Online vs. On-Ground
Comparing Online and Face-to-Face Learning Environments
Online course delivery offers great advantages to students by providing flexible scheduling of class activities. However, there is even greater potential to design courses around problem-solving models, to help students become much more research-aware of the resources that are available, to facilitate collaboration with peers, and to assess students based on their abilities to correctly and uniquely solve problems (thereby reducing potential for academic misconduct in "copying answers" from peers). Rather than memorizing a specific skill, students can "learn how to learn" and problem solve through practice in course activities.
Because the online environment does not provide the "body language" feedback to the instructor, course designs should concentrate on "over-explaining" (versus under-explaining) the policies, expectations, learning goals, and methods by which a student will be assessed. Students who are confident can skim materials, while students who might be confused will have detailed explanations to which he/she can refer. This can include specific grading rubrics, samples of past assignments, and practice quizzes - to ensure that students understand their obligations in the course.
One difficulty in the online environment is determining if students are staying on-task, and another difficulty is trying to avoid academic misconduct (primarily plagiarism and "hired guns" to take tests for students). These issues are best addressed by providing students with multiple homework and quiz activities, each carrying relatively low amounts of course points. Having materials to submit each week helps the instructor determine that the student is tracking properly and provides the instructor with a way to give individualized corrective feedback and advice to students who might not be performing as expected. This also lowers the anxiety of students, because they are getting regular feedback (boosting confidence) and the failure of any one assignment will have relatively little effect on the overall course grade.
The online environment also provides a much greater opportunity for students to do collaborative work through discussion tools, including peer evaluations of projects and writing and group project activities. Because each student will be available online according to their preference (scheduling around work and home responsibilities), I recommend that instructors set up group projects based upon the times that students can commit to being available to work on projects (rather than by topic of interest). This allows members of a team to phone each other or use an Internet chat tool for periods of brainstorming, project planning, and evaluation of work product.
All of these benefits of the online environment come with the expectation that students and instructor have a high degree of comfort with technology and have ready access software and hardware required for course activities.
Finally, the online environment provides much greater success potential for students with accessibility issues. When course materials are well designed, students who have vision, hearing, or mobility impairments will find it much easier to be independent (not requiring translators or coordination with disability services to arrange for special testing and conversion of course documents). Information in online courses is electronic and can be made to work seamlessly with assistive technologies for the blind (screen readers, movable Braille devices, etc.), and students with hearing impairments can simply read the lecture notes of the instructor (rather than having a need for a sign-language interpreter for translating classroom lectures).