Online Courses.” Research In Higher Education 55.1 (2014): 27–48. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.

Cole, Michele T., Daniel J. Shelley, and Louis B. Swartz. “Online Instruction, E-Learning, and Student Satisfaction: A Three Year Study.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 15.6 (2014). Web. 4 Nov. 2015.

Crawford-Ferre, Heather Glynn, and Lynda R. Wiest. “Effective Online Instruction In Higher Education.” Quarterly Review Of Distance Education 13.1 (2012): 11–14. Education Research Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.

Fedynich, La Vonne. “Teaching beyond the classroom walls: The pros and cons of cyber learning.” Journal of Instructional Pedagogies 13 (2014). Web. 4 Nov. 2015.

Fonolahi, Aluwesi Volau, M.G.M. Khan, and Anjeela Jokhan. “Are Students Studying in the Online Mode Faring as Well as Students Studying in the Face-to-face Mode? Has Equivalence in Learning Been Achieved?”MERLOT: Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10.4 (2014). Web. 4 Nov. 2015.

Jaggers, Shanna Smith, and Di Xu. “Predicting Online Student Outcomes From a Measure of Course Quality.” Community College Research Center (2013). Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Moore, Michael G. “Three Types of Interaction.” American Journal of Distance Education 3.2 (1989). Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C., 2010.

“What We Know About Online Course Outcomes.” Community College Research Center (2013). Web. 12 Nov. 2015.