Academic journal article Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Online Discussions: A Survey of Advantages and Disadvantages Compared to Face-to-Face Discussions

Academic journal article Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Online Discussions: A Survey of Advantages and Disadvantages Compared to Face-to-Face Discussions

Article excerpt

Class listervs are widely used at the university level to supplement inclass discussion. What are the inherent advantages and disadvantages in the online discussion experience? How favorably do these online experiences compare to their face-to-face counterparts? Survey data from graduate students involved in online discussions indicates positive reactions to most aspects of the experience, even those elements that clearly differ from the face-to-face experience. However, when given a choice, students still indicated a preference for face-to-face experiences. Online discussions were perceived as a valuable addition to in-class discussions, rather than as an acceptable substitution for them.

In a growing number of college classes across the country, instructors are using electronic communications to augment in-class discussion with an ongoing, online dialogue between students about class-related topics. A number of articles have reported on the use of e-mail and listservs as a supplement to the teaching of a college course (Doring, 1996; Gamas & Nordquist, 1997; Hansen & Gladfelter, 1996). In other cases, the electronic discussions have been part of a distance education effort and constituted the primary means of communication between instructors and students (Lewis, Treves, & Shaindlin, 1997; Muffoletto, 1997; Talley, 1997). Some authors have proposed specific models for effectively designing and conducting online discussion experiences (Martin & Taylor, 1997; Schrum, 1995).

Most of these articles have provided anecdotal descriptions of instructor experiences with using listservs in their classes. Only a few articles have reported actual research studies wherein data was collected to gauge student reactions to online discussions. The findings of these types of studies generally have shown that students have favorable reactions to their experiences with electronic discussions. Hesser and Kontos (1995) conducted a survey of 25 students involved in the distance education-based doctoral program at Nova Southeastern University. Given a choice of alternatives, respondents found electronic mail to be their most popular communication choice. Zhu (1996) documented successful patterns of knowledge construction stemming from electronic discussion, held as part of college coursework taught at a distance. Powers and Mitchell (1997) conducted a qualitative study of an Internet-based graduate course. One of their conclusions was that online communications enhanced levels of rapport between stu dents.

This article describes the findings of a study that collected survey data from college students who discussed a given set of topics, both online and face-to-face, over the course a semester. This study was designed mainly to examine specific differences between an online discussion and its face-to-face counterpart. What are the critical differences between each mode of discourse? What are the advantages and disadvantages associated with each of the two types of discussion? How did subjects feel about their online discussion experiences and which type of discussion did they prefer? Were there specific aspects of the online experience which were particularly problematic or especially successful?

The Development of an Online Discussion Survey

The survey used in this study was developed by the author, based upon his experiences in conducting a listserv discussion in a college class. The survey was created with the advice from this class of graduate students in an IT program. The issues that arose during that experience with an electronic discussion were discussed at length during several class sessions. Interesting, relevant comparisons were made between the electronic discussions that took place over the course of each week and the face-to-face discussion that took place in the classroom on the same topic. The group explored the advantages and disadvantages of each type of experience. …

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