What Are My Tools?
Highly interactive discussions: One of the most exciting features of an online course is the discussion forum. In the traditional F2F classroom, the instructor asks a question, and the same four or five extroverted students inevitably raise their hands. They offer spontaneous, often unresearched responses in the limited time allotted for discussion. In the online environment, discussions enter a new dimension. When an instructor posts a question on the asynchronous discussion board, every student in the class is expected to respond, respond intelligently, and respond several times.
Many online students have indicated that this is the first time they have ever "spoken up" in class and that they enjoy the opportunity. Similarly, instructors say that it is a pleasure to hear the surprisingly compelling ideas of the more introverted members of their classes. Many online instructors have also observed that the relative "anonymity" of online discussions helps create a level playing field for women, homosexuals, students with physical handicaps, and members of other potentially marginalized groups, as they can participate in class activities without being stigmatized. Moreover, the format gives non-native speakers of English extra time to contemplate questions and compose appropriate answers.
In addition to prompting more discussion, online education fosters higher-quality discussion. Before students respond to an instructor's discussion question or to classmates' posted comments, they can refer to their course materials and think through their answers. As a result, students have the opportunity to post well-considered comments without the demands of the immediate, anxiety-producing F2F discussion, which often elicits the first response that comes to mind rather than the best possible response.
Finally, asynchronous discussions are not limited to a few minutes of live class time; they frequently last for a week, and it is not unusual to have 100 or more student postings during that period of time. When was the last time that you saw that many well-reasoned responses in a F2F setting from the majority of the students in attendance?