Communication is notably one of the most crucial elements to an effective online course. Lehmann states “communication is what separates true online learning from Web-based tutorials” (2004, p. 9). Interaction and communication have been identified as key factors in the success of an online course, leading to enhanced student satisfaction and motivation. Interaction can take place in three central areas, interaction between the learner and the instructor, the learner and other learners, and the learner and the content (Savenye, 2005). Interaction between the learner and the content is the most common type of interaction that occurs in online settings, through lectures and readings. Online instructors can orchestrate the class environment to increase the interaction between the learner and the instructor and the learner and other learners through both synchronous and asynchronous interactions. There are a multitude of options for students to work collaboratively and cooperatively with other learners and/or the instructor in live debates, reflective journal entries, peer reviews, discussion boards, and video or audio teleconferencing (Savenye, 2005).
The importance of feedback is an area that both instructors and students stressed as being vital to success in an online course. On the topic of communication and providing feedback, one instructor shared, “I conduct my courses as extended individual e-mail conversations between me and each student, and I found that it was a more vital and real process than I had assumed it would be” (Thomson, 2010, p. 33). Many instructors spoke to the benefit of the individualized atmosphere of the online course and how to best capitalize on the one-to-one correspondence. Differentiating instruction in a traditional classroom can be very difficult due to the simultaneous interaction that an instructor must have with the students, “by contrast addressing individual needs of each student is easier to do with online students, since the nature of the system is more geared to individuals” (Thomson, 2010, p. 34). Responding to students promptly is yet another important aspect of communication. Instructors and students alike expressed the importance of prompt and supportive feedback when working to “establish a rapport of trust and level of comfort” (Thomson, 2010). The more personal one-to-one emails were found to be useful when used in conjunction with mass class emails to target reoccurring questions, interact with the quieter students, and to build “a sense of the course as a dynamic shared enterprise” (Thomson, 2010, p. 704).
The impact of peer interaction on community building is a reoccurring theme in the literature discussing online learning environments. While a majority of students stated that there was no real difference in their learning when comparing a class session online vs. an in-class session, some students did acknowledge a difference in terms of community and peer interaction within the two settings (Kirtman, 2009). One student stated, “I believe there is a difference because when in class you get the benefit of learning a lot more from your peers” (Kirtman 2009, p. 110). If there is a difference in peer interaction and community building, how can online course structure bridge the gap and capitalize on social interaction using the tools available?
There are a number of drawbacks and potential issues that students may face while participating in an online course. Academic rigor is an issue that is frequently called into question. When gaging the academic rigor or lack thereof of an online course, it is critically important to recognize the diverse varieties of formats that online education can be delivered in, the multitude of subjects online courses can teach, and the ever-growing population of students. In regard to education, “the online learning marketplace reflects the diversity of American higher education itself” (Bowen, et al., 2014, p. 95).
The ‘no significant difference’ phenomenon developed by Thomas Russell, determined that the delivery medium, such as technology versus face-to-face classroom settings, does not make a difference in learning outcomes. Proponents of online instruction suggest that learning is impacted by the instruction method embedded within the medium of delivery, therefore asserting that the quality of instruction impacts learning outcomes (Rovai, Wighting & Lui, 2005).
One factor that is frequently examined is the development of community and peer interaction in a traditional classroom setting compared to an online learning environment. Literature suggests that a strong and active social life on campus can be “used to explain both high persistence and learning satisfaction” (Rovai, et al., 2005, p.4) amongst learners, thus leading one to believe that the lower persistence rates of online course are caused by a lack of community and social connectedness in an online learning environment. A study by Rovai, Wighting, and Lui suggested that “online students feel a weaker sense of connectedness and belonging than on campus students who attend face-to-face classes,” (Rovai et al., 2005, p.4). Donlevy strongly states that the absence of peer interaction can negatively affect some aspects of the learning process. Furthermore, explaining that the “social and emotional aspects of learning are as important as the technical information” (Donlevy, 2003, p. 120) taught to students. Proper structuring of courses as blended classes or forming cohorts in the online environment both have the potential to eliminate some of the deficits that can be attributed to online learning and create a sense of community and belonging among the students (Rovai et al., 2005).
Although some literature highlights the lack of community as a deficit in the online learning environment, others have suggested that student-student interaction is much less of a concern than student-instructor and student-content interaction. In a study by Thomson, one instructor observed that many students desire to work independently and at different paces than their peers, therefore eliminating the need for communication amongst their classmates (Thomson, 2010). Another instructor stated “students are taking online courses for content not for social interaction” (Thomson, 2010, p. 37) and then hypothesized that “peer interaction and collaboration is valuable for younger students” (Thomson, 2010, p. 37).
Cultural restrictions are another area that one should be mindful of when designing an online course. Educational technology continues to represent the dominate culture, therefore limiting individuals who are not included in the dominate culture (Oswal & Meloncon, 2014). Another restriction that has been brought to the forefront is the issue of the ‘have’ versus the ‘have-nots’. Technology is an area that can be easily taken for granted when it is intertwined into daily life, but for many, technology is not vastly used due to the lack of monetary means to gain access. Increasing the ratio of computers and other electronic devices to students will ultimately lead to the disadvantaged gaining access to the global knowledge that is available on the internet. “Familiarity with technology can bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, the experienced and the unworldly” (Chaney, 2001, p. 28).