After the presentations given at our workshop on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery we broke up into several groups to discuss the issues involved.  This proved to be a highly useful exercise. One part of that conversation focused on the problem of students having no face to face contact on online only courses and whether or not there are any ways to get around that.  It was generally decided that it is best to have some kind of face-to-face contact as student groups gel better and trust one-another more once they have met in person.  Where this is not possible careful use of virtual classrooms and forum discussions were considered a way forward (although far from perfect).  It was also highlighted that there is a considerable difference between long and short courses in this regard. 

i.          Virtual Classrooms

A virtual classroom makes use of microphones, webcams and conversation tools on an online environment to create a virtual representation of a classroom.  At its heart it is just a more complex conference call (such as can be achieved through Skype) with additional tools.  There is usually a whiteboard where tutors can upload slide shows and pdf’s and scribble notes.  Students can communicate with other students or with the tutor through the use of a text chat function or as audio through a microphone.  The Open University, for example, uses Elluminate (now owned by Blackboard) as their virtual classroom.  They have found that in general virtual classrooms works best with small groups of ten or less – otherwise there is too much noise and loses cohesion.  Although virtual classrooms can provide an excellent ‘live’ session it is more difficult to control and run smoothly than a traditional face-to-face tutorial. 

ii.         Forum Discussions

Forums have become an essential part of many online courses.  The group however generally viewed them as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than a useful tool.  It was felt that it is too easy for learners to lose track of a thread or to be overwhelmed or annoyed where there is too many forums to follow.  Forums require constant supervision and moderation as discussions can easily become unintentionally aggressive and argumentative and comments can easily be misconstrued. This leads to a lot of work for the moderator.  However, forums were still considered a useful way forward if used well.  Forums can deliver general chat as well as directed discussion and even those that do not contribute will gain something from following the threads.  Shy people who might not contribute in a face-to-face situation might be more willing to say what they think in this environment and students in general might be more willing to challenge each other.