Email, IM's, chatrooms, blogs, discussion boards. Today much of our communication takes place online. From MySpace to Yahoogroups to Blogspot many of us have relationships with people we may never meet in person. The researchers call this Computer-Mediated Communication. This blog will explore in laymens terms the findings of this research.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Students as Teachers: The Leveling Effect of Online Education

Remember being in school. You sat in a desk along with a bunch of other people in the room. You all looked forward and listened to the instructor tell you what you needed to know. When there was any discussion, it was usually teacher directed. The teacher asked questions, and you responded to those questions.

For years, those of us in education knew this wasn't exactly the best model. We knew that students learn best when they were discovering the information for themselves. We also knew that most classroom discussions ended up being dominated by one or two students who were excessively vocal, while others sat quietly in the back of the room. Yet, it was hard to break away from that model. For one thing, the physical setting encouraged it. Rows of chairs facing forward encouraged teacher-oriented classes. And if you broke up that format, you risked finding a note on your desk from the next teacher to use the room that you didn't put the chairs back in the "right" order. Also, time constraints held you back. Even if you got a good discussion going, 50 minutes later you had to stop and could rarely get everyone's comments in during that time.

Online education is changing that model. Robert Heckman, Syracuse University, School of Information Studies, and Hala Annabi The Information School, University of Washington, (2005) compared the content of discussions in face-to-face classrooms with those found in online course discussion boards. They came up with a number of conclusions.

One thing they discovered was a social leveling effect. The instructor was no longer the center of the class. In the face-to-face classes, the instructor was the primary source of cognitive information. The instructor was frequently interrupting the discussion to insert instructional material. They found that this happened much less often in the online courses. Additionally, frequently the students took over this task. They tended to help or inform other students more often than the instructor. The instructor was no longer the central character in the course. The students gained much greater social prominence.

Secondly, they found that the responses from the online students contained more cognitive information. In other words, the responses contained more depth and where better thought out than those in the face-to-face discussions. This makes sense, because the students have more time to deliberately formulate a response online whereas in the face-to-face setting, the responses are spontaneous and therefore, were likely to be surface level responses. They more likely focused on emotional information or opinion rather than on reasoning.

In general, they found that the students to take more ownership of the learning experience. Students depended more on their own exploration of the topic and discussion with other students than on the teacher for their learning experiences. And when that happens, the students are more likely to integrate what they learn into their daily lives.

Does this mean that online education is necessarily superior to face to face instruction. Hardly. There are advantages and disadvantages to any mode of content delivery in education. However, this is a strength of the online model. It is a strength that instructors can play to when designing online courses.

Of course, this has implications for the self perception of the instructors. Most of us view ourselves as a "fountain of knowledge" that the students come to for wisdom. Online instruction, however, this brings us back to a more Socratic model in which the role of the instructor is that of one who leads the student to discover knowledge on their own rather than one who delivers that knowlege in a package.

The online instructor, then, must be willing to subordinate his or her ego enough to turn over the learning experience to the student. For many of us this is hard, but, if we say that the student comes first, we must mean it.


Heckman, R., and Annabi, H. (2005). A content analytic comparison of learning processes in online and face-to-face case study discussions. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2), article 7.


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