But it wouldn't be accurate or fair to pretend that Web conferencing is always the best option or that it is always the best way to reach students and deliver online instruction. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that Web conferencing provides some barriers for students and instructors, which must be recognized and overcome for a successful experience and for effective instruction to take place. For example, I just previewed an article in the June 2013 Journal of Computing Sciences in College entitled, "Under What Conditions Does Web Conferencing Inhibit Learning in a Computer Science Classroom?" The authors - Jami Cotler of Siena College and Dima Kassab and Xiaojun Yuan of SUNY-Albany - drew conclusions from two lectures (one delivered face-to-face and one delivered online via Web conferencing) and students' reactions to the experience of these lectures. I'll reserve comment on the methodology or validity of this study, but I'm interested in the students' perceptions.
Distractions. In the Cotler study, 31% of the students reported problems with distractions during the virtual lecture. The nature of these distractions were not disclosed, but we can guess that they may have involved the typical distractions online students encounter: e-mail messages, tweets, Facebook posts, instant messages, and other Web excursions. It may also be that these students found the Web conferencing interface itself distracting, with its chat window, video, whiteboard, etc. The face-to-face classroom also has distractions, of course, but eye contact with the instructor is often inhibition enough for students to block them off and pay attention to the lecturer.
To help students overcome these distractions, the experienced Confer instructor gives guidelines to students before their first online class session and even at the beginning of the session. Disable notifications from your online applications (noises, signals, pop-ups): they will interfere with your concentration. Some instructors even provide specific instructions for turning off, say, Facebook notifications. And, while the class is meeting online, it's good practice to keep the students alert by mixing up the delivery.
Engagement. Cotler's students reported that they were 38% less engaged in the virtual classroom than in the face-to-face environment. Oddly, though, 88% "felt they were able to participate during the [Web conferencing] lecture" and 56% "felt highly engaged in the course materials and the course activities" in the online classroom. So the perception of less engagement may have been related to distractions or some other subjective factor. Many (69%) of the students reported "less connection to the instructor" when using the virtual classroom. However, they reported using the whiteboard and chat features, and most of the students claimed to have reached out to either another student or the instructor during the online session.
We know from long experience that keeping students engaged in the virtual classroom is more challenging than in the traditional environment. You can't see all of your students, and you're not going to be able to validate all of their behavior all of the time. Your sense of control online is compromised because of the distance between you and the "desks" in front of you. But you can keep students engaged by doing some extra work: preparing breaks in which students provide examples, express opinions, or vote on issues. Work in assessments or chat activities, and use breakout rooms to divide a large class into manageable small groups where it's harder for students to hide or let others do all the work. Several of my blog posts provide examples of these strategies.
Unfamiliarity with Technology. I was surprised to read in Cotler's study that unfamiliarity with technology accounted for only 13% of the reported problems with the virtual classroom. Half of all the students "stated that it was convenient and that they like that they could remain in the comfort of their home," and an amazing 81% reported "feeling less stressed about tasks accomplished during the [Web conferencing] session in comparison to the face-to-face session." So technophobia (or at least fear of synchronous online interaction), while not dead, is on the wane with today's students.
It's a good idea to orient students to the virtual classroom before you make them do something in it. This can happen during a "practice" session, in a "sandbox" (we offer several on the CCC Confer Web site), or via training materials (videos, slides, documents) you provide for them. Given these results and the increasing popularity of synchronous online rooms (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.), it may be just as important that you orient yourself to the virtual classroom and feel comfortable showing its features to your students.
What doesn't work in the virtual classroom? Mainly, not having a plan to use it!