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8.4: Face-to-Face Courses are Superior to Online Courses

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    Author: Andrew Bourelle, English, University of New Mexico.

    Academia has seen a shift to online education, with many courses being taught from a distance to accommodate students who cannot attend traditional face-to-face (f2f) classes on campus for various reasons, including familial obligations or work schedules. To accommodate these students, the environment in which classes are taught has changed to include correspondence courses taught via mail and television-broadcast lectures, to courses taught solely in a digital platform with students communicating remotely through asynchronous (i.e., discussion boards) and synchronous (i.e., video conferencing) methods. The method of ease associated with online education makes access possible for students from the comfort of home without actually setting foot in a classroom. But make no mistake: The easiness comes from convenience of access, not necessarily from the coursework itself. Online classes can be just as—if not more—rigorous, educational, and pedagogically sound than f2f classes, with the scholarship surrounding distance education reporting no significant difference between learning in online classes versus classes taught in f2f environments. However, there remains a common misconception among instructors and students alike that the online class will be less challenging or rigorous than its f2f counterpart. From students to the general public— and even among college instructors—most people continue to think that traditional classes held in a brick-and-mortar classroom are, simply put, better than online classes.

    In fact, a survey of online education conducted by the Babson Research Group reported that many instructors question the value of online education’s worth. Words like validity and legitimacy often arise when instructors discuss the merits of online education, and when it comes to writing, they ask how and if students can learn to craft their writing without forming a community of peers or when f2f interaction with the professor is missing. This skepticism from the faculty trickles down to the students and even filters into societal thinking at large, with a 2013 Gallup poll suggesting that Americans remain “tepid at best” when rating their experiences or opinions of online classes and programs. Even businesses tend to prefer graduates with degrees earned in f2f programs over those who received solely online degrees.

    How did this myth associated with online education take shape? In the past, some universities and the best faculty members within refused to teach online for various reasons, including the inability to see the student benefit from online education. When powerhouse universities such as Arizona State University led the charge in expanding education opportunities for those students who would not normally have access, critics thought the gain was only monetary, benefiting the university and not the students themselves. Many universities have joined the ranks of ASU, scrambling to keep the pace in order to secure their share of distance students. In addition, administrators may push departments to offer online classes because they do not require a physical space, thus costing less money to facilitate. Other concerns include the higher rate of withdrawals from online students and the tendency for students with a lower GPA to perform at an even lower level in the online environment. Perhaps one area of cynicism surrounds the increase of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, with thousands of students taking a course simultaneously. Some may wonder just how an instructor can interact with hundreds of students one at a time, and in terms of a writing course, how she can respond to thousands of pages of writing in one semester; however, these open classes are markedly different than the average writing course that strives to maintain low numbers and one-on-one interaction with students.

    Certainly there are monetary benefits to universities adding online courses, and all students may not succeed in the online space; however, these factors are not necessarily synonymous with a diminished education. Within writing courses, students’ participation and writing practice improves when classes are shifted online. Additionally, the online classroom opens up a space for diversity, with more students being willing to share opinions in the safe space of an online classroom. For writing classes, the majority of the interactions among peers and between peers and the instructor is communicated in written form, suggesting that students have the opportunity to practice writing more than if they were taking an f2f class. In terms of simple word count, online students write a lot more than f2f students. Scholars also suggest that students think more critically about the discussion prompts they respond to because they are not required to think on the spot; instead, they can carefully craft their posts and even revise and edit afterward. Thus, numerous elements of the course encourage writing and thoughtful peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher interaction. Those interactions are different than f2f but certainly not inferior.

    While online education continues to grow at a rapid rate, the pedagogy within remains cutting-edge, comparable to f2f classes. For instance, societal changes and technological improvements have prompted writing instructors to encourage students to create multimodal texts, or texts that use more than one mode to communicate. These multimodal texts could be videos, podcasts, or websites, just to name a few. Instructors often encourage students to create these types of texts because students are interacting with similar media on a daily basis in their extracurricular lives; therefore, it seems natural to ask them to not only analyze these documents for rhetorical effectiveness, but to also create similar documents, in an effort to promote new literacies and effective communication skills necessary for the 21st century. Teachers of online classes have adapted their practices to include this type of curriculum. For instance, in any specific unit that corresponds to a writing prompt, an instructor may offer different media to analyze, including podcasts, videos, and written text, encouraging discussion among peers of the rhetorical effectiveness of such media. Not only do students have the ability to return to this media at any point in the online course, but they can also reread the archived discussion posts for further clarification of concepts. Successful practices of multimodal composition only solidify that writing, in its various forms, can be taught just as well, if not better, than in an f2f format.

    The online classroom itself can also be a democratic space: The digital platform can further encourage inquiry and interaction, as ideas are constructed as a community, with community being society at large, not just peers in the class. When an instructor asks students to find artifacts, research, and other items of interest in pop or other cultures, those artifacts become representative of communities outside the classroom setting, thus widening the learning sphere. Students move from being merely passive consumers of media, including books, videos, advertisements, and so on, to becoming collaborators in knowledge-making who think critically about the plethora of media they come in contact with both in and outside the class. While this critical thinking can also be possible in f2f and blended (part f2f, part online) classes, it is perhaps not encouraged or acquired as seamlessly as in a solely online environment where students have access to such media at their fingertips, both in the classroom curriculum and on the Internet.

    However, even with these advantages and enhancements that the online classroom promotes, an online course is only as effective as the instructor and the way she has designed the course. Instructor ambition and attention may cause student interest and motivation to wane. If an instructor isn’t active in the course, the students may put in little effort as well. Online writing courses can be successful at promoting writing skills, but only if the instructor re-envisions her pedagogical practices. For instance, instructors must create assignments that promote students taking control of their learning, challenging them to share ideas and collaborate with one another through the digital technology available in online courses. Indeed, we would argue that f2f writing instructors can learn from online pedagogy. As the world becomes increasingly influenced by digital technology, f2f instructors can learn a lot about enhancing their traditional classes with digital, multimodal enhancements and online writing tools.

    Instead of using f2f classes as the barometer to measure online writing instruction, the time has come for instructors, administrators, students, and others interested in the quality of education offered in our universities to start recognizing that both f2f and online writing classes can provide challenging, intellectually stimulating educational experiences for students. Instead of viewing online and f2f courses in opposition to each other, we need to view them as parallel means of educating students. One fear may be that online classes will replace traditional f2f courses; however, as distance education continues to grow, universities remain committed to offering online classes in addition to f2f courses to accommodate both students who need access to remote courses and those who need the local constraints of a f2f classroom. Online and f2f classes are two paths available to students on their educational journeys, and both can lead students to the same destinations.

    Further Reading

    For popular, researched texts on online education, see “Chasing the Elusive ‘Quality’ in Online Education” by Anya Kamenetz, on National Public Radio and “Americans Doubt the Rigor and Quality of Online Education” by Allie Bidwell at US News and World Report. For practical advice on preparing to teach online, see “Benefits and Challenges of Online Education” by the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, which also provides additional reading.


    asynchronous methods, face-to-face instruction (f2f), MOOCs, multimodal composition, online writing instruction (OWI), synchronous methods

    Author Bios

    Tiffany Bourelle is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, where she teaches technical communication and firstyear writing courses in both face-to-face and online environments. She is currently the co-administrator of the eComp (electronic composition) first-year writing program at UNM that she developed with Dr. Andrew Bourelle. Her research focuses on training graduate instructors to teach multimodal composition online, and her scholarship can be found in scholarly journals such as The Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, WPA: Writing Program Administration, Computers and Composition, and Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.

    Andrew Bourelle is an assistant professor of English at the University of New Mexico. His research interests include online writing instruction, multimodal literacy, and the intersection of creative writing and composition. His scholarship has been published in Composition Forum, Computers and Composition, Journal of Teaching Writing, Kairos, Technical Communication Quarterly, and other journals and anthologies.