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One the criticisms most often weighed against online and distance education programs — that they stifle and inhibit student interaction and social growth — is proving not only false, but also a point of praise for students and researchers of the online learning community. The Illinois Online Network argues that the online format “allows for a high level of dynamic interaction between the instructor and students and among the students themselves.”

Rishona Campbell, a second year student in Florida Gulf Coast University’s online MBA program, corroborated this compelling account of online education, saying outright that “student engagement with online courses is greater than with face-to-face courses.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at a conventional brick-and-mortar institution, Campbell, inspired by classes she took to fulfill her business minor, decided to continue her education and pursue a master’s in business administration (MBA). As she wanted to commit herself to full-time employment, she began investigating online MBA programs, which provide various part-time options. “In the end,” Campbell reasoned, “an online program was really the only option in that I wouldn’t be geographically tied to any one place and miss out on a job opportunity because I had to be within close proximity of my school.”

A rigorous search and self-imposed financial restrictions — Campbell said she “put a pretty low cap out there … which just outright eliminated the majority of MBA programs” — ultimately brought Campbell to Florida Gulf Coast University. She came into Florida’s program with prior firsthand experience with online courses, but has since refined her expectations and opinions of distance education programs.

“I’ve come to see that with online courses, you get out of it what you put in,” Campbell said. “You can do the bare minimum needed to earn your degree, but you will most likely come out of the experience not being so impressed. On the other hand,” she continued, “if you get involved with organizations, connect with your classmates and professors (virtually or in person), and visit the campus from time to time, then you have a much better experience.”

Driven students like Campbell all across the United States, and indeed all over the world, are enrolling in online programs while they focus on furthering their careers, or at least getting a foot in the business door. It takes eminent self-discipline, responsibility, and maturity to succeed in the online medium; it should not be surprising then, that students involved in distance education programs would share her enthusiasm and match her level of engagement.

Campbell noted that she regularly allocates an hour or more on any given weekday to schoolwork. In addition to her eight-hour workday and hour of study during the week days, she also puts aside as many as four hours each day of the weekend for completing assignments. “I try to tackle the bulk of the reading assignments on the weekend, when I don’t have to work,” Campbell said.

On weekdays, Campbell participates in online discussions, usually as soon as she gets home. These discussion boards are typically hosted on WebCT, Blackboard, or, in Campbell’s case, ANGEL, and are the substitute for the more immediate and more familiar colloquium model used in campus-based programs, where students are physically present in a classroom and discuss course materials verbally. The exchange of ideas so necessary and specific to academia still happens in online programs, though. Except instead of raising their hands and speaking up to share their thoughts, students elaborate on texts, offer thoughts about and critiques of each other’s work, and respond to challenging questions from the professor through discussion boards and emails; in fact, all the intellectual activity that characterizes classroom learning is conducted online, in discussion thread format. And because it is necessary, online professors often make participation in these discussion boards a graded component of the course. Knowing this, Campbell’s claim that student engagement in online classes is more serious and lively than in a physical classroom doesn’t seem so unbelievable after all.

In fact, one Canadian study, covered by Janice Paskey in The Chronicle of Higher Education comparing student involvement in one online and one campus-based MBA program, reported that “in a typical week [online] students exchange between 80 to 100 messages, which is far richer than the classroom.” Peter Carr, one of the study’s three principal authors, asserted that “asynchronous communication is more powerful” and that in an online environment, it is possible to
“do things that are more powerful than in the classroom.”

Michael Graham Moore, editor of The American Journal of Distance Education, in his Volume 16 Editorial, “What Does Research Say About the Learners Using Computer-Mediated Communication in Distance Learning,” outlines the findings of a study focused on the sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction of students enrolled in online colleges. He reports that the online medium has the unique ability to empower students who would otherwise remain unheard, and goes on to remark that “evidence suggests that not only do interpersonal dialogic relationships develop online, but the extent of the dialog is surprising to educators moving from conventional classroom settings.” Students are not only communicating with each other online, but they are doing so with such frequency and depth that educators transitioning to the online medium from physical classrooms are consistently impressed.

There are limitations, however, to the success of online communication and student engagement — the Illinois Online Network cautions that “in larger classes [with 20 or more students], the synergy level starts to shift on the learning continuum until it eventually becomes independent study to accommodate the large class. At this point, dialog is limited as well as interaction among participants and the facilitator.” In other words, online conversation with too many participants can be unsuccessful because responses are less of a dialog between a group of people and more a disjointed free-for-all comment thread.

A conversational balance has to be maintained in order for the discussion to work properly; too many students would render it impersonal, and too few would render it inactive. At either end of the spectrum, the collaborative, social element of online learning is lost, and students abandon the discussion, instead continuing in the class in isolation. Even Campbell admits that online students have to socially “compromise” while attending an online program. “You definitely miss the social component and the connection that you have with your peers and your school,” she says.

But Campbell also made another insightful observation that again displays the ingenuity and assertiveness online students must and often do possess: “Today it is very easy to find and reach out network on your own, and a self-built network will be more diverse and more resourceful than just an alumni-based one. But it does take effort. Look up some of your classmates on LinkedIn; recommend them. Attend on-campus speaking engagements when possible. Join national MBA associations, etc. You can still get that personal interaction. It just takes some creativity.”

As online education develops, protocol and practice only improve, and students like Campbell continue to keep the spirit of education alive by collaborating and corresponding with their peers and professors online.