|Image source: https://notegraphy.com/mdvfunes/note/1750710|
Without an instructor who is a. capable of creating and nurturing relationships with the students; and b. capable of creating a learning environment that provides opportunities for students to connect to and learn from one another, an online course is very unlikely to be truly successful. It certainly will never rival the classroom experience. Faculty who oppose online education generally rationalize their opposition by claiming that the online medium cannot replicate the intimacy of the classroom, the ability of the classroom space to nurture the kinds of relationships that support learning. This is a dangerous failure of imagination. In fact, a skilled and experienced online instructor knows exactly how to nurture these crucial relationships--and often can do so much more deeply and with many more students than can a classroom instructor. That's the irony in all of this.
These days, most of the attention of institutions is on the courses. There is a tendency to get wowed by fancy videos, animations, and the like. None of these things matter much for student learning if the course lacks an instructor who knows how to build relationships and also provide space (and incentivizes) for the students to build relationships with each other. This latter task is especially challenging. Discussion boards are the old fallback but, in my experience, they don't actually do much to encourage student to student interaction.
One of the areas where Online Rome could use more development is in the area of supporting peer to peer learning. Steve, the course instructor, and I had planned to do some of this in the upcoming semester. I hope that we will have the chance to implement our plans for non-UT Austin students at some point. For campus-based students, however, it should not be very challenging to design some activities that require or at least strongly encourage peer learning. I know that there was a fair amount of this happening on an informal level (e.g. students worked together on the modules; they studied for exams in small groups). We captured information about some of this through course surveys. But I suspect that a well-designed class activity (or series of activities) that puts students into small groups for the semester would improve the student learning and general experience even more.
Until then, though, I won't stop saying: teaching is about relationships. Period. The medium of instruction influences how we construct those relationships, what tools are available to us, but the process of teaching and learning is always about relationships and will always be about relationships. Further, it is incredibly shortsighted (and uninformed) for faculty to believe that face to face relationships are inherently superior to other kinds of relationships. This prejudice for presence is at least as old as Socrates and Plato; but it has been debunked over and over again.
P.S. So, TechCrunch asks why the university is still here. An idiotic question, but a pretty simple answer: in part, because we haven't figured out how to support social learning online. MOOCs are the opposite of the right answer.