Online Lectures: Benefits for the Virtual Classroom

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->
Most Web-based courses rely primarily on asynchronous communication to deliver course information to students. With this form of interaction, instructors and students do not interact simultaneously. Instead, messages are posted on a forum, Web page, or are sent as e-mail. Some unspecified time later, a reply is provided. Any follow-up questions are dealt with through additional postings or messages with requisite delays. Overall, this process limits the amount and depth of interactions regarding course materials and procedures. Regardless of the exact method of interaction, asynchronous communication is slow and limits the type and amount of communication between instructor and student. Furthermore, this type of communication tends to remove any feelings of connection between the student and instructor.

Most courses would benefit from the addition of synchronous communication. This form of communication usually occurs in an online chat room where the students and instructor gather at a specific time to communicate directly with one another. Here, instructors can lecture to the students and questions can be answered immediately. Follow-up questions can also be addressed immediately at an appropriate level of detail. Moreover, the instructor can inquire as to whether the students are clear on aspects of the course material. The immediate responses ensure that all class participants understand necessary information, thus making students feel connected to the instructor and the course.

Sadly, very few instructors regularly schedule online chat rooms as a means of communicating with their students. There are at least two reasons for this. First, many distance education programs have developed large enrollment sections of Web classes, thereby reducing the chance of having effective interactions in an online chat room (an optimal number in a chat room should not exceed 25-30 participants). Second, even for instructors teaching smaller enrollment Web classes, there may be a tendency to think that their students can gather all the course information they need simply by accessing the links on the course Web site. This is a natural tendency because most instructors find that time spent on Web course preparation and maintenance exceeds the time spent on preparation for conventional courses. Either way, the frequent result is that instructors come to believe that forms of asynchronous communication are a sufficient means of interacting with their students. We think this is unfortunate because there are important benefits that synchronous communication via chat rooms can provide.

In this article we focus on the merits of regularly scheduled chat room interactions as an important component for Web-based instruction. Please note that we are not advocating the substitution of one form of communication for another. Instead, we believe that the type of interaction fostered by online chat rooms will enhance and clarify the information that is gathered via asynchronous interactions. Both types of information delivery systems are needed. Whereas we think of asynchronous communication as the "backbone and muscle" for course content, online chats are the "heart and hustle" of our Web-based classes. Indeed, given the advantages we have found using chats, we would not offer a Web class without incorporating this form of interactivity with our students. However, before discussing the advantages of regularly scheduled chat rooms, we should outline our experiences in the virtual classroom.

Our Online Class

In addition to our conventional classes, we have taught more than 30 sections of Web-based courses. For the past four years, we have co-taught 20 online sections of Research Methods in Psychology, an upper-division class required for all our psychology majors. Our department limits class enrollment (both conventional and Web-based) to 25-30 students per section. The research we have conducted, as well as the anecdotal experiences described in this paper, are based on our involvement with these sections of the class.

Our approach to developing Web-based sections of Research Methods was guided by the premise that we maintain the same high expectations for student learning as we have come to expect in our conventional classes (Wang and Newlin 2001b). Hence, we used the same class materials (syllabus, textbook, assignments, final exam) for our conventional and Web-based sections of the class. However, we did not simply cut and paste our conventional material into an online format without considering the inherent qualities of each media format. As others have noted, to simply transfer information from one format into another is tantamount to creating the equivalent of "shovelware" (Fraser 1999). Instead, we transformed much of our online course content and incorporated multiple information delivery systems in anticipation of the diverse learning styles that our students would bring to the virtual classroom (Wang and Newlin 2001b).

Students access all class components online from the course Web site, which is delivered via WebCT courseware. This includes the syllabus, lecture notes, quizzes and homework assignments. The only exception is the comprehensive final exam, which was administered face-to-face on the last day of the semester.

As in most online courses, instructor-student communication occurs asynchronously via Web page postings, a course forum (i.e., online bulletin board) and e-mail. However, we also schedule required weekly chat rooms where we deliver lectures, discuss topics, and answer students' questions in a direct and immediate manner. The ability to answer questions in front of all of our students serves to reduce the number of individual e-mails that need to be addressed later. Each of our chat discussions is organized around a set of lecture notes that are posted for students to download and print from their Web browsers prior to the lecture. In effect, the class notes are the equivalent of overhead transparencies used by instructors in conventional classes. The chats are also where we review homework assignments, and remind students of upcoming course requirements and deadlines. We are able to accomplish all of these tasks (while having a lot of fun) in a 90-mintue chat room that is held each week.

Didactic Conversation

The development of knowledge requires an expert and a novice working together to influence successful learning outcomes. In this view, knowledge cannot be force-fed to a passive learner. Instead, knowledge is exchanged by an active didactic (instructive) conversation that occurs between an active teacher and an equally active learner (Holmberg 1989). Didactic conversation requires both the instructor and student to be equally engaged in two-way communication. Now consider Web-based courses that rely solely on asynchronous communication. Information that is delivered solely by asynchronous means flows in only one direction at any given time: primarily from the instructor to the student. In effect, didactic communication becomes all but impossible and the learner is rendered a passive recipient of information. We also argue that the extent to which your students obtain information solely by reading the content on your course Web site is the extent to which you have not taken advantage of computer assisted communication. Thus, having your students merely download materials for your Web class is to regress to an earlier stage in the history of distance education: the mail-correspondence course. Instead, we recommend that instructors use chat room technology to facilitate meaningful interaction with their students. In this view, using chat rooms on a regular basis takes the "distance" out of distance education.

Democracy in the Chat Room

Consider an online chat room. There is no podium, front row, back row, stage lights or microphone. The chat room's participants have no discernable race, gender, ethnicity or physical disabilities. Instead, the online chat room is a place where participants are identified by screen names, and their expressed ideas are judged solely on the basis of their merit. In the virtual classroom, instructors are recognized solely by the fact that their screen names are different from their students'. It is a non-intimidating environment where the playing field is level. Instructors still maintain a position of authority during chats. Yet the social dynamic of an online chat room is considerably more egalitarian than in the typical classroom environment. The relative anonymity of students and the fact that they access the chat room from familiar surroundings (i.e., from their home or office computers) engenders a comfort level that is not found in the live classroom.

Students who would never consider speaking out in a conventional classroom are able to do so in an online chat. The consequence is that our online chat rooms become a meeting place for lively and open discussion. Typically, this results in a tremendous increase in student-instructor and student-student interaction compared to conventional courses. At the end of each semester, our students tell us that the online chat room was a liberating experience. In this regard, we believe that online chats fulfill the promise of computer mediated communication: it offers the opportunity for people who are geographically distant to feel interpersonally close to one another.

Social Presence

Research has shown that increasing the social presence of others serves to increase student satisfaction and performance in a computer mediated learning environment (Gunawardena and Zittle 1997). We have found that chat rooms enhance the social presence of instructors and their students in a way that cannot be done by asynchronous communication. Advantages of increased social presence mean that we can give immediate feedback on student questions, provide motivational encouragement, and foster student perceptions that we are genuinely invested, engaged and personally connected with our students' learning experience. This feeling of community works both ways. As the instructor, you will feel more involved with your students to the point where you will recognize them as specific individuals during chats, as opposed to a mass of students in a conventional lecture hall. This sense of belonging in the learning community has helped us stay interested and focused on the learning process for each of our students.

Many students have reported feelings of isolation and loneliness when involved with online classes. In this regard, it should be noted that the "loneliness" of the distance learner not only describes the experience of some cyber-students, but may also relate to the experience of their Web instructors (Laird 1999). As we have noted in the preceding sections, it is through the use of synchronous chat rooms that instructors and their students can overcome the impersonal nature of asynchronous communication. We urge instructors to develop techniques whereby technology is used to foster rather than hamper social interactivity in the classroom. To reiterate, chat rooms are the most effective means for taking the "distance" out of distance education.

Student Perceptions of Chats

On a pragmatic note, instructors can also monitor students' chat room activity for signs of success or failure in the virtual classroom. For instance, we performed a discourse analysis of student remarks in chats during week three of the semester (Wang and Newlin 2001 a). We found that the total number of student comments and the frequency in which a student responded to a query by the instructor correlated significantly with final grades in the class at week 15. Put another way, students who rarely interact in the chat room and who do not respond to instructor questions tend to earn poor grades in class. Hence, instructors should monitor the frequency and type of chat room activity in order to predict students' performance on graded components of the class. This is important because, in the absence of conventional classroom cues (i.e., fidgeting, quizzical expressions, inattentiveness), students' chat room activity can become a valuable tool for assessing and predicting students' involvement in the virtual classroom.

For several semesters, we have given end-of-semester surveys assessing our students' perceptions of the components of our online class. These surveys ask students to rate each component in terms of its effectiveness in promoting successful learning. Among the course components that students evaluated (e-mail, forum postings, Web pages), we have found that chat rooms were among the highest ratings. This is particularly true for students who previously took online courses that did not use regularly scheduled chats. In many of these cases, students' open-ended responses indicated that they wished all of their online classes had synchronous chat rooms. Their overwhelmingly positive evaluations of this form of interactivity corroborates the findings of Presby (2001), who has also urged online instructors to develop ways of maintaining personal contact with their students.

The Learning Moment

An experience that teachers recount with pride and accomplishment is that instance when, through their efforts, a flash of insight, or an epiphany, occurs for a student. For many teachers, this learning moment is one of the greatest rewards to be gained from the teaching enterprise. We have spoken to instructors who avoid Web-based instruction because they believe it is not possible for them to experience learning moments in the virtual classroom. This is an unfortunate misconception, and our response is that these instructors are thinking solely about asynchronous communication for Web classes and have not considered the potential of synchronous chat rooms for revealing these learning moments. Indeed, we have never experienced a learning moment by opening a student's e-mail or forum posting. However, frequently during a semester a learning moment is revealed in a chat room. This typically occurs when we have just finished discussing a complex issue or concept for the class. If we've done it right, our students spontaneously respond with positive remarks.

This is the essence of a cyber-learning moment in the virtual classroom. We believe that spontaneous expressions such as these are learning moments that can only be experienced by online instructors using chat rooms. In this regard, there is another benefit of chat rooms – learning moments are experienced and documented by all of the participants in a chat room.

Alvin Wang received his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from SUNY at Stony Brook. When he is not teaching and writing at UCF, where he is a professor of psychology, he is reading and writing at home.

E-mail: awang@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu

Michael Newlin received his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Purdue University. His primary teaching interests include experimental design, statistical analysis and the psychology ofteaching. He is currently researching pedagogical issues relating to Web-based instruction.

E-mail: mnewlin@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu

References

Fraser, A.F. 1999. "Colleges Should Tap the Pedagogical Potential of the World Wide Web." Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, b8.

Gunawardena, C., and F.J. Zittle. 1997. "Social Presence as a Predictor of Satisfaction Within a Computer-Mediated Conferencing Environment." American Journal of Distance Education, 11, 8-26.

Holmbery, B. 1989. Theory and Practice of Distance Education. London: Routlege.

Laird, E. 1999. "Distance-Learning Instructors: Watch Out for the Cutting Edge." Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, b6.

Presby, L. 2001. "Increasing Productivity in Course Delivery." T.H.E. Journal, 28, February, 52-58.

Wang, A.Y., and M.H. Newlin. 2001a. "A Discourse Analysis of Online Classroom Chats: Predictors of Cyber-Student Performance." Manuscript accepted for publication in Teaching of Psychology.

Wang, A.Y., and M.H. Newlin. 2001b. "Integrating Technology and Pedagogy: Web Instruction and Seven Principles of Undergraduate Education." Manuscript accepted for publication in Teaching of Psychology.

 


X@XOpenTag000Most Web-based courses rely primarily on asynchronous communication to deliver course information to students. With this form of interaction, instructors and students do not interact simultaneously. Instead, messages are posted on a forum, Web page, or are sent as e-mail. Some unspecified time later, a reply is provided. Any follow-up questions are dealt with through additional postings or messages with requisite delays. Overall, this process limits the amount and depth of interactions regarding course materials and procedures. Regardless of the exact method of interaction, asynchronous communication is slow and limits the type and amount of communication between instructor and student. Furthermore, this type of communication tends to remove any feelings of connection between the student and instructor.

Most courses would benefit from the addition of synchronous communication. This form of communication usually occurs in an online chat room where the students and instructor gather at a specific time to communicate directly with one another. Here, instructors can lecture to the students and questions can be answered immediately. Follow-up questions can also be addressed immediately at an appropriate level of detail. Moreover, the instructor can inquire as to whether the students are clear on aspects of the course material. The immediate responses ensure that all class participants understand necessary information, thus making students feel connected to the instructor and the course.

Sadly, very few instructors regularly schedule online chat rooms as a means of communicating with their students. There are at least two reasons for this. First, many distance education programs have developed large enrollment sections of Web classes, thereby reducing the chance of having effective interactions in an online chat room (an optimal number in a chat room should not exceed 25-30 participants). Second, even for instructors teaching smaller enrollment Web classes, there may be a tendency to think that their students can gather all the course information they need simply by accessing the links on the course Web site. This is a natural tendency because most instructors find that time spent on Web course preparation and maintenance exceeds the time spent on preparation for conventional courses. Either way, the frequent result is that instructors come to believe that forms of asynchronous communication are a sufficient means of interacting with their students. We think this is unfortunate because there are important benefits that synchronous communication via chat rooms can provide.

In this article we focus on the merits of regularly scheduled chat room interactions as an important component for Web-based instruction. Please note that we are not advocating the substitution of one form of communication for another. Instead, we believe that the type of interaction fostered by online chat rooms will enhance and clarify the information that is gathered via asynchronous interactions. Both types of information delivery systems are needed. Whereas we think of asynchronous communication as the "backbone and muscle" for course content, online chats are the "heart and hustle" of our Web-based classes. Indeed, given the advantages we have found using chats, we would not offer a Web class without incorporating this form of interactivity with our students. However, before discussing the advantages of regularly scheduled chat rooms, we should outline our experiences in the virtual classroom.

X@XCloseTag000

X@XOpenTag002X@XOpenTag001Our Online Class

X@XCloseTag001X@XCloseTag002

X@XOpenTag003In addition to our conventional classes, we have taught more than 30 sections of Web-based courses. For the past four years, we have co-taught 20 online sections of Research Methods in Psychology, an upper-division class required for all our psychology majors. Our department limits class enrollment (both conventional and Web-based) to 25-30 students per section. The research we have conducted, as well as the anecdotal experiences described in this paper, are based on our involvement with these sections of the class.

Our approach to developing Web-based sections of Research Methods was guided by the premise that we maintain the same high expectations for student learning as we have come to expect in our conventional classes (Wang and Newlin 2001b). Hence, we used the same class materials (syllabus, textbook, assignments, final exam) for our conventional and Web-based sections of the class. However, we did not simply cut and paste our conventional material into an online format without considering the inherent qualities of each media format. As others have noted, to simply transfer information from one format into another is tantamount to creating the equivalent of "shovelware" (Fraser 1999). Instead, we transformed much of our online course content and incorporated multiple information delivery systems in anticipation of the diverse learning styles that our students would bring to the virtual classroom (Wang and Newlin 2001b).

Students access all class components online from the course Web site, which is delivered via WebCT courseware. This includes the syllabus, lecture notes, quizzes and homework assignments. The only exception is the comprehensive final exam, which was administered face-to-face on the last day of the semester.

As in most online courses, instructor-student communication occurs asynchronously via Web page postings, a course forum (i.e., online bulletin board) and e-mail. However, we also schedule required weekly chat rooms where we deliver lectures, discuss topics, and answer students' questions in a direct and immediate manner. The ability to answer questions in front of all of our students serves to reduce the number of individual e-mails that need to be addressed later. Each of our chat discussions is organized around a set of lecture notes that are posted for students to download and print from their Web browsers prior to the lecture. In effect, the class notes are the equivalent of overhead transparencies used by instructors in conventional classes. The chats are also where we review homework assignments, and remind students of upcoming course requirements and deadlines. We are able to accomplish all of these tasks (while having a lot of fun) in a 90-mintue chat room that is held each week.

X@XCloseTag003X@XOpenTag005X@XOpenTag004Didactic Conversation

X@XCloseTag004X@XCloseTag005X@XOpenTag006The development of knowledge requires an expert and a novice working together to influence successful learning outcomes. In this view, knowledge cannot be force-fed to a passive learner. Instead, knowledge is exchanged by an active didactic (instructive) conversation that occurs between an active teacher and an equally active learner (Holmberg 1989). Didactic conversation requires both the instructor and student to be equally engaged in two-way communication. Now consider Web-based courses that rely solely on asynchronous communication. Information that is delivered solely by asynchronous means flows in only one direction at any given time: primarily from the instructor to the student. In effect, didactic communication becomes all but impossible and the learner is rendered a passive recipient of information. We also argue that the extent to which your students obtain information solely by reading the content on your course Web site is the extent to which you have not taken advantage of computer assisted communication. Thus, having your students merely download materials for your Web class is to regress to an earlier stage in the history of distance education: the mail-correspondence course. Instead, we recommend that instructors use chat room technology to facilitate meaningful interaction with their students. In this view, using chat rooms on a regular basis takes the "distance" out of distance education.

X@XCloseTag006X@XOpenTag008X@XOpenTag007Democracy in the Chat Room

X@XCloseTag007X@XCloseTag008X@XOpenTag009Consider an online chat room. There is no podium, front row, back row, stage lights or microphone. The chat room's participants have no discernable race, gender, ethnicity or physical disabilities. Instead, the online chat room is a place where participants are identified by screen names, and their expressed ideas are judged solely on the basis of their merit. In the virtual classroom, instructors are recognized solely by the fact that their screen names are different from their students'. It is a non-intimidating environment where the playing field is level. Instructors still maintain a position of authority during chats. Yet the social dynamic of an online chat room is considerably more egalitarian than in the typical classroom environment. The relative anonymity of students and the fact that they access the chat room from familiar surroundings (i.e., from their home or office computers) engenders a comfort level that is not found in the live classroom.

Students who would never consider speaking out in a conventional classroom are able to do so in an online chat. The consequence is that our online chat rooms become a meeting place for lively and open discussion. Typically, this results in a tremendous increase in student-instructor and student-student interaction compared to conventional courses. At the end of each semester, our students tell us that the online chat room was a liberating experience. In this regard, we believe that online chats fulfill the promise of computer mediated communication: it offers the opportunity for people who are geographically distant to feel interpersonally close to one another.

X@XCloseTag009X@XOpenTag011X@XOpenTag010Social Presence

X@XCloseTag010X@XCloseTag011X@XOpenTag012Research has shown that increasing the social presence of others serves to increase student satisfaction and performance in a computer mediated learning environment (Gunawardena and Zittle 1997). We have found that chat rooms enhance the social presence of instructors and their students in a way that cannot be done by asynchronous communication. Advantages of increased social presence mean that we can give immediate feedback on student questions, provide motivational encouragement, and foster student perceptions that we are genuinely invested, engaged and personally connected with our students' learning experience. This feeling of community works both ways. As the instructor, you will feel more involved with your students to the point where you will recognize them as specific individuals during chats, as opposed to a mass of students in a conventional lecture hall. This sense of belonging in the learning community has helped us stay interested and focused on the learning process for each of our students.

Many students have reported feelings of isolation and loneliness when involved with online classes. In this regard, it should be noted that the "loneliness" of the distance learner not only describes the experience of some cyber-students, but may also relate to the experience of their Web instructors (Laird 1999). As we have noted in the preceding sections, it is through the use of synchronous chat rooms that instructors and their students can overcome the impersonal nature of asynchronous communication. We urge instructors to develop techniques whereby technology is used to foster rather than hamper social interactivity in the classroom. To reiterate, chat rooms are the most effective means for taking the "distance" out of distance education.

X@XCloseTag012X@XOpenTag014X@XOpenTag013Student Perceptions of Chats

X@XCloseTag013X@XCloseTag014X@XOpenTag015On a pragmatic note, instructors can also monitor students' chat room activity for signs of success or failure in the virtual classroom. For instance, we performed a discourse analysis of student remarks in chats during week three of the semester (Wang and Newlin 2001 a). We found that the total number of student comments and the frequency in which a student responded to a query by the instructor correlated significantly with final grades in the class at week 15. Put another way, students who rarely interact in the chat room and who do not respond to instructor questions tend to earn poor grades in class. Hence, instructors should monitor the frequency and type of chat room activity in order to predict students' performance on graded components of the class. This is important because, in the absence of conventional classroom cues (i.e., fidgeting, quizzical expressions, inattentiveness), students' chat room activity can become a valuable tool for assessing and predicting students' involvement in the virtual classroom.

For several semesters, we have given end-of-semester surveys assessing our students' perceptions of the components of our online class. These surveys ask students to rate each component in terms of its effectiveness in promoting successful learning. Among the course components that students evaluated (e-mail, forum postings, Web pages), we have found that chat rooms were among the highest ratings. This is particularly true for students who previously took online courses that did not use regularly scheduled chats. In many of these cases, students' open-ended responses indicated that they wished all of their online classes had synchronous chat rooms. Their overwhelmingly positive evaluations of this form of interactivity corroborates the findings of Presby (2001), who has also urged online instructors to develop ways of maintaining personal contact with their students.

X@XCloseTag015X@XOpenTag017X@XOpenTag016The Learning Moment

X@XCloseTag016X@XCloseTag017X@XOpenTag018An experience that teachers recount with pride and accomplishment is that instance when, through their efforts, a flash of insight, or an epiphany, occurs for a student. For many teachers, this learning moment is one of the greatest rewards to be gained from the teaching enterprise. We have spoken to instructors who avoid Web-based instruction because they believe it is not possible for them to experience learning moments in the virtual classroom. This is an unfortunate misconception, and our response is that these instructors are thinking solely about asynchronous communication for Web classes and have not considered the potential of synchronous chat rooms for revealing these learning moments. Indeed, we have never experienced a learning moment by opening a student's e-mail or forum posting. However, frequently during a semester a learning moment is revealed in a chat room. This typically occurs when we have just finished discussing a complex issue or concept for the class. If we've done it right, our students spontaneously respond with positive remarks.

This is the essence of a cyber-learning moment in the virtual classroom. We believe that spontaneous expressions such as these are learning moments that can only be experienced by online instructors using chat rooms. In this regard, there is another benefit of chat rooms – learning moments are experienced and documented by all of the participants in a chat room.

Alvin Wang received his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from SUNY at Stony Brook. When he is not teaching and writing at UCF, where he is a professor of psychology, he is reading and writing at home.

E-mail: awang@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu

Michael Newlin received his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Purdue University. His primary teaching interests include experimental design, statistical analysis and the psychology ofteaching. He is currently researching pedagogical issues relating to Web-based instruction.

E-mail: mnewlin@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu

X@XCloseTag018X@XOpenTag020X@XOpenTag019References

X@XCloseTag019X@XCloseTag020X@XOpenTag021Fraser, A.F. 1999. "Colleges Should Tap the Pedagogical Potential of the World Wide Web." Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, b8.

Gunawardena, C., and F.J. Zittle. 1997. "Social Presence as a Predictor of Satisfaction Within a Computer-Mediated Conferencing Environment." American Journal of Distance Education, 11, 8-26.

Holmbery, B. 1989. Theory and Practice of Distance Education. London: Routlege.

Laird, E. 1999. "Distance-Learning Instructors: Watch Out for the Cutting Edge." Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, b6.

Presby, L. 2001. "Increasing Productivity in Course Delivery." T.H.E. Journal, 28, February, 52-58.

Wang, A.Y., and M.H. Newlin. 2001a. "A Discourse Analysis of Online Classroom Chats: Predictors of Cyber-Student Performance." Manuscript accepted for publication in Teaching of Psychology.

Wang, A.Y., and M.H. Newlin. 2001b. "Integrating Technology and Pedagogy: Web Instruction and Seven Principles of Undergraduate Education." Manuscript accepted for publication in Teaching of Psychology.

X@XCloseTag021 

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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