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Editor’s Note
: As faculty adjust to the online environment, they perceive the relative advantages and disadvantages of classroom and distant learning. Some instructors tools and techniques from both to optimize their preferred mode of instruction; others adopt a hybrid of face-to-face and distance learning. 

Online or Not Online:
Into the 21st Century Education

Thanh T. Nguyen


Teaching and learning in the Information Age requires different skill sets and thinking models. Professors at a state college agreed that online learning environments have had both positive and negative effects on how they communicated with students and how they delivered their course content. Into the 21st Century, whether online or not online, most professors believed that educators have to continue to give emphasis to people skills.

An Ongoing Debate

Online or not online has been an ongoing debate, not only for how to preserve the value of human relations but also for how to deliver course content. In a traditional or face-to-face classroom, communication and human connections are great assets for knowledge acquisition within a learning community. Exchanges between professors and students as well as among students and other students happen spontaneously. Professors can recognize non-verbal cues and are able to motivate each learner on an individual basis. Students can spontaneously extend supports to or ask for help from their classmates or professors. These connections are vital for students and professors to engage and exchange their knowledge, thinking, concerns, problems, values, ideas, or viewpoints.

When a course moves online, communication dynamics are altered. Non-verbal communication cues disappear, and since students converse asynchronously, spontaneous interaction is impossible. Even with webcams in which students and professors can see and hear each others, interactions are not the same as in a face to face classroom. However, taking into consideration that online education allows students opportunities to learn independently from anywhere at any time, and to construct and acquire learning at their own pace, online education provides many advantages for students beyond the classroom walls (Coates & Humphreys, 2001). In addition, online education also opens up opportunities for adult students, who otherwise would not be able to attend face-to-face classes due to their busy schedules and family commitments. Although many studies that compare online and face-to-face learning environments find no significant differences in learning and other outcome measures, others would argue that these studies are incomplete with poor research designs (Lui, 2005; Meyer, 2002). Although some college professors have opened up to online education, many others are still resistant to the idea.

Changing population

Since more and more students entering college have grown up in today’s digital world, they possibly are “digital natives” whose brains could potentially be “wired” differently from the previous generation (Prensky, 2001). Because they have been surrounded with TVs, computers, video games, iPods, MP3s, cell phones, the Internet and all other toys of the digital age, they are multi-task students and probably would not want to sit in a face to face classroom for a long period of time for a lecture. Furthermore, if Bill Gates was correct that the self-motivated learners would not need a college education because they could learn just about anything on the web (Gates, 2010), should professors rethink education for the 21st Century by adopting a virtual classroom?

The problem with Bill Gates’ argument is how self-motivated students would know which information is accurate or inaccurate, reliable or unreliable if students do not have experts in the field guiding them. Since the Internet has been used for free exchange of ideas and information based on freedom of speech, internet users have the right to share and receive any information without experts’ reviews or censorship by the government (American Library Association, 2005). With immeasurable and unstructured information available on the Internet, students need professors, now more than ever, to teach them how to discriminate the good or the bad information or how to become critical thinkers. The main question today is how college professors provide the best education to students whether it is online or not online. They have to think about skills that their students will need for the 21st Century. If Moore’s law (Moore, 1965) is still true for the next decade, how do college professors provide up-to-date, reliable and accurate information to their students that is globally available to the world for every second?

Online Movement

Although many college professors still doubt its efficiency and fear losing human relationships in online education (Bork & Britton, 1998), about 3.1 million college students enrolled in online education in the academic year of 2000-2001. Eighty two percent of those enrolled in credit-granting distance education courses were at the undergraduate level (NCES, 2003). Main features that have appealed to many professors and college students are flexibility and accessibility for students and professors, anytime and anywhere. Forty five percent of all the 2- and 4-year institutions in the study reported that one of many reasons that the institutions offered online education was because these institutions received requests to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. For those institutions that did not offer online education, development cost was the main factor that prevented them from the expansion of online education (NCES, 2003).

At the 2003 Sloan Consortium, E. Allen and J. Seaman predicted that online education would continue to grow at a rate of close to 20% annually. This newfound popularity is due to the many mature and motivated students who have the ability to study independently; and to the faculty’s daily exposures to email and the Web (Kearsley, 2000). Six years later, in their Seventh Annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning, E. Allen, and J. Seaman, (2009) reveal that online enrollment rose by nearly 17 percent with over 4.6 million students taking at least one online course during the fall 2008 semester. This growth for online enrollments far exceeds the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population. What does it mean for college professors? Whether online or not online, what skills should college professors prepare their students for the 21st Century?


An online eSurvey was sent to all faculty members at a state college in Massachusetts via the campus e-mail system with a link to a web-based survey hosted by the college Information Technology Division. The term “online education” was defined as the instructional medium in which college professors and students connect via computers, modems and the Internet. Like many other campuses around the nation, this state college in Massachusetts has adopted BlackBoard where professors can post handouts, syllabi, PowerPoint slideshows, multimedia content and student grades via the online grade-book, as well as hold synchronous and asynchronous discussions, or organize group space for collaborative projects, and receive completed assignments from students via the Digital DropBox, etc. With support from the User Support & Academic Services within the Information Technology Division, many professors have adopted BlackBoard for their teaching, ranging from supporting tools for their classrooms to 100% online. The research question focused on how professors utilized the technology and what skills the professors believed their students should have in preparation for the 21st Century.

Results and Discussions


Based on responses from 70 professors who filled out the eSurvey, 61% were female professors, 47% assistant professors, 20% associate professors, and 33% full professors (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Demographic of 70 Participants


Figure 2: Gender and Rank of 70 Participants


Figure 3: Rank of 70 Participants

In reviewing gender within ranks, the result showed that 54% were female assistant professors, 71% female associate professors, and 64% female full professors who participated (See Figure 2). From the numbers, it could be inferred that female professors across ranks were more interested than male professors in sharing their thoughts with regard to online education. In analyzing responses based on rank, the result showed that 47% responses were from assistant professors in comparison to 20% from associate professors and 33% from full professors (See Figure 3). The result also indicated that more female than male professors reported the use of an online courseware management system such as BlackBoard. Given that this is a self selected group, further study is needed for more insightful interpretation of why more female than male as well as more assistant professors than associate or full professor were willing to respond to an online survey.

Features of an Online Courseware Management System

In surveying different features of an online courseware management system, 62% of participants reported that online education enhanced their communication with students, and that Announcements, Course Documents, Syllabus, Discussion Boards, Emails, Faculty Information and Office Hours features were their best choices. They also believed that online education has both positive and negative impact in their teaching styles. For example, a professor wrote “More things spelled out online” or “Can give more assignments in an online course.” However, “Facial expressions are very important in a language classroom. There is no way to reproduce that in a virtual setting,” wrote another. In spite of this lack facial expression or non-verbal cues, many professors believed that with immeasurable information available into the 21st Century, online education will enhance student learning abilities in, “analyzing information that they are confronted with, challenging it and seeing if it makes sense,” and “collaborating across groups to achieve social justice and peace,” wrote another professor.

Of the 38% participants who reported not using any of these online courseware management systems, 30% of them reported that they did not have time to learn and wished to have a course reduction for learning, another 48% asked for some training system, whereas 12% showed no interest or acceptance of these tools.

Utilization of an Online Courseware Management System

For those who have used an online courseware management system, 60% of them reported that they have had the benefit of using Announcements, 60% Course Documents, 54% Syllabus, 44% Discussion Boards, 44% Emails, 42% Faculty Information and Office Hours, 27% Grade Book, 27% Course Statistic, 23% Digital Drop Box, 23% Group Pages, and 14% Real-Time or Synchronous Conference (See Figure 4).

Motivation for professors to move their courses to online or hybrid format (partly online and partly face-to-face) not only saves papers but also enables professors to connect to students anytime and anywhere. For example, posting their syllabi and course documents onto Syllabus and Course Documents helps professors not only save time and paper from copying, but also cuts down distress for students who missed a class or misplaced their syllabi or handouts. Professors also found advantages of posting class announcements online not only in keeping students informed of class events and requirements, but also in saving the professors themselves from sending students emails that sometimes could be lost in cyber space.


Figure 4: BlackBoard tools that professors used for their courses

The Discussion Board feature has also been commonly reported as an effective tool for class and group discussions. By posting questions online for discussions, students would have time to think thoroughly or to see how others respond to questions before posting their own answers. This explains why professors reported using Discussion Board helps “non-talkers talk.”

The least favorite feature of a courseware management system is the Synchronous Discussion or chat function.

How Teaching Style Changed

Out of 46 professors who responded to the question of how their teaching style changed from face-to-face to virtual classroom, 76% would say, “Less human spontaneity and inter-personal grappling with the subtleties of ideas,” or “”For hands on interaction, a video would need to be made and would be very time consuming. Also feedback about questions would not be immediate.” Many professors negated the online environment because “Virtual classrooms are definitely more visually oriented. The personality of a teacher does not translate in the same manner virtually as it does live. Written communication becomes a premium in the virtual medium. The difficulty that we all face is not sounding ‘terse’ in our written communications since this can cause emotional misunderstanding at times.”

On the other hand, some professors believed that online learning enhanced their teaching because they could save their notes for students to review later at their convenience. One professor articulated his positive analysis toward online learning because the online course “becomes more varied with more tools at hand.” Others explained, “You have to be very precise with instructions, policies, etc. You have to be very precise with the use of language and messaging as nuances of tone, body, language, etc., since these are part of face-to-face communications that cannot be discerned online.”

When asked how professors translated their content from face-to-face to virtual classroom, out of 35 professors who responded to this question, 46% did not know how because “I don’t know yet. I need some information on that” or “I am simply going paperless and requiring students to work online.” Some professors would say, “I have no idea. But for anything that I post, it is usually a Word or PowerPoint document, or a URL” or “I would not teach in a virtual classroom.” Forty percent suggested: “More illustrations, verbal examples, more humor” or “I use topics from lectures as discussion points in forums on BlackBoard, in hopes that they will spark discussion on the Internet for which there is no opportunity in a lecture setting. Perhaps, though, my most productive use of BlackBoard is that I can prepare presentation graphics and text which I would normally take class time to put on the board by hand. These presentations can include graphics with better detail and no lecture time is taken up in posting them.” One professor described how as, “I assign chapters from the text and also find weekly lab assignments (that use the Internet) to supplement the text. For instance, if students are learning about supply and demand, I would assign the chapter to read, and then give a lab assignment that sends them to the McDonald’s web site to answer the question: ‘In what ways is McDonald’s trying to increase the demand for its product?’ Students answers could include Happy Meal promotions, community service projects described there, etc.” Another professor would caution others as, “The visual and written become critical for communication in the virtual setting. Statements that are made verbally in the live classroom now are written. This causes the aural learner to be at a disadvantage.” Fourteen percent of the teachers used BlackBoard as an aid to their teaching such as “I have students use Discussion Boards as much as possible to make up for the lack of face-to-face time” or “I meet with my classes also. Content delivery is not a problem.”

When asked if professors noticed any difference in building a virtual learning community versus face-to-face classroom meetings, out of 33 professors, 76% answered yes with equally positive and negative difference. Those who believed that using a virtual learning community would make be a better tool would say, “I can make non-talkers talk,” “Keeping students motivated” or “There is much more electronic communication, which, for some students, is a big plus, both in terms of learning style and time availability.” But these professors also mentioned that building better online learning environments would rely on “Well-structured courses with clear expectations.” On the other hand, others would say “There is less of a sense of community for an online course” because “Interaction is slow. In a face-to-face setting, ten students and I can exchange twenty views in the course of two minutes, with ultimate flexibility to allow interruption for clarification. Online would take literally days, not to mention contribute to my carpal tunnel problems through all that typing.” For the twenty-four percent who responded to no difference expressed regret such as “Sorry, I don’t have enough experience in teaching online to address this” or “I’m still a novice.”

When asked if professors noticed any impact on student achievement via online courseware management systems, out of 49 professors, 61% said no and 39% yes. For those who said yes, 80% believed that these tools enhanced student learning such as “I am getting more questions from my students because I can assign more homework on a regular basis. I can use the courseware to mange receiving student solutions, grading the solutions and providing feedback on the submissions” or “With more personal interaction, more personal investment, some students’ grades go up.” On the contrary, some professors would say “grades seem to go down, but it’s not the fault of the medium” or “less knowledgeable about aural class focus (which is, of course, critical in music classes).”

When asked which factors would limit the success of using an online courseware management system, out of 54 professors, 38% referred to socio-economic, 31% others, 22% culture and 7% gender. For those who cited socio-economic as reasons expressed their concerns as “Those who can’t afford the technology will have little experience when they finally do get online,” or “If students do not have access to computers or the Internet, it could be a problem.” On the other hand, some professors would argue that “Given the available computing resources on campus, as long as I give students a reasonable amount of time to plan for the use of those resources, the lack of computer resources at home or in a dorm room is not a valid excuse for missing an online assignment or activity.” Others disagreed with this argument as “Not everyone has unlimited hours for access. This might constrict those who work, for example, and cannot have the Internet access after hours. These people might not own personal computers.” Classes and race became an issue as some professors would say, “People who live in oppression—even economic oppression are dealing with many factors that make their lives complex and confusing. They are less likely to take the risks involved in learning new technologies. My graduate students, many of them single parents, have very busy lives and numerous responsibilities… Technology and learning to use technologies are considered luxury items beyond their reach.” Those who mentioned other factors cited age or maturity, reading and writing, time management and technical skills were main factors. Those who believed culture was a factor said: “some cultures are more face-to-face, and reject these innovations” while others disagreed: “I have been to many different countries, and the students there are usually well versed in getting information off the internet, so, to me, that ruled out culture.” Those who cited gender as a factor would say: “Men tend to be better, more confident users of computers than women” while others would disagree! “I know a number of tech experts who are female” or “I think a virtual environment reduces gender differences.”

Online Education into the 21st Century

When asked what skills professors believed their students should have in preparation for the 21st Century. Forty-six professors who responded to this question suggested:

  1. People skills: They were concerned, “About students learning people skills – I feel that these are declining;” therefore, students should be taught more about “e-mail etiquette,” “Taking each other’s perspective” or “More focused on human teamwork.” One professor even suggested “Howard Gardner’s 7 intelligences… As human beings our developmental needs are the same. However, in terms of interacting, we should prepare students to be able to communicate in many media.” Intra-personal intelligence should also be emphasized as a professor wrote “learn who they are, where they come from, what their goals and aspirations are. Basically, what are our students’ needs and how can we help them achieve their goals to the best of our abilities? In addition, what do we think students should be exposed to in order to make them well-rounded, worldly, and complete human beings, capable of independent thought, personal expression, reasoning, and decision-making in our multi-cultural society?”

  2. Analytical and critical thinking skills: Students should have the “Ability to analyze information that they are confronted with, to challenge it and see if it makes sense” or “Better understanding of ‘them’ and the others in the global equation. Promoting something I have called ‘The Abers’ Five Minute News Hour’ at the beginning of a BSC/Regulations and Law course I teach. I am amazed how little our students understand or care about both the facts and the Ethics of current events.” Some professors even suggested “They should be adaptable to any work or career situation and not be wedded to a single way of doing anything.”

  3. Reading and writing skills: These professors believed that, “Our students need these skills to converse online” or “All students should be able to read and analyze written texts. They should be able to write and speak clearly, and in an organized manner.”

  4. Technology skills: These professors believed that their “Students should be computer literate” or “students should be able to do the basics of word processing, sending emails, finding information on the web, and using programs that are relevant to their field (such as statistical packages in a research field). They should also be able to access the credibility of their sources and be aware of the importance of giving credit for information obtained on the web.” One professor wrote “technology is part of every profession, so students should use it at college.”

When asked what professors should do in preparation for teaching their students into the 21st Century, most professors would say that “Educators need to keep up to date with changes
(as relevant to our respective fields) so that we can convey the best education possible to our students” or “Just as in any other period, keep abreast of advancements.” Others would say “In preparation, educators need to rethink what learning is, and adjust teaching to meet it” or “Educators need to work with students with any eye on exploration and imagination. They need to be computer literate and critical thinkers, able to use their imaginations to see the significance of ‘reaching beyond time and space.” One professor, however, warned that “we should, and in fact, must familiarize ourselves with technological resources, but be certain that we recognized them as just that: resources to be exploited, and not a replacement for good teaching.”

E-Learning Into the 21st Century

As Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2009) confirmed, the growth of online education far exceeds the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population, and online education will continue to grow at a rate of close to 17% annually. Obviously, we are standing at a crossroads just like when the first airplane was introduced at the time that people traveled on wagons and trains. We have to decide to go one way or another, but we cannot turn the clock back to the Industrial Age when information was contained by experts or authorities, jobs required a fixed set of skills and were dominated by large corporations. Teaching and learning in the Information Age requires different skill sets and thinking models because everyone can get access to vast information and can make more informed decisions. Since information is power, corporations need knowledge workers who are also life-long students. As Rosenberg (2001, p. 311) concluded, E-Learning will soon become commonplace like e-business. There will no longer be a need to differentiate ‘e’ from ‘non-e’”.


Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2003). Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States 2002 and 2003. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved on April 27, 2010 from

Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2009). Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United State 2009. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved on April 27, 2010 from

American Library Association (2005). “Access to electronic information, services, and networks.” Retrieved on April 8th, 2010 from

Bork, A. & Britton. Jr. D. (1998). “The Web Is Not Suitable for Learning.” Internet Watch, 115-116, June

Kearsley, G. (2000). Online Education – Learning and Teaching in Cyberspace. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

Liu, Y. (2005). Effects of Online Instruction vs. Traditional Instruction on Students’ Learning. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Vol. 2, No. 3. Retrieved on April 8th, 2010 from

Meyer, K. (2002). “Quality in Distance Education. ERIC Digest” in ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC. ERIC Identifier: ED470542. Based on the ASHE-ERIC Report of the same title, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers, a John-Wiley company (see ED 470 042).

Moore, Gordon E. (1965). Cramming more components onto integrated circuits. Electronics Magazine. V38, No.8. Retrieved on April 8th, 2010 from

Rosenberg, M. (2001). E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Co.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrant. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001.

About the Author

Thanh Nguyen

Thanh T. Nguyen is a tenured professor and graduate coordinator in the Instructional Technology program at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She received both of her master and doctoral degrees from Harvard University.




Assistant Professor: The entry-level rank for full-time tenure-track faculty members who have a Ph.D. in the USA and Canadian universities.

Associate Professor: The second-level rank for full-time tenure-track faculty members who have been granted tenure and promotion.

Full Professor: The highest rank that a professor can achieve.

Digital Natives: A person who was born and grown up with digital technology such as computers, the Internet, mobile phones, MP3s, etc.

Information Age: The period of widespread of information available electronically to people through the cable networks, computer and mobile technology.

Online education: Instructional medium in which professors and students connect via computers, modems and the Internet.

Online curriculum: Course is designed for online classroom, and must be different from the course designed for a traditional face-to-face classroom.

Online discussion: Discussions via chat room, discussion board, webcam, or email.

Traditional classroom: The professor teaches or lectures to the students present, face-to-face, in a traditional live classroom.

Non-verbal cues: A way to communicate through facial expression, eye contact, gesture, body language or posture, paralanguage, humor, etc.

Learning community: Participants are actively engaged in learning together and from each other. Even if they do not always share common values and beliefs, they still can share and discuss their beliefs in a safe environment and learn among themselves.

URL: Abbreviation of Uniform Resource Locator that locates the web address of and retrieves documents and other resources on the World Wide Web.

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