Monday, July 2, 2012

Deeper conversations online than face-to-face

Today I expressed the opinion on Twitter that conversations and connections made in online classes are deeper and more layered than those which occur in face-to-face classes. Not only do I believe this strongly based on my experiences in online education as a student, designer, and instructor over the last 13 years but I have comments from many, many students to back this assertion up. I think a discussion of how and why this occurs may require more than one blog post so consider this the start of a conversation. Conducted online... hmmm

Let me start with that hmmm. Whomever is reading this post is now part of a conversation which I very likely never would have had in person. In fact this morning's Twitter exchange with two other educators would never have happened face-to-face, I have never been to the institutions represented by those in the conversation. Online you can connect with people you never would meet IRL (in real life). Online classes bring together a more diverse population than happens in most face-to-face settings. My student population in any particular class might inhabit 3, 4, or more countries all around the globe. Their ages, backgrounds, and culture are usually very diverse. The only thing they have in common is an interest in the topic being studied and an Internet connection.

Deeper conversations occur because of the tools we use in online courses. First picture a traditional classroom. The instructor has a set amount of time for the instructional activities and student questions before students set off for the next class. If Student A asks a question which takes 15 minutes of the discussion time then other members of the class may not get to ask their question at all. Or perhaps they ask it after class where they may get a hurried response other students do not hear and do not benefit from as part of the learning environment.

In an online asynchronous discussion every student can ask questions and get answers from the instructor. Other students can be a part of the discussion of all of those questions. The discussion occurs over a long period of time, such as a week, which allows time for further thought, research, and formulation of well-considered answers and responses. This deepening of the response is something I rarely experienced in face-to-face classes but it is a very regular part of discussions in my online classes. 

I am going to post this and start the conversation. In the meantime I am going to mull the other points rattling around in my brain. I am also going to gather quotes from students about how connected they feel to other students and instructors in online courses. This conversation is likely going to take some time. No bell is going to ring to stop the conversation at the end of a class session. That's not the way conversations happen online.


  1. I have experienced the same in my online classes. I know my online students much better than I ever knew my in-class students when I taught in local universities. On campus, you have limited office hours and before/after class in the hallways. That's about it. Online, you have unlimited communication with the class and with individuals.

  2. Great observations. For the most part, I agree. I think the factors of advantage and opportunity in an online conversation include:

    1) Spacing. How often have you participated in a 2 hour compressed conversation (drinking through a firehose or being spoken over by the most assertive in the room) only to have a brilliant insight you wished you could share the next morning? For me, that's often.

    2) Equity. I think there's a great leveling force in a well run (emphasis on well run / well facilitated) online discussion that simply isn't there in a brief face to face encounter. It goes back to opportunity. In the online environment, introverted folks or folks that just communicate better in writing (when given the opportunity for thoughtful reflection) than in person (where there is pressure to respond in real time)

    3) Closeness via access. Frequency and perception of access to classmates creates a kind of personal connection that is difficult to kindle in the brief discussions that punctuate lectures and other activities in a face to face experience. When you're able to broadcast at any time, there is a kind of perception of connectedness. That's pretty powerful stuff.

    That's not to say face to face encounters don't have a power all their own. The essence of a realtime conversation is priceless in many contexts.. But online communication leverages reflection and connectedness that isn't easily replicated in a classroom. Very few classroom experiences even try.

    Great discussion:)

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