Online Classes or Traditional? Why Not a Blend? - National Council of Teachers of English
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Online Classes or Traditional? Why Not a Blend?

hybrid classesOnline courses have become popular in today’s colleges. They offer several advantages over traditional classes, but they also have shortcomings that lead many to reject them. In December’s Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Kristy Liles Crawley advocates for hybrid courses to offer the best of both online and traditional instruction.

Online Advantages

Crawley’s piece acknowledges that online courses have advantages over traditional courses, advantages well worth preserving as we work to reshape formal education for the modern era.

One advantage Crawley points to is inclusiveness. Students who are shy or feel marginalized may be reluctant to raise their hands in a physical classroom but feel freer to type up their offerings in online discussions. “The online environment provides those who are silenced in the traditional classroom time to reflect and voice their thoughts.” She adds, “[D]ue to the traditional classroom’s time constraints, only a limited number of students are able to briefly speak. Therefore, instructors capture only a partial snapshot of what individual students have learned during the class period.” An online component can offer teachers a fuller view.

Crawley argues that online courses create not only more opportunity for students to speak but also more opportunity for them to listen. In a traditional class, she says, students may be so focused on finding the chance to make their points that they have little attention left to listen to other speakers. “However, in an online environment, [as students] read their classmates’ writings, they have the opportunity to give each individual writer their undivided attention in an untimed setting.”

Online tools also empower students to research and collaborate in new ways. For all these reasons, Crawley finds an online component to an English course valuable. But, she argues, the drawbacks of online environments demand there be a classroom component as well.

Online Drawbacks

Face-to-face communication, even in an English class, is not limited to words. Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice or facial expression add dimension to people’s words, making communication sharper. Crawley writes:

In the seated classroom, instructors often rely on their students’ body language to figure out if the students understand the material prior to completing an assignment. A student’s puzzled look is a signal that the student needs help, while the facial expression suggesting a “light bulb” moment of understanding gives the instructor a sense of pleasure in knowing that students understand the material and are ready to proceed.

Online communications not only lack nonverbal cues, but the typing takes more time, discouraging conversational give-and-take:

[D]ue to the time lag in an online environment, posting a student’s carefully planned written response to a peer’s paper may not prompt an ongoing conversation between the students. In fact, many students will not ask their peers questions about their responses unless the instructor has included guidelines for the number of postings and replies. Also, students are often reading their responses at a later date when they are juggling the demands of other classes and assignments, which differs from the focus of a face-to-face interaction in a peer response workshop that demands their full attention for the duration of the in-class workshop time.

While presentations can be done online with video, Crawley points out this is very different from a presentation in a classroom. Without a live audience, presenters are denied the raw feedback on how well they are engaging their audience, and they are denied an opportunity to master the common fear of public speaking.

Perhaps the greatest drawback of all: the online class leaves students feeling isolated. In online classes, “many students do not communicate with their classmates outside of the communication that is required.” The chatter found in a traditional classroom, whether celebrity gossip or gripes about homework assignments, builds a camaraderie among students that makes for a friendly atmosphere. In an online class, the teacher and classmates giving feedback on one’s writing may seem like strangers. Crawley even cites research showing that students in online courses are significantly less likely to complete those courses than are students in traditional classrooms.

A Needed Blend

The answer, Crawley argues, is to blend the best of both, with hybrid classes that include both an online component and a face-to-face element. In hybrid classes, students can build camaraderie with the teacher and the classmates whose comments they will read online. Students can give live presentations with immediate feedback and also enjoy the online research opportunities. And, she says, hybrid courses are best at preparing students for a career when most jobs now involve both online and face-to-face interaction with co-workers.


Read Kristy Liles Crawley’s entire article, “Learning in Practice: Increasing the Number of Hybrid Course Offerings in Community Colleges.”