Effective teaching and learning online: Is it all about time?

What are the advantages that online teaching and learning have over traditional face-to-face educational experiences?

Think of five answers. How many of these have to do with time?

Most of the specific advantages I can think of (out of the blue or taken from this week’s readings) can be reduced to one common denominator: The online environment alters the temporal aspect learning in a way that’s beneficial to the learner. In my opinion, the traditional classroom environment can make learning an isolated act—you spend two hours one or two days per week learning something in class and then you mostly forget about it for the next six days. By removing the physical constraints of classroom learning, the online environment allows learning to take place continuously.

In Joseph Ugoretz’s article “Two Roads Diverged in a Wood”: Productive Digression in Asynchronous Discussion he analyzes the value of digression in learning and discusses how online learning can allow for students to gain the benefits of digression via asynchronous discussion. In this case, the online environment not only provides the necessary time for the discussion to take place (something a limited class period can’t afford) but the prolonged nature of asynchronous discussion gives students time to digest what’s been presented, reflect on it, perhaps check some sources, and then offer a thoughtful contribution.

In Bill Pelz’s article (My) Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy he offers insight into effective online pedagogy from his own teaching experiences. The three principles that he offers are essentially (1) stay out of the spotlight and let students do the work of learning, (2) encourage interaction among learners, and (3) maintain a presence in the online learning environment. I think the first two are sound principles in any environment, but in practice may be difficult to implement in limited face-to-face interactions. An online environment, however, increases opportunities to put these principles into practice by allowing the possibility of extended student-student and student-instructor interactions. While this article is more advice for educators (rather than an analysis of online learning), the principles it promotes are taking advantage of the continuous learning experience made possible in an online environment (rather than taking advantage of some other unique dimension of online learning).

For me, time is a central theme in both of these articles. I know that the advantages of online learning are not all about time (I appreciate the point brought up by Joe in the cac.o.phony discussion on the CUNY IT Conference that “…the fa [fully-asynchronous] environment gives students a chance to construct an identity based on their knowledge and thinking–and their communication of ideas–without any barriers or prejudices which might arise (and often do) in the face-to-face classroom.”), so what is it that makes online teaching and learning special? Should online teaching and learning be promoted as just a convenient alternative to traditional face-to-face environments? Or, is there a more fundamental difference with online learning that should be recognized and form the basis for developing effective online learning and teaching practices? With online teaching and learning, are we just gaining time? Or, are we gaining something else that just doesn’t exist in the traditional classroom?

6 thoughts on “Effective teaching and learning online: Is it all about time?

  1. Ian Phillips Post author

    I am attempting to tie together Adam’s comments on motivation, Maura’s on resistance to online work, and Michael’s on time on task: I have spent more time on tasks for this course than I have for any other this semester, mostly because I feel the need to thoroughly read the materials, reflect on them, and check my references before posting something that will live forever on the internet. I feel a resistance to doing online work because I know beforehand that I will have to do all of this each time I want to contribute to a conversation. It is much easier to contribute to an in-person conversation because we don’t always have to be precise about our sources, we can get away with contributing a half-baked thought, and what we say disappears as soon as it’s said. Knowing that my online contributions are permanent and thus available to intense scrutiny, I always do my homework before posting something.

    I’m not sure whether the influence the online environment has on my learning is positive or negative. The time commitment seems negative but the result of my process seems positive–because of the obligation I feel to really put effort into knowing and understanding the material, I fell like I have a deeper learning experience. It’s quite possible that this is a very personal experience, but if it turns out to be a regular thing with online students, how should we conceptualize this “forced” learning? Is it an experience that we should work towards eliminating, or is it something we should we take advantage of? What is the ethical side of subjecting students to this?

  2. Adam Wagner

    To add another dimension to the time discussion: I’ve taken online classes before, and I ultimately performed well. However, I felt that because there wasn’t a set time that I had to be in class, I struggled keeping up and keeping interest in the class. The specific times for a class set a schedule for me that keeps me focused and structured. I know I have to read on Wednesday because I work on Thursday and class is on Friday. Without that structure, I tend to slack off a little more. While I know that is a personal responsibility thing, I feel there are a lot of people like me that work better when things are scheduled and time specific. I’m not saying online classes cannot provide that structure, they can. But there is something about the embarrassment of being noticeably unprepared in front of peers and professors that motivates me to perform at a higher level.
    Once again, not necessarily saying that this is a criticism of online education, just playing devil’s advocate with a personal example.

  3. Maura A. Smale (she/her)

    @pthielman – This is a great expansion of the discussion of time, Pamela, thanks for sharing this story about your sister. It reminds me of one of the other benefits of online course spaces that I’ve often read about (and also witnessed in classes I teach) — that some students who aren’t comfortable speaking in class will contribute to the discussion online.

    That example is possibly more appropriate for a hybrid than a fully online course. And considering hybrid courses adds another dimension to our discussion of time, too. I’ve also had students refuse to participate in online discussions, preferring to only participate during class (as Kelly noted, preferring the face to face interaction). It’s been challenging to convince them otherwise and I’ve often wondered whether a hybrid course seems like too much of a time investment to some students in a way that fully online courses don’t, because hybrid courses are somewhat less flexible.

    I also wonder whether some students’ resistance to online work is tied to a lack of tech skills/comfort, to loop back to our other readings for the week. And we could also expand the discussion of possible resistance to online learning to faculty, which perhaps ties into Michael’s second question below?

  4. Michael Mandiberg (they/them)

    I agree that it is all about time, but I think there are two other kinds of quantification of time which you might not be thinking about but which others are.

    I for example think about time on task a lot. Do you think you are spending more or less time on task in this hybrid course than your other courses you’re taking this semester?

    Conversely, what kind of time does a dean or provost think about when she is exploring the expansion of online offerings?

    Comment Tags: Brass Tacks, Time on Task
  5. Kelly Aronowitz

    Hi Ian,

    Time is definitely of the essence. As I posted in Aleksandra’s thread, I did my masters online because I worked a full time job (or actually several part time jobs).
    When I applied to the masters I had two options, one was Critical Theory and we had one week a semester with very intense face-to-face seminars and the rest of the semester was online, with forums and such. Very few classes had an actual timed chat discussion (and it didn’t really work well, mostly connectivity issues #diemoodledie ).
    The other masters I was considering doing online was on pedagogy and it had timed classes, more of a traditional masters but without actually being there. I chose the first.

    What I believe we are missing here is what, besides for education, are we in school for?
    I believe that school is for socializing, for meeting new people with whom you share interests, or you don’t. Think of that music group you now love but you didn’t know about until a friend introduced you to it, or the friend who introduced you to yoga, or ballroom dancing…
    your peers, wether they become friends or not is non relevant, introduce you to parts of the world that they have had access to…
    besides for being in it for the education, you are sharing time, discussion, etc. with others who can introduce you to different forms of experience, widening your horizon on life.
    Of course this can be done thru forums, especially the kind that Pelz mentions as the ‘aside forums’, to have other sorts of discussion.
    But, really, face-to-face interaction is different. You can’t go to the movies with a person in your class if they live in another time zone. Or have coffee. Yes, you can live-chat, tweet, facetime, skype, etc… but, is that enough?

    I believe that online learning has positive attributes but we mustn’t forget the other side of socializing…


  6. pthielman

    I think you are right in pinpointing time as a central issue here Ian, but I also really think that there is something in what was said in the cac.o.phony discussion about the potentially freeing effects of being in an online learning environment in terms of student identities. My sister is employed in the medical field in an area that requires an Associates Degree and a certification to get an entry level position. In her mid-30s, juggling hospital work and her three kids she is now doing and online B.S. both for her own satisfaction and to advance in her career. Though time plays a part in her choice to go the online route, another major element is that she feels uncomfortable going in to a situation where she would be taking classes with people a decade or more younger than she is who are going through school as “traditional” students. Studying online allows her to just be another member of the class.

    It seems to me that online learning is not just an attractive option for busy people, but for people who might otherwise have trouble creating identities for themselves as learners. I don’t know how exactly online pedagogy goes about taking into account non-traditional students as a demographic (by nature they are non-homogeneous) but I think they are drawn to the idea in higher numbers and have to be considered.

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