July 31, 2005

The Positive and Challenging Aspects of Learning Online and in Traditional Face-to-Face Classrooms: A Student Perspective

Growth in online enrollment of college courses increased from 19.8% in 2003 to 24.8% in 2004. With the continued investments in online course development and a consumer desire for flexible 24/7 learning, there is no evidence that enrollment rates will slow. Likewise, in the area of teacher preparation, alternative certification programs continue to increase across the United States supplementing if not replacing traditional teacher education programs. In many instances, these programs feature online supplements or provide the course entirely online. With the continued growth in online/alternative certification programs for teacher preparation, it is critical we gain a better understanding in the effectiveness of online learning specific to special education teacher preparation. This issue's column offers an examination of one university's attempt to measure its effectiveness in online delivery.


Technology capabilities have led the way to new and recently popular course formats in higher education that involve online instruction, in which the instructor and students do not see each other face-to-face, but interact via a discussion board or email. Online course content has multiple components and is typically available on the Internet in written, photographic, video, and/or audio arrangements. However, due to the fact that this type of learning environment has only been available on campuses for a decade or so, the number of empirical studies examining online pedagogy is still limited, particularly in terms of teacher preparation programs for special education teachers.

Some of the more recent studies about distance education, including online classes, have examined student and instructor satisfaction and the academic advantages or disadvantages of the courses (Beard &. Harper, 2002,- Beattie, Spooner, Jordan, Magazine, & Spooner, 2002,- Chester & Gwynne, 1998,- Hagje & Hughes, 2003). In a study conducted by Hagie and Hughes, the participants in an online special education methods class indicated that they found the class effective in terms of learning the course content (i.e., classroom management strategies). In addition, the participants found that the asynchronous online discussion promoted personal and professional self-reflection. Moreover, some of the students reported that they actually learned more course content than outlined in the syllabus objectives. This was due in part, to the content learned from interacting with classmates using the discussion component of the online course. In the Beattie et al. study, no differences were found in course and instructor evaluations of the same special education methods class offered in both traditional face-to-face formats and in distance learning formats (e.g., two-way interactive television and Web-based instruction). Chester and Gwynne explored questions about increased freedom to interact online when the classmates were not known or observed. They examined the issues for students enrolled in an online course who were assigned aliases and had no opportunities to see or interact with their peers in person. They found that students experienced more confidence in the online course than in faceto-face classes, and two-thirds of them interacted more in the online environment. Beard and Harper found that students enrolled in a combination online and traditional course indicated no significant differences in their preferences between either types of learning environment. In addition, they reported that they would take another online course in the future. Lastly, some indicated that they were troubled by the lack of interaction with the instructor and peers in the online section of the class.

In light of this past research and the inherent curiosity for more empirical data in the area of Web-based pedagogy, this study examined the benefits and challenges of both online and traditional face-to-face course formats. We were particularly interested in students' perspectives about the methods courses in a special education teacher training credential program. The four specific research questions that guided this study were:

1. Question One: What are the positive aspects of online classes?

2. Question Two: What are the positive aspects of traditional face-to-face classes?

3. Question Three: What are the challenges of online classes?

4. Question Four: What are the challenges of traditional face-to- face classes?


Course Description

The target class, "EDSE 179: Managing Behavior and Emotional Problems of Exceptional Children" was offered during each of three semesters at San Jose State University in an Internet-based (i.e., online) format. The second author designed the online class, and taught the course utilizing identical format and pedagogy for each of the three semesters. This instructor taught EDSE 179 online for two semesters prior to this study, and taught face-to-face classes in the special education teacher credential program for eleven years. Course requirements remained the same and the standards for this course include mastery of skills for developing positive behavioral support plans, social skills curricula, and collaboration skills amongst team members.

The online section of EDSE 179 consisted of weekly WebCT-based modules in which students were required to (a) complete assigned reading from the texts, (b) read a brief keypoint explanation, (c) participate in a small discussion group online to complete an assignment, and (d) address a topic by posting in the discussion group and responding to comments from peers. Examples of the weekly online discussion topics in the online section of EDSE 179 were (a) antecedents, consequences and setting events for challenging behaviors (b) data collection and baseline information about challenging and alternative behaviors, (c) the function of specific examples of challenging behavior, (d) functional analysis assessment, and (e) the development of positive behavior support plans (see Appendix A: EDSE 179 online class description).

The typical face-to-face course in the teacher preparation program involved short lectures with overhead visual information or PowerPoint presentations, followed by small cooperative group activities in which students discussed issues and developed educational ideas or teaching strategies. The instructors often showed videos to support lectures, and guest speakers from local school districts also provided information in several of the class sessions. The courses previously taken by the participants typically had a range of 25 to 45 students and were located in a traditional classroom setting at a university.


Sixty individuals participated in the study by completing the online section of EDSE 179 in three consecutive semesters in 2002 and 2003. There were 28 students in the course during the spring 2003 semester, 15 students in the fall 2002 semester, and 17 completed the course in the spring 2002 semester. The majority of the individuals were female, enrolled in a special education teacher program, and already teaching with an intern credential or emergency permit. The range of online course experience for the participants was from no experience to four courses. Thirty-eight percent of the participants indicated no previous online course experience and 62% of the participants had taken at least one online course. All individuals in the study had completed at least one traditional face- to-face course at the university (see Table 1 for demographic information about the participants).

Description of Survey

The second author developed an 11-question survey, which contained both open and close-ended questions. Two close-ended questions related to the number of online and traditional face-to- face classes that participants had previously taken in their university program. Three opened-ended questions related to the effectiveness of the discussion component in the online classes and discussion activities in traditional face-to-face classes. Two forced-choice questions related to the participants' level of participation in both traditional face-to-face classes and online classes. This was followed with four open-ended questions relating to specific positive and negative aspects of both types of classes (see Appendix B: Survey about Online Learning).

Table 1.

Demographic Information about Participants

Data Collection Procedures

Students in the online EDSE 179 classes met on campus at the end of the semester, after completion of the online modules and wrote a final project for the course. At the beginning of this session, the instructor distributed the survey and provided instructions. The students were told that completing the survey was voluntary, their responses were anonymous, and that the information would assist the department with future development and improvement of online courses. All students in each class chose to complete the survey, which took approximately 35 to 40 minutes. Participants placed completed surveys facedown on a table as they left the room.


Data Analyses

Both quantitative and qu\alitative analyses were utilized in this study. Specifically, descriptive statistics (i.e., percentage scores) were used to examine the participants responses to two closed-ended and two forced choice type questions. For the remaining seven open-ended questions, the following qualitative process was utilized: (a) responses from common questions on each survey were typed word-for-word, (b) responses were read and re-read, and assigned an initial by categories, so that a more thorough analysis could be made (Cuba & Lincoln, 1981), (c) categories were combined and coded according to like themes to assist in organizing the information (Miles & Huberman, 1984), and (d) percentage scores were obtained and reported for each category. The inter-rater reliability for the coding system was established at a 90% agreement level for all the open-ended questions. One researcher was blind to the study. An inductive reasoning process was followed by the authors to determine the coding system for the categories (Merriam, 1998).

The positive responses of the online classes were analyzed into two categories: (a) logistical (i.e., commuting and traffic) and (b) pedagogical aspects (i.e., teaching and learning styles). The positive responses of traditional or faceto-face classes were coded using the following four categories: (a) structure of traditional class format (i.e., lecture), (b) social/emotional aspects (i.e., socializing with peers) (c) spontaneity (i.e., immediate responses), and (d) physical presence of instructor (i.e., individual attention).

The challenges of traditional face-to-face classes were coded into the following three categories: (a) logistical aspects (i.e., commuting and traffic), (b) pedagogical aspects (i.e., teaching and learning styles), and (c) social/emotional aspects (i.e., talking in front of a group). The challenges of the online classes were coded into the following three categories: (a) time management issues (i.e., weekly requirements), (b) structure of online course format (i.e., teaching and learning styles), and (c) social/emotional aspects (i.e., no contact with real people) (see Appendix C: Code definitions). This article will specifically report the participants' positive and negative perceptions of learning in both traditional and online classes. The findings of this study are presented according to each specific research question.

Research Question 1: What Are the Positive Aspects of Online Classes?

A total of 71 positive responses were coded into two general categories relating either to the logistical or pedagogical aspects of online classes. Of the 71 responses, 76% (n = 54) were pedagogical aspects, and 24% of the responses (n = 17) were logistical aspects. The majority of the positive aspects were identified as pedagogical. That is, 76% (54 of the 71) of the comments identified a variety of positive aspects that related to online teaching and learning styles. The most frequent type of comment (65% or 35 out of the 54) literally related to time or timing aspects of learning online. For example, one student reported, "I can work very late at night and at my own pace." Another group of positive responses related to the social/emotional aspects of learning online. Specifically, 28%, or 15 of the 54, comments referenced ideas such as, "I feel free to make comments," and "non-essential conversation is eliminated." Interestingly enough, only 5% of the comments (3 out of 54) noted the use of a computer and internet as a positive learning experience.

In terms of the logistical responses, 70% (12 of the!7) of the positive comments identified the fact that not commuting or hassling with traffic were important aspects of online learning. Some of the other less frequent positive responses related to not having to go on campus (12% or 2 of the 17 comments), not having to dress for class (12% or 2 of the 17 comments), and enabling one to work fulltime (6% or 1 of the 17 comments).

Research Question 2: What Are the Positive Aspects of Traditional Classes?

A total of 70 positive comments related to learning in traditional or face-to-face classes. It is interesting to note that all of the 70 responses were identified as pedagogical aspects, and none of the comments related to logistical aspects such as commuting or campus life. Specifically, 43% (30 out of 70) of the positive aspects related to the preference of learning in a lecture format and having an established time to meet each week. Another frequent set of responses found that 37% (26 out of 70) related to the social/ emotional aspects of learning in traditional classes. For example, one student reported, "you get the emotion and feeling behind comments," in a traditional class. Another stated that, "getting to know people'" is a positive aspect," of traditional class formats. Spontaneity and instructor availability features were reported less often as positive aspects of traditional learning. That is, 20% (14 of the 70) of the comments identified spontaneity or immediate feedback from both peers and instructors as an important aspect of traditional classes. Lastly, only 13% (9 of the 70) of the comments related to instructor availability such as having the opportunity for one-on-one time with instructor.

Research Question 3: What Are the Challenging Aspects of Online Classes?

A total of 67 challenges were identified by the 60 participants in this study. Thirty-six percent of the comments (24 out of 67) related to time management issues of online learning. In some instances, participants often reported that the expectations for the weekly assignments couldn't be completed in a week, and that the pacing of completing all the weekly individual and group discussion aspects of the course was difficult. Others reported a more general concern; they had difficulty managing their work and family schedules in order to complete the required online course work.

Another important challenge noted by the participants related to the pedagogy of online learning itself. That is, 34% (23 of the 67) of the comments identified issues such as either not enough feedback from instructor or peers in the discussion groups, or lack of immediate feedback from either the instructor or their group members. For example, one student reported, "If you don't understand something, it is hard to meet with the instructor face-to-face or over the phone to talk about it." Lastly, 26% (14 of the 67) of the challenging responses related to the social/emotional aspects of the participants. Many reported that they did have enough personal contact with either their classmates or the instructor. Some also commented on the fact that they had problems with their group members that were difficult to resolve using the online format. One student reported, "Sometimes group discussion or group work can be very frustrating if someone is not doing their share." Another similarly responded with, "Having to work in groups that are not helpful; it's extra work because you are not meeting in person."

Research Question 4: What Are the Challenging Aspects of Traditional On-campus Classes?

A total of 57 challenges were reported by 60 participants as negative aspects of learning in traditional face-to-face classes. It was interesting to note that the majority of responses or 56% (32 out of 57) of them related to the logistical aspects of getting to campus such as commuting, parking problems, and traffic issues. However, a substantial amount of responses or 33% (19 out of 57) of them also related to the learning format in traditional classes. That is, participants often reported they had more prep work for their weekly classes, and they did not learn from the typical lecture style format. Lastly, 10% of the comments (6 out of 57) identified different social/emotional aspects of traditional learning as a challenge. Participants often reported such problems as "personality clashes", or "It's hard for me to talk in class" or "I'm too shy to participate."


Some reasons for the increased online design of special education teacher training courses in higher education could include possible reduction of teacher shortages (California State University, 1996) and convenience to teacher candidates (Hagie & Hughes, 2003). It seems that faculty members are now, more than ever, designing online coursework in an effort to prepare more teachers, and to ease the burden of the commute and the time necessary to attend traditional face-to-face classes. Thus, those candidates interested in teaching students with disabilities and who live too far from a university teacher preparation program, now have more choices and can take classes and even entire programs online from their homes. Interestingly enough, participants in this study did not identify the convenience of not driving nor commuting as the most positive aspects of online education. Actually, less than one-fourth of the positive aspects of online classes related either to not commuting or not having to go to campus, while three-fourths of the positive responses had to do more with the format of online learning (e.g., working at their own pace, more time to reflect, and less pressure). As might be expected, over half of the challenges of traditional face-to-face classes were identified as the commute to campus and parking issues. Thus, it appears in this study that the challenges of the traditional face-to-face classes are similar to the positive aspects of the online classes.

In terms of traditional face-to-face classroom environments, all of the positive responses related to pedagogy. That is, the participants reported that the structure of class time, the opportunity for immediate responses from the instructor and peers, and social emotional aspects were all positive features of traditional face-to-face classes. This is consistent with the results of a study by Beard and Harper (2002) whereby the students in both \online and traditional face-to-face settings had a concern about the absence of interactions with the instructor and peers in the online portion of class.

Another major finding in this study indicated that students' learning styles accounted for many of the positive aspects and challenges of both class formats. For example, "it fit my learning style" was a common positive aspect identified for both the online and in traditional face-to-face classes. Moreover, the participants in this study also used a variety of ways to structure their learning and studying time with both online and traditional face-to- face class formats. For example, the notion of time management, whether structured or unstructured, was reported as positive in both traditional face-to-face and online learning environments. That is, some participants like the structure of the day and time found in the traditional on campus classes, whereas others seem to prefer structuring their own class time around their personal schedules. Howell (2001) also examined the structure of online learning environments and suggested the importance of incorporating attention to diverse learning styles into the course. She concluded that... "Perhaps new leaders of technology will find ways to tap into individual differences to help create meaningful courses that really make a difference" (p. 90).

Interestingly enough, the challenges reported by the participants in this study appeared to be quite diverse between the two learning environments of traditional face-to-face and online classes. Regarding the traditional face-to-face classes, the participants reported logistical reasons such as commuting and parking issues as the most significant challenges for them. In addition, over one third of the challenges related to the traditional class structure, the lectures, and the need to be prepared for class. However, the pedagogical challenges reported for online learning appeared different in nature compared to challenges of traditional face-to- face classes. For example, the participants reported both the pacing of the weekly assignments and asynchronous learning as the most challenging aspects of online learning courses.

The participants also reported a set of social communication challenges that related to the lack of interpersonal and synchronous feedback online and difficulty problem solving among group members online. Others also found in their studies that the lack of social interactions with instructors and fellow students were identified concerns when examining the advantages and disadvantages of online classes (Beard & Harper, 2002; Gunawardena, 1995; Liang & McQueen, 1999). Hara and Kling (1999) investigated students' frustrations with online coursework and found that the lack of immediate feedback from the course instructor contributed significantly to the challenges to the online format. The notion of being an insider, or experiencing the feeling of being part of an online class was identified by Wegerif (1998) as an important feature for students' success in online courses.


Several limitations could have impacted the outcomes of this study. First, the participants in the study were self-selected and non-random. secondly, this study was an exploratory one where we were interested in examining a type of course format, and we did not utilize an experimental control group. Lastly, the findings were based on students' perceptions of the positive and challenging aspects of a variable number of online and traditional face-to-face behavior management classes. In light of these limitations, we recommend that generalizations be made with caution.


In sum, this study was an initial examination of the positive aspects and challenges in both online and traditional face-to-face behavior management classes. We recommend that future research focus on (a) examination of diverse groups of students and course format options, and (b) optimal course structures for instruction in university special education teacher training programs. Perhaps, a hybrid version of a special education course that incorporates both online instruction and traditional classroom time might address some of the advantages and challenges noted in this study.


Beard, L. A., & Harper, C. (2002). Student perceptions of online versus on campus instruction. Education, 122, 658-664.

Beattie, J., Spooner, F.; Jordan, L, Algozzine, B., &. Spooner, M. (2002). Evaluating instruction in distance learning classes. Teacher Education and Special Education, 25, 124-132.

California State University, Institute for Education Reform. (1996, September). A state of emergency... in a state of emergency teachers. Retrieved January 15, 2002, from the Institute for Education Reform Web site: http://www. csus.edu/ier/emergency.html.

Chester, A., & Gwynne, G. (1998). Online teaching: Encouraging collaboration through anonymity. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 4 (2), 1-10.

Cuba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1981). Effective evaluation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Gunawardena, C. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction and collaborative learning in computer conferences. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, I (2/3), 147-166.

Hagje, C., & Hughes, M. (2003). A close look at the discussion component in an online special education class. Chulalongkom Educational Review, 9 (2), 40-51.

Hara, N., & Kling, R. (1999). Students' frustrations with a webbased distance education course. First Monday, 4(12), Retrieved July 16, 2003, from http://www.fostmonday.dk// issues/issue4_ 12/ hara/index/html

Howell, D. (2001). Elements of effective e-learning. College Teaching, 49(3), 87-91.

Liang, A., & McQueen, R. J. (1999). Computer assisted adult interactive learning in a multi-cultural environment. Adult Learning, 26-29.

Merriam, S. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Newbury Park: SAGE Publications.

Wegerif, R. (1998). The social dimension of asynchronous learning networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 21. Retrieved July 19, 2003, from htC:/Avww.aln.org/pubh'cations/jaln/v2nl/ v2nl_wegerif.asp

Guest Columnists: Margaret Hughes and Chris Hagie, San Jose State University


Online Course Requirements

1. Read approximately one chapter each week from two textbooks.

2. Weekly posting of a comment in a discussion area (asynchronous) in which all class members add comments or questions that reflect upon a specific assigned topic.

3. Post at least three responses to peers' postings in discussion area.

4. Respond to an assignment that requires discussion with a small group (3 to 4 students) in an online discussion area that leads to a final brief paper summarizing the discussion that is emailed to the instructor.

5. Behavior Assessment paper about an actual case known by the student or provided by the instructor.

6. Behavior Intervention Plan based on the Behavior Assessment information.

7. One of the following: a paper summarizing the development of a Class Wide Plan for classroom management, or an Interview of a special education teacher and classroom observation.

8. Midterm examination online that requires short answers to questions about case studies and actual situations about children and their behavior.

9. Collaborative Functional Analysis Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan that is completed on site (face-to-face) in a small group.


Survey About Online Learning

Semester: _____ Class: _____

1. How many online classes have you taken before the current class? _____

2. How many on-site (face-to-face) classes have you taken? _____

3. What did you learn from the online discussion?

4. Comment about the effectiveness of the online discussion.

5. Compare online discussion with on site or face-to-face discussion in classes. Comment about the discussion format from which you learned the most.

6. How often do you typically participate (comment aloud, ask questions, etc) in onsite, or face-to-face classes?

_____ more than 4 comments in each class

_____ between 2 and 4 comments in each class

_____ between 1 and 2 comments in each class

_____ I don't usually talk aloud in classes

7.Do you typically participate in small group activities in on site or face-to-face classes?

_____ I always participate in small groups

_____ I contribute a little in small groups

_____ I generally let others take the lead in small groups,-1 don't like small group work

8. What are the positive aspects of online classes?

9. What are the challenges of online classes?

10. What are the positive aspects of on site or face-to-face classes?

11. What are the challenges of on site or face-to-face classes?


Coding descriptions of positive and challenging aspects of learning in online and traditional environments

The positive aspects of the online classes

1. Logistical: Any item relating to commuting, traffic, and/or parking.

2. Pedagogical: Any item relating to teaching and/or learning styles.

The positive aspects of traditional face-to-face classes

1. Structure of traditional class format: Any item relating to lectures, on-campus class structure, and/or learning styles.

2. Social/emotional: Any item relating to interpersonal communication and/or emotional relations with peers.

3. Spontaneity: Any item relating to immediate feedback from peers and instructor.

4. Instructor presence: Any item relating to physical presence, individual attention and/or assistance from instructor.

The challenges of traditional face-to-face classes

1. Logistical: Any item relating to commuting, traffic, and/or parking.

2. Pedagogical: Any item relating to teaching and/or learning styles.

3. Social/emotional: Any item relating to interpersonal communication and/or emot\ional relations with peers.

The challenges of the online classes

1. Time management: Any item relating to pace of class, weekly requirements.

2. Structure of online course format: Any item relating to distance learning, class structure, teaching and/or learning styles.

3. Social/emotional: Any item relating to interpersonal communication and/or emotional relations with peers.

Copyright Journal of Special Education Technology Spring 2005