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«The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how communication preferences, learning preferences, and perceptions about online learning ...»

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Students are not the only members of the university who benefit from online learning; instructors reap many of the benefits as well (Barcelona, 2009). Some instructors prefer web-based courses because it may reduce workloads through automatic scoring of tests and require less time on mundane tasks like copying and distributing course information. In addition, pre-developed and standardized courses offer teachers less preparation time for classes they may teach frequently. Likewise, adjunct instructors, in particular, enjoy the benefits of teaching online because it allows them the ability to work for multiple universities without travel (Holstead, Spradlin, Plucker, & Indiana University, 2008). Also, online instructors benefit from online learning management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT’s ability to keep excellent records of discussion boards, grades, and e-mails (Holstead et al., 2008). Just like students, online instructors are able to connect to faculty members all over the world, many of whom they would not otherwise have interactions within traditional settings.

Just as some students and instructors benefit from online learning, institutions also benefit from offering online courses. Universities and colleges offering online courses can remove the physical boundaries of their campuses and appeal to larger numbers of students and diverse-student populations by offering a wider variety of courses and sections (Barcelona, 2009). Additionally, whether institutions are public or private, online colleges are eligible for government dollars through financial aid, as well as subsidized and unsubsidized student loans (www.allonlineschools.com, 2006-2009). In addition, many online institutions financially benefit from corporations’ educationalreimbursement plans that pay workers for professional development. Due to time constraints and other responsibilities, many of these workers elect to enhance their careers through online courses (Barcelona, 2009). As a result, online colleges and universities can be highly profitable (Smith, 2010).

With all of the benefits that online learning offers to various entities and members of academia, web-based instruction may appear to be the pedagogical solution to issues such as access to learning, information acquisition, course communication, classroom management, and space. However, online learning has its disadvantages for students, instructors, and administrators as well. For instance, learning online takes a great deal of self discipline and time management skills. Online learning students are often balancing work and family obligations, and they may find it difficult to manage their own time (Vanderpool, 2009). In addition, students may also find it difficult to use the technology, depending on their experiences with learning platforms and technology in general (Vanderpool, 2009). Furthermore, some students report feeling alienated from peers and the instructors as direct face-to-face contact is not involved and teachers are often not available to answer questions instantly when students may prefer to have them answered (Vanderpool, 2009).

Similarly, instructors may also report disadvantages to web-based courses. In face-to-face environments, teachers are able to watch facial expressions and body language to determine if students understand concepts or not; however, in online courses, a teacher may not know if students do not comprehend unless the student tells her/him (Hill, 2008). Also, instructors of online courses often report that they must prepare more for online classes than face-to-face classes (Gudea, 2008). Furthermore, some instructors do not receive the training needed to feel comfortable teaching online (Gudea, 2008).

Administrators, like students and teachers, also report disadvantages with online learning. One disadvantage for administrators is affording the technology to support trends with online learning (Parry, 2009). Schools may also find it difficult to locate the resources to provide student and instructor training needed to complete courses successfully. In addition, schools may find it difficult to fund technical support staff who may assist teachers and students with their computer needs (Parry, 2009).

On the surface, online learning could appear to be an educational utopia, seemingly offering access to all by solving traditional educational issues dealing with course communication, classroom management, and information acquisition. On one hand, online learning could be seen as a great equalizer for many; however, on the other hand, it is also considered to be a great divider. The disparity between different groups who have access to computer technology was coined as the Digital Divide by Amy Harmon and Jonathan Weber, two writers from the L.A. Times (Servon, 2002). The Digital Divide describes the differences which exist between those who have access to technology and those who do not (Block, 2010). The popularity of the term grew in the mid-nineties with the Clinton-Gore administration (Servon, 2002).

Today, defining the gap is quite complex. Access to computers only scratches the surface of problems with the Digital Divide (Hargittai, 2010). Access commonly implies one’s ability to go online at home and does not take into account one’s ability to use the Internet at work or school (Hargittai, 2010). In fact, some groups have access at one point and lose it at another. While the Clinton administration’s U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration clearly defined the Digital Divide based on groups who had access and those who did not, the gap does not solely depend on one’s ability to get to a computer (Warschauer, 2003).

Given this information, the digital divide is a misnomer that should be called digital inequality because there are no clear haves and have-nots (Warschauer, 2004). It is important to note that while digital inequality is similar to economic inequality; it is not equivalent to it (DiMaggio, Hargittai, Celeste, & Shafer, 2001). Terming the issue as

digital inequality would encompass more of the issues surrounding computer usage:

content, language, education, literacy, community, and social resources and not just one’s ability to acquire access. Causes of digital inequality are complicated and often intertwined between ways of access, race, education, gender, and age (DiMaggio et al., 2001). Therefore, digital inequality is included in this study because communication and learning materials were delivered in ways that were documented throughout the research literature to be preferred by ethnic majority or European American students (Warschauer, 2003). The students about whom I was interested are nontraditional African American undergraduate students.

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The theoretical framework which guided this study is one created by Chen (2001).

Chen’s (2001) study expands upon Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance (1996). In order to fully explore Chen’s (2001) theory, Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance (1996) must be explained first. Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance (1996) is a foundational distance learning theory (Woods & Baker, 2004) which explains the potential for transactional distance between teachers and learners in a course.

Transactional distance is the psychological and communication space that exists between teachers and learners in both traditional face-to-face classes and distance education courses (Moore, 1996). Because there is an obvious physical separation between teachers and learners in distance education courses, the potential for transactional distance is much greater than traditional face-to-face courses.

As one may or may not expect, the transactional distance between the student and the instructor is not absolute, but it is based on the perception of the teacher and learner (Moore, 1996). Perceptions of transactional distance are shaped by the structure of the distance learning course, the interaction between the student and learner, and the degree of self-directedness of the learner. Moore (1996) succinctly refers to these three variables as dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy in his theory.

According to Moore (1996), these three variables intertwine and contribute to the perceived distance between the teacher and learner in a distance education course. The first area of Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance centers on dialogue. Moore defines dialogue as the positive, constructive communication that exists when the teacher gives instruction and the learner responds. The two kinds of dialogue in a distance education course include one-way and two-way. An example of a one-way format would be a television program used for instruction. In instructional television programming, the dialogue is one-way because the student does not have the opportunity to interrupt the program and engage in a response. One-way programming such as instructional television is considered to be highly structured. Moore considers highly structured courses as classes that already anticipate the needs and concerns of students. Highly structured courses often provide pre-developed, standardized course materials at the beginning of the course. If distance education is highly structured and dialogue is nonexistent, then the transactional distance between teacher and learner is sizable.

The other kind of dialogue that could surface in distance education course is twoway dialogue (Moore, 1996). Two-way communication can be synchronous or asynchronous (Chen, 2001). An example of two-way dialogue could be a discussion board offered through an online learning platform such as Blackboard. Optimally, the teacher would provide the instruction, and the students would respond. The students’ ability to respond to the teacher through discussion posts makes the dialogue two-way.

Other examples of two-way communication are e-mails, synchronous chats, and synchronous class sessions. If a distance education course allows for two-way discussion, the students would have the ability to mold the course. Two-way communication courses are often considered to have low structure. Moore defines low-structure courses as classes in which students construct and shape the development of the course (Moore, 1996). If a distance education course is less structured, then transactional distance between the student and the teacher is small.

The last area of Moore’s Theory of Transaction Distance is learner autonomy.

Moore (1996) defines learner autonomy as a student who can complete and understand tasks without emotionally depending on the instructor. Moore’s theory concludes that the more structure a course has the more learner autonomy the students must have. In contrast, the less structure that a distance learning course possesses, the less autonomous a learner must be.

In summary, Moore’s (1996) theory discusses how dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy contribute to perceived distance in distance education courses. The more dialogue there is, the less distance there is between the learner and educator. In contrast, the more structured an online class is, the more distance there is between the student and teacher. In other words, highly structured courses which include inflexible syllabi, assignments, instructions, and questions and answers would minimize the need for communication between the instructor and learner. As such, the more structured the class is, the more autonomous the learner should be and thus, the more distance there is between student and learner.

While Moore’s (1996) Theory of Transactional Distance focuses on synchronous courses or courses in which the teacher and learner communicate at the same time, Chen’s theory is more suitable for online learning because it focuses on asynchronous learning. Chen’s (2001b) research about perceived distances in distance education courses focuses on asynchronous courses—those in which the learner’s and professor’s communication does not occur at the same time. In my dissertation study, the online world literature course was taught asynchronously, making Chen’s (2001b) extension of Moore’s (1996) Theory of Transactional Distance is a better theoretical framework to employ.

More so, Chen’s (2001b) extension of Moore’s (1996) Theory of Transactional Distance focuses on courses which occur via the World Wide Web and by videoconferencing. As such, Chen’s (2001a) definitions of distance, structure, and learner autonomy are more fitting because they contain additional dimensions not included in Moore’s (1996) Theory of Transactional Distance. Chen’s (2001a) definition of dialogue contains three dimensions, while structure and learner autonomy contains two dimensions each. Unlike Moore (1996) who considered dialogue only as it related to positive communication between teacher and learner, Chen’s (2001a) explanation of perceived distance based on dialogue accounted for communication which can transact in three ways: (a) in class through discussions (a kind of dialogue that can be seen in discussion threads online); (b) out of class by electronic communication where learners and the professor can communicate through emails and text messages; and (c) out of class through face-to-face interaction, a form of communication that is likely to occur when students engage in conversation with peers or the professor in person.

In addition, Chen (2001a) also found that perceived distance in structure may be influenced by both course organization and course delivery which can be traditional or dynamic. Traditional organization would include the professor’s posting of syllabi, course objectives, assignments, and assessments (2001a) in rigid or flexible ways.

Furthermore, Chen also reported how delivery of course information can be dynamic and includes open discussions, lectures, and other activities designed to foster learning or it can be rigid. He discussed how low rigidity in delivery was significant to increased discussions, though the rigidity of course organization had no influence.

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