Nick Sproull is an administrator at the NCAA finishing his Master of Arts in Education at Michigan State University, @nsproull .
In early May, my wife, our two small children and I will pack up our serendipitously named 2003 Honda Odyssey and travel 262 miles from our home near Indianapolis to the campus of Michigan State University. There I will proudly don my newest prized possession: my master’s hood. However, unlike many others who will also walk through such a ceremony this spring, this trip is different in that it will be just my third time on campus as 100% of my degree has been completed online.
Some have asked why I would go to the trouble of sitting in a hot gymnasium for two hours only receive a fake diploma. It is a fair question. In part, I want to chronicle the event for my children so that they can see that Daddy likes to learn. But more importantly, and surprising to those who have asked, I feel impelled to take part in the ceremony because I am eager to meet in person the professors with whom I have connected with so well online.
Online vs. Brick & Mortar
Skeptics of online education  often argue that the absence of live, human interaction dilutes the learning experience and cannot provide a sense of community among students. My experience suggests the contrary. I have connected with a number of my MSU instructors and classmates at deeper and more authentic level than many previously taken traditional undergraduate or graduate courses.
The difference, as with any brick and mortar course, lies in pedagogy. Online coursework, often facilitated by a Learning Management System (LMS) can have certain limitations. Faculty who trust the threaded discussions within the LMS to provide a meaningful learning experience should not be surprised by students who seem disengaged. The LMS is just one among many tools instructors can use to create an effective online learning experience.
Web 2.0 Tools
Courses that integrated the use of “Web 2.0 tools” (web applications that facilitate interaction, collaboration and interactivity) created the greatest sense of connectedness among classmates and instructors.
Facebook: One course took place entirely on Facebook. Despite my initial cynicism, Dr. David Wong successfully leveraged the magic of Facebook to facilitate interaction in a way that proved to be more personal than any traditional course I have taken. Through the use of videos, comments, photos, “Likes,” and other Facebook features, I interacted with my classmates – both personally and academically – in a more substantive way than most traditional courses I have taken.
Blogs: In another course, Dr. Kyle Greenwalt made extensive use of the blogosphere to facilitate interaction. Writing assignments within the course mirrored the familiar “post and respond” approach frequently found in threaded discussions within an LMS. However, taking that approach and placing it in the blogosphere created a highly dynamic learning experience. The creation of a course-specific blogs allowed us to express our personalities through the use of images, graphics and hyperlinks in a way that is unattainable through an LMS. Accordingly, discussions within the course were more sincere and engaging, which fostered a deeper sense of community among classmates.
WordPress: The Capstone course for the program taught by Dr. Matt Koehler (along with frequent GradHacker contributor Andrea Zellner) guided students through the creation of an online portfolio – a Web 2.0 activity in and of itself. Once again, the LMS was abandoned in favor of a tool called WordPress  – a personal publishing platform - to host the course. Beyond the elements typically found in an LMS (chat rooms, threaded discussions etc.), our WordPress course site included an interactive roster (using Globally Recognized Avatars – aka Gravatars ), a media-rich syllabus, and a sync-enabled Google Docs  Calendar. Within each module of the course, instructors introduced important themes and reminders with embedded YouTube videos. Writing prompts  from tumblr  – a social network/microblogging site – served as fun “get to know you’s” throughout the course as well. The aggregate of these resources promoted the development of relationships that at worst matched, and at best exceeded, traditional classroom settings.
The Relationship Precedes the Handshake
Indeed, those who lament the growth of online learning  at the postsecondary level have arguments that are valid and worthy of conversation  and research . Generalizations that cast the entire online delivery model as an inferior substitute for traditional classroom instruction , however, are and misinformed and inaccurate.
When I initially made the decision to pursue a master’s degree, I was determined to find a program that would provide more than a token diploma. I wanted a program that would deliver a rich and meaningful learning experience. High quality curriculum paired with authentic connections via Web 2.0 tools has made for a most excellent educational experience. Though I feel that I already know many of the instructors I have learned from throughout the program, I am eager to finally shake their hands and meet them face to face to say, “Thank you.”