As we describe some of the positive features of online astronomy education in this section, we are not trying to compare online education with classroom education, and we are not asserting that online education is, in general, preferable to classroom education. We are simply explaining how the availability of online education can be beneficial to students.
A formal learning environment is now accessible worldwide. Learning science at the college level is no longer limited to those who are lucky enough, able-bodied, or rich enough. Our classrooms no longer have bolted-down chairs, limited access to educational materials, or linear rules of interaction. People in remote areas or who move frequently are no longer excluded from the intellectual stimulation of a college astronomy course. Other advantages and obstacles to online education are also manifesting themselves (Sunal et al. 2003).
In an online astronomy class, students have greater opportunities to ask questions about complex concepts, seek individual help, participate more effectively, and customize their education to meet their needs. This occurs in a community of learners linked not geographically, but by a common interest. This type of education also affords a safe kind of anonymity, so students are not as hesitant to participate (Hartman et al. 1995).
Students are still responsible for solving problems individually, but they must also respond to others. Such opportunities facilitate the creation of an environment of peer instruction and generally increased peer interaction, especially among quieter students (Rheingold 1994). If the instructor can teach students who in turn provide new perspectives and ideas to other astronomy students, then education is spread exponentially instead of just arithmetically.
Over the course of a few days or a week, for example, students can be required to contribute to other students' discussion threads about pseudoscience, the scientific method, or current astronomical events. (For resources on debunking pseudoscience, see Fraknoi 2003.) All students have time to think, find something of interest, and open a meaningful dialogue as they take on the role of “thinkers and transmitters of ideas” (Rheingold 1994). In contrast, in a traditional classroom, this could take enormous amounts of instructional time, so students would likely not have the quality of in-depth discussion that they would online. It is recognized, however, that online faculty and students must spend more time, especially in the beginning, on their Web-based classes (Teeter 1997). Students realize that the courses are not easier just because they are online, and faculty realize that they must more carefully word their explanations in order to be understood, and that this often takes more time. Our students have frequently remarked at how much more difficult it is to meet the high standards and self-regulation needed to succeed online. The difficulties are not limited to content, but include the lack of imposed structure (discussed in further detail below).
In online classes, although we cannot see, hear, and experience our students as we do in face-to-face settings, we have the opportunity to project our personalities and information through an ancient form of communication: writing. With adequate time and number of exchanges, participants can develop just as meaningful a teacher-student or student-student relationship as elsewhere (Walther 1992; Lea & Spears 1992). More important, some will learn more from us, as reported by students who prefer the online classroom to the face-to-face one (Chester & Gwynne 1998). In Chester & Gwynne's study, two thirds of online students reported that they participated more online than in person, and nonnative English speakers, especially shy Asian students, preferred online courses over traditional ones.
In general, the availability of online education benefits society by offering everyone the chance to better understand the world and its people, partly because students have greater accessibility in cyberspace, and partly because “conceptions of tribe, race, community and other societal constructs may be explored, reconstructed, and reprioritized” (Gammack 2002, p. 2). Does this actually occur in online Astro 101 classes? There is evidence to indicate that it does, and thus warrants formal study. The authors have observed students discussing within the confines of a course assignment their cultural perspectives, which has in turn led them to discuss a variety of views about the interaction between science and society. These aspects of online classrooms are addressed in the next section.
Distance education—college-level online courses in particular—can become the “great equalizer” in terms of access to higher education. Most online students have families and full-time jobs. Students are often women over 25 (Kramarae 2001; Gibson et al. 2001), and many require flexibility because they work in remote places, travel, or live overseas (Tesone, Alexakis, & Platt 2003).
Although many universities have online courses with a face-to-face component, others, such as the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), have students take an entire course online, except to show up only for a proctored final exam wherever they are located. This system makes the online course accessible to a wide audience.
Students with disabilities especially benefit, because they can get exactly the same education as others without the physical difficulties that sometimes complicate and frustrate their efforts. The deaf need not attend special universities or have an interpreter in order to learn. Rural or poor students who can't afford to leave home or who have no transportation to the nearest college can still take astronomy classes, even if they work full time or have unusual work hours. In fact, such students are twice as likely as other students to take online courses (Moisey 2004).
Men and women in the armed forces deployed across the world, as well as their dependents who do not have full control over their schedules, also benefit greatly from the flexibility of online courses. In FY 2003, UMUC enrolled almost 51,000 active duty military and dependents through its overseas programs under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. In any given semester, as many as one quarter of the students in UMUC's online Astro 101 courses are in the military, with many overseas. They continue their studies from one post or wartorn country to another, maintaining a sense of normalcy, as they say, in at least one aspect of their lives.
Senior citizens, caretakers of the elderly, or those who stay home with small children can still get the intellectual stimulation they crave (Tesone et al. 2003). Racial prejudice and most other biases nearly disappear from the online classroom (Chester & Gwynne 1998), in part because students are not familiar with each other's status, skin color, accent, clothing, or other physical markers. Over time, online students reported the benefits of getting to know each other online before ethnic or cultural markers interfered with their relationships (Chester & Gwynne).
When skillfully taught, online courses can create a learning community, as mentioned above. These learning communities have been found to significantly benefit individuals who might otherwise feel marginalized (Haythornwaite et al. 2000).
But online students, in astronomy or other disciplines, must either have or learn to develop self-directed study habits and be well-organized learners. Clearly, online learning is not for everyone (Sunal et al. 2003); indeed, there is still much to improve in distance education. It will evolve in ways that we cannot even imagine right now, as the technology develops. But it will likely never entirely replace classroom teaching any more than did, for example, the advent of television courses. Online education will, however, allow us to attack problems in new ways and address new audiences.