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Face-to-Face vs. Cyberspace: Finding the Middle Ground

Although not as contentious as the conflict in The War of the Worlds, there has long been a division between distance learning and face-to-face, on-campus programs. Here, W. Sean Chamberlin explores the middle ground, where the best elements of distance and face-to-face learning can be merged.

In H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, an army of nefarious Martians attacks Earth in an attempt to destroy humanity and wrest control of our planet. All attempts by humans to stop the invaders fail, yet Earth is saved when the aliens succumb to a fatal microscopic infection.

To some, the invasion of cyber teaching in the landscape of academia incites an equally repulsive reaction. The invaders who hail online education as the “end of teaching as we know it” are temporarily driven back with comments such as “it’s only a fad” or “they said the same thing about tele-courses.” Proponents may cite benefits or no significant difference, while naysayers see detriments and high dropout rates.

This war of the worlds between on-campus teaching and online teaching rages on nearly every campus and fuels debate about the usefulness of cyberspace as an environment for teaching and learning. Some desire an end to cyber teaching similar to that which befell Wells’ Martian invaders, while others envision a world bathed in the peaceful glow of computer monitors from which all knowledge emanates.

Thankfully, there is a middle ground. Many of us use the Internet to supplement our campus courses or teach hybrid courses, partially on-campus and partially online. Some of us teach fully on-campus and fully online courses at the same time. But all of us who teach in both worlds are double agents, caught in a struggle to bridge those worlds, and make effective use of both face-to-face and online environments to ensure successful teaching and learning.

By taking advantage of the pedagogical strengths of on-campus and online teaching, instructors can offer students the greatest chance to discover their strengths and weaknesses as learners and the best opportunity to find their path to achieving success. In my courses, this result has been accomplished by using the same syllabus and course guidelines for all students, regardless of whether they are enrolled on-campus or online.

What are the Differences?

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the entire range of differences between face-to-face and online teaching, but let’s examine a few examples of key areas in which differences are exposed.

The differences are perhaps most obvious in terms of communications. Direct face-to-face interactions between student and instructor and/or other students may or may not occur on campus, but communications are virtually impossible to avoid online.

Clearly, each of these types of communications has its benefits. Although in-person communication provides opportunities to clarify and restate (and to take advantage of tone of voice and body language), many students are reluctant to engage in direct communication with an instructor or their fellow classmates. Online communications via e-mail, mailing lists, and discussion boards or chat rooms can level the playing field and remove some of the psychological and social barriers to student-teacher and student-student interactions.

Content delivery is another area in which big differences surface. Indeed, it is one of the biggest bones of contention in the war of the worlds. Traditional content delivery via written, oral, or visual lectures d'esn’t map well online. The term “shovelware” has been coined to describe the tendency to load up the Web with notes. Sir John Daniel, during his tenure at the United Kingdom’s Open University, observed: “...our own Open University experience of the use of the Net and the Web at scale indicates that its most powerful and popular use is for communication between people about the course rather than for dumping the content of the course on each student’s computer.”

Asynchronous communications, on the other hand, score big in the online world. The ability to post messages, read and respond to messages, reflect on responses, revise interpretations, and modify original assumptions and perceptions is the silver bullet and a distinguishing characteristic of online teaching. Considered a hallmark of the online world, active learning actually serves as a great example of a best teaching practice that spans both worlds. Increasingly, instructors employ active and even collaborative learning in the classroom. Active learning translates well to the online world through the development of Web quests, treasure hunts, Web-based presentations, and other means for engaging students actively in the construction of knowledge. Increasingly, perhaps as a result of feedback from online courses, on-campus instructors are incorporating more active learning in their classes in conjunction with traditional lecture formats.

Finally, one of the best qualities of online teaching is that it offers greater flexibility in terms of what is taught and how it is taught throughout the course. Formative assessments provide opportunities for immediate feedback on student learning and learning styles, and they allow an instructor to modify the approach to achieving learning outcomes. Summative assessments—including midterms, final exams, and end-of-course surveys—in on-campus courses are not typically intended to help make in-session modifications to a course. But by taking advantage of the capability for collecting and crunching numbers quickly for statistical or qualitative analysis, online exams and surveys enable an instructor to evaluate what’s working and what’s not working nearly in real time.

Bridging the Gap

To incorporate the benefits of both on-campus and online teaching, I’ve taken a one-course-for-all approach in which campus students and online students share the same Web site resources, complete the same assignments, and take the same online exams. Campus sessions are the clear benefactors here, because they are devoted more to fundamental skill development, hands-on activities, collaborative learning, and discussions of specific topics and online sessions that extend skill development, student-student interaction, and a greater sense of community.

By creating a bridge between on-campus and online teaching and learning, our courses shift from instructor-dominated worlds to student-centered worlds. Students learn to take responsibility for their own learning. Although the initial transition requires guidance, once the approach is adopted, students embark on an active process that increases their chances for a lifetime of learning.

The war of the worlds between bricks-and-mortar institutions and cyberspace ends differently than Wells’ conflict. By applying best teaching practices on the ground and in cyberspace, instructors can more effectively deliver stimulating and quality education that results in students staying in school and succeeding to their fullest potential.


Areas of Differentiation

  • Student interactions with the instructor
  • tudent interactions with one another
  • Content delivery
  • Synchronous vs. asynchronous communications
  • Opportunities for active vs. passive learning
  • Formative vs. summative assessment
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