In my teaching experience at a community college and at my current institution, I’ve taught both online and face-to-face. I’ve never taught an academic blended course (although I’ve facilitated a sort-of-blended training course).
I’m really interested in student interaction. This semester, in my traditional course, we’ve had several classes where the students had very strong feelings on the topics and in several cases, some excellent (and civil) arguments occurred, where I had the opportunity to simply play referee when needed. The students, after a month together, now felt comfortable with each other – and me – to engage each other in a vigorous debate. But they kept it civil, which to me (other than staying on topic) was the most critical part.
Of course, this was, as defined, face-to-face synchronous expression. Otherwise known as a conversation. An argument. A discussion. An element where the students can’t hide behind a screen, with their non-verbal expressions out there for everyone to see. Their body language, tones of voice, rolling of eyes. No ability to scrub out the unfortunate reactions. No ability to quickly stop the conversation from going off into the ether quickly if the students choose to drive the conversation off into the abyss.
However, there’s a value in this in my opinion. There’s a certain organic feel that I don’t feel can be replicated in an asynchronous conversation. In the online courses I’ve taught, asynchronous conversations take place in the impersonal comfort of a graded discussion forum where it was required for students to post an original thought and two responses to fellow students. Students are expected to keep the conversation civil and it’s written down as a rule of conversation, and to stay on topic. This is not to say there can’t be strong debates in an asynchronous environment, but a lack of non-verbal communication may not make readers of another student’s post fully aware of that student’s passion for or against the topic of the day.
Do I feel there is a value in asynchronous conversation? Yes, but it is lacking. As an instructor I feel I have to control the topic(s) for discussion, as I have to trigger the discussion. If I don’t require student-student interaction in an online course, will the students interact? I hate to say this, but I’m not confident they would. Sure, some students might interact through discussions if I allow them to have an open discussion forum, but if I don’t provide the medium for them, would they reach out to each other?
I could break out WebEx or another web conferencing tool for students to have live interaction with me and/or each other, but there is still the ability for students to simply lurk and not interact with each other.
There’s also the question now of time. Providing meaningful feedback during a synchronous face-to-face conversation is easy. I can do this through my non-verbals, encouraging statements, or my work on bringing the conversation back to the topic – this feedback is immediate and takes very little time. Asynchronous feedback takes much more time – I have to read the statements by students, reflect, and then write back an appropriate response.
Perhaps in a blended course where F2F and online interaction is split, the synchronous and asynchronous expression by students can take on a different feel – where the synchronous expressions in the classroom can also carry on to the asynchronous discussions in the LMS. In the end I think the trick is trying to find a balance.