Home » E-Learning » What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a Virtual Classroom with post-secondary school students starting or already studying sociology compared to a traditional classroom?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a Virtual Classroom with post-secondary school students starting or already studying sociology compared to a traditional classroom?

Is there an opportunity to increase access?

They’re testing the water, so seeing what would happen.

What is the sector and setting? (e.g. school, higher education, training, informal learning)

Sociology in undergraduate introductory and undergraduate upper levels at two very different and contrasting institutions Upsala College and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT)

Upsala was small liberal arts college that became defunct in 1995 after several years of financial problems. ‘Unfortunately as the surrounding community’s crime rate increased, the student enrollment at the college declined throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s’.

NJIT is  technology university with 1450 living on campus, at ‘University Heights’ in Newark, New Jersey where four universities are centred.

What theories, concepts and key terms are being used?

  • The hypothesis tested was that there would be no change, or a set of possible changes.
  • The ‘theory’ is that by putting people into a new scenario there will be observations to make and conclusions to draw.
  • Though ‘Some of our major hypotheses are … ’ rather suggests they don’t know what the outcomes might be.
  • Terms used include the early use of ‘e’ as a suffix as as in ‘electure’  for ‘electronic lectures’.
  • ‘Activities’ are still described thus. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 433)
  • NJIT have registered ‘Virtual Classroom’ as a Trade Mark. I find this somewhat rich. I don’t suppose it has stuck. Has it?
  • For “turn to a specific part first” Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 433) we may now say ‘click’.

What methods of data collection and analysis are used? (e.g. the number of participants; the type of technologies; the use of interviews, surveys, observation, etc.)

Matched but ‘non-equivalent’ sections of the same course taught in virtual classroom  and in traditional classroom. There is surely an issue not only with the ‘non-equivalence’ but the fact the the institutions are so different. What took place was in effect two SEPARATE pieces of research, one with a group of first year sociology students at a small, failing college in an area that had a growing crime problem and the second at a vibrant, massive technical college.

Pre and post course questionnaires administered to students (so not self-selecting).

Objective behavioural data (grades, SAT score, records of online activity) gathered. This kind of data would distinguish the two groups as distinct, and the research therefore as two studies.

Differing technologies were used in the institutions. All were surveyed were taken through a questionnaire. Students were asked for detailed written feedback – some from Upsala struggled with this (poor english, grammar, spelling and use of CAPS).

What did this research find out?

‘It depends’. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 441) Their words not mine! It does indeed depend i.e. it is open for interpretation. Mine is that the didn’t discover anything more than could have been observed by an intelligent onlooker, indeed a journalist visiting both sites during the test would have probably given a clearer and more honest account.

  • Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 433) observations – no. From reading 1980s papers.
  • Face to face gravitating to 15 students.
  • Gives time to ‘less advanced students’ (also a personality trait or behavioural response).
  • Absentees
  • Read only
  • Starting to define user types more fully developed in the following decade.
  • ‘Introductory computer science students did significantly better in the Virtual Classroom than in the traditional classroom’. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 436)

The study, not surprisingly, found that second year students in a technology college doing a computer sciences courses did better with the introduction of a new technology in classroom teaching that students in the first year of a sociology course in a part of town with a growing crime problem at a college where enrollment was falling and it was in financial difficulties.

What are the limitations of the methods used?

There were so many variables that the research outcomes are questionable. There needed to be a standardization across the institutions and more institutions involved. There needed to be students at a similar stage, on a similar course, using similar materials, and the same kit from a broad spectrum of institutions, rather than two at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Speculation, ‘there may be an intermediate stage … ‘ Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 434)

  • Regarding the questionnaire, scales need to be used with care so that there construction doesn’t have any bias built into it.
  • There can be question fatigue by those answering.

‘computers and the handicapped’ isn’t an expression we are likely to hear any more.
Resistance of faculty members (need to understand ‘diffusion of innovations and change management)

Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?

Not ethics so much as coy language that may reveal the sentiment of the author when dealing with the ‘less advanced’ and the ‘handicapped’. There is potential with new technologies to offer one audience the ‘kit’ while denying the others.

Would it be ethical to do a randomized controlled trial, for example, on use of a new technology that with the research shows that those with the new technology scored significantly higher. It might be that a student failed for lack of this kind of support. Without such a trial though all you are doing is observing practices and behaviours in different settings – what is the test? Where lies the evidence of something being worse than, or better than what went before? I feel that using acronyms such as VC and TC give a false sense that these things are established.

Revealing of human nature – but care must be taken not to identify those who have one kind of approach to the studies compared to others. Clearly people must not be identified by name. Hiltz and Meinke (1989 p. 442).

However, implicit in the research is that something may not be working at Upsala College – the researchers would have known this but have decided not to mention it at all.

What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?

Not for first year students lacking the maturity, academic or technical skills who may depend on the spoken word and guidance. Recommend for more advanced and mature students who are more self-motivated and can exploit the platform to get more from the professors and each other.

The outcome was highly dependent on the environment in which the study took place.

They got the right answer, but in only came from research undertaken at NJIT.

Upsala College in 1988 was in financial difficulties, with growing crime rates in the immediate area and falling enrolement. In hindsight this would surely invalid this part of the research. It could well be that the circumstances of the students, not that they were in their first year had an impact.

To achieve a balanced result the same year groups should have been questioning in both institutions … or, given the presence of three other universities close to NJTI these should have been engaged in the research.

Such a study needs to be undertaken with a sample that can fairly permit scaling up. In this instance in Newark, on Universities Heights where NJIT is based there are three other universities. A far broader and representative piece of research should have taken place. There was resistance from faculty staff in one or other of the institutions – if this was from Upsala (we are not told), then once again, the research outcomes were far more likely to be negative from that place. I have personally been involved in bringing new ideas to secondary schools and have found the desire to help, the motivation to make something work hugely different. Upsala may have willed the test to fail but we are not given adequate insight into what was really going on. In fact, the research, following a set pattern of methods and a questionnaire may fail to pick up what a local journalist could have told you.

What is the appropriate way to research the introduction of an innovation such as this?

There will be a best practice model – this is not it.


Hiltz, S, & Meinke, R 1989, ‘Teaching Sociology in a Virtual Classroom’, Teaching Sociology, 4, p. 431, JSTOR Arts & Sciences IV, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 February 2013.

Offered here so that amongst us we can come to a conclusion. This would be better expressed in a wiki. It would then be straightforward to combine the findings of others, not only from my student group, but from all the students in this cohort and even through a quick search from the efforts of students in the last few years.

I am always amazed how a group of people can look at a reading and see quite different things. This has to do with context, our personal even unconscious biases and interests, even our cognitive skills. I have to do several sweeps before something comes into focus.


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