Online and Face-to-Face Education

How each can inform the other.

March 17, 2014

Many faculty fear that online teaching is incompatible with the liberal arts educational model, a model that focuses on small class sizes and the availability of faculty to interact with students outside of the classroom—a model which, when done well, has been demonstrated to produce outcomes of critical and creative thinking and analytical reasoning.

These same faculty members view the movement to online education as a one-way street leading away from the kind of face-to-face teaching that lies at the heart of colleges and universities, especially those with a liberal arts tradition.

But, often we fear what we don’t know.

While a significant barrier must be appreciated, it is important to catalyze movement beyond the hype about technology-enhanced education. Online course development can complement face-to-face education and can catalyze higher quality classroom teaching that enhances the value of residential colleges and universities.

Lessons learned in developing the best online and technology-enhanced courses should and do inform teaching practices in traditional classroom settings.

Designing and teaching an excellent online course is not easy, just as designing and teaching a face-to-face course is not easy. Both force the instructor to think about how they teach and how students learn; to articulate learning goals for students; and to design assignments to assess the achievement of those learning goals.

Online courses emphasize and address these questions upfront. Just as lecture-only courses are not typically the best way to engage students, research has shown that, in most cases, large sections with invisible faculty, courses that consist only of reading, taped lectures, and online discussions and assessments, do little to stimulate student learning.

When done right, designing and teaching an online course is an opportunity to consider the way we think about the presentation of course material, and a chance to be challenged in ways that can bring a new excitement to teaching.

The same values that drive excellence in the face-to-face classroom experience must drive our online and technology-enhanced courses: excellent teaching, challenging material, and timely student/faculty interaction.

At Wake Forest, one of the most important things that we have learned as we thoughtfully enter the world of technology-enhanced and distance education is that we must help faculty understand the ways online teaching and learning differ from an in-person experience, while encouraging them to use that different way of thinking to enhance how they teach in a traditional classroom setting.

This takes time and energy—both faculty and administration.

Administration must support the faculty who are exploring new technologies, while at the same time, ensuring that students participate in an excellent educational experience. Administration must make available the technologies that enhance the learning experience and provide adequate institutional support for faculty to learn how to use them.

Offering faculty an online course in distance learning can be a useful way to introduce faculty to the technology and the pedagogy simultaneously and help them visualize how their own courses might benefit from technological tools.

A course taught many times before can be transformed into something new and exciting with the introduction of the technologies including online discussion boards, social media and live chats.

Faculty-student connections and other factors that make a good class can’t be cast aside in the virtual world.

Establishing a student-faculty relationship in the virtual environment is possible. Live or synchronous sessions allow students and faculty to meet virtually every week. Just as in classroom teaching, class size must be limited, so that the instructor can know each student by name.

The instructor also must be a part of the online discussion, guiding it without controlling it, just as in the face-to-face classroom. Virtual office hours allow faculty to “meet” with students individually or in groups.

What lessons have we learned to help allay faculty fears and inspire confidence that we can deliver a high-quality online educational experience in a residential college setting?

First, it is critical to foster dialog and involve faculty in the decision-making regarding online education. We must use the lessons learned in developing the best online and technology-enhanced courses to inform teaching practices in traditional classroom settings.

We must also ensure that faculty governance processes are clearly articulated, so that faculty have responsibility and authority on curricular and academic matters.

Finally, we have learned that exploring new roads crossing the technology-enhanced and online education landscape does not mean that institutions like Wake Forest — known for their personal approach — must lose their identity or alter their values and mission. In fact, it can be a way to focus more clearly on them.

Carole Browne is Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University and Jacquelyn Fetrow is Reynolds Professor of Computational Biophysics and Dean of the College at Wake Forest University. 

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