Two of the courses I led were for a government department - offered to employees across Canada. One person participated from the US on holidays - why not! The third one was a public online offering, and, it also had students from different time zones. But, time didn't matter. We (all of us) took whatever time we needed, whenever it was convenient to do our course tasks. As the instructor, I was able to go in and out of the 'online classroom' throughout the day and evening, and keep in touch with everyone. Also, if a student misses an onsite class, the valuable information sharing that happens during class discussions is lost. Online, these discussions are there as learning tools for the duration of the course. The flexibility of time appeals to many and brings many benefits.
One of the criticisms of online learning is the lack of 'face-to-face'. But, I found this to be quite the opposite. Students were able to communicate with me - and other students - in the forum, via email and through the group discussions (which were worth points towards their grade). The quality of inter-student discussions, sharing of knowledge, exchange of ideas, and feedback were far greater than in many face-to-face workshops I've done. One factor for this was the time they have, and the other was the technology. This platform gives both students and instructors time to conceive of strong questions, create valuable answers and share information that is of a higher quality than may happen in class. My volume of direct questions, feedback and compliments was also higher than in a face-to-face environment. I may not have made the interpersonal connections I would have in a classroom - but this is about the students' experience.
People make the difference
Teachers, instructors, trainers all know it is the people in the 'classroom' who make the difference. Although I did not see these participants face-to-face, their personalities shone through regardless. There were the leaders, the sharers, those who only 'spoke' when they had something really important to say - exactly like in-class learners. There were people who were shy - but at least the technology allowed us to explore the reasons privately, and seamlessly, to come up with a solution.
The forums allowed me to feedback to each individual student's discussion point - for all to see. This spread the learning and 'feel good' factor far and wide. Also, if there was an issue - it could be solved once - for everyone - without the question having to be answered numerous times.
Due to their confidence - most likely because it was online (and not face-to-face) - changes and improvements to the course were made based on student feedback. Some of these were done as the course progressed. The value of this live input cannot be over looked. The standard, at the end of the course evaluation just doesn't have the same impact.
I may have missed the warm feeling one gets in a classroom setting, but it was more than made up for in the participants' positive feedback, pro-active learning and personal interactions. Because interaction is built into the process, and the grading system, everyone shares. No one gets lost in the shuffle, or over-shadowed by the more active learners. Everyone had a chance, and most took advantage of the time and the technology to join in.
If you haven't tried online learning, I highly recommend it - as a learner and as a teacher.