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H809 – Reading Hiltz and Meinke (A1.4)

February 4, 2011

Here we go my first reading for H809 and there again I meet almost forgotten ‘friends’. P-value, Standard Deviation (SD), the mean, etc. I know the first time I was confronted with these statistical jargon and had to work with it I thought I am lost, but somehow I made my way through all the mathematical calculations and consideration. I hope some of the old knowledge will help me now as well to manage this course. I just wonder what’s the difference between the F-tests and the T-test is that I got to know in another BA course. Well, scanning through the provided PowerPoint file I just see that there are countless test, which brings me back to the saying that we have here in Germany ‘Never trust a statistic that you haven’t faked yourself’, i.e. you just calculate as long until you have the number you want. Well, I guess that is only halfway true 😉

I found another saying that is pretty funny 😉

‘Statistics means: If the hunter shoots and misses the rabbit once to the left and once to the right,  the rabbit is dead on average’.

Ok, now we are getting serious. H809 recommends to analyse or critically evaluate information using the following questions.

  • Questions: What research questions are being addressed?
  • Setting: What is the sector and setting?
  • Concepts: What theories, concepts and key terms are being used?
  • Methods: What methods of data collection and analysis are used?
  • Findings: What did this research find out?
  • Limitations: What are the limitations of the methods used?
  • Ethics: Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?
  • Implications: What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?

What really surprised me reading Hiltz and Meinke (1989) that the article was written already October 1989, thus more than 21 years old. At that time I just started taking computer classes and bought my first computer for the price of a small car. Internet was not on the near horizon. MS-DOS was the operation system and MS Office was not on the market. So pretty amazing that the already considered ‘The virtual classroom’, because it sounds like a pretty current topic, considering my school department like a topic that will not be on the agenda in the near future.

However, what strikes me as well is that some issues discussed in the article are still up-to-date today. For example when Hiltz and Meinke talk about student characteristics they divide into well-motivated, well-prepared and cognitively mature students with good academic skills contrary to cognitively immature students with poor academic skills and  lacking basic skills and self-discipline. Even if the majority of students now own a computer and now have internet access, one of the few distinctive features that show that Hiltz/Meineke article was written 21 years ago, can you divide students still in these two broad groups and that the ‘good’ students ‘are likely to experience superior outcomes’ (Hiltz/Meinecke, 1989).

Meloni (2009) argues 20 years later quite similar saying that it is likely ‘that students who would complete traditional assignments will still complete the non-traditional blogging assignment, and students who would slack with traditional assignments will do so with their blogs as well’.

Quite mixed is still the attitudes of some teachers/instructors. Some institutions and/or teachers tend to use (Web 2.0) technologies in old ways and do not capitalize its full potential (Twigg cited in Weller,2009) and according to Prensky(2001) are teachers digital immigrants who cannot keep up with their learners, the digital natives (Conole et al.,2010). They lack the necessary skills to adequately support ownership of technology-enhanced learning and/or they might be unwilling to negotiate power and control with their students.

Ok, lets’ start from the beginning and figure out what the research question the article address. Hiltz and Meinke researched two questions:

  1. Is the Virtual Classroom a viable option for educational delivery? (On the whole, are outcomes at least as good as those for traditional face-to-face courses?)
    They wanted to test whether it si possible to use computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems to improve access to and effectiveness of post-secondary delivery.
  2. What variables are associated with especially good and especially poor outcomes in this new teaching and learning environment?
    They wanted to explore whether students characteristics, implementation techniques and settings influence outcomes.

Two colleges were chosen. The New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), a technological university where incoming freshman have been issued IBM-PC compatible microcomputers to take home, and where computers are used in all freshmen-level courses.  Upsala as small liberal arts college is a complete different setting. They have one microcomputer laboratory and little prior integration of  computers in the curriculum. NJIT constructed the prototypical Virtual Classroom, offering many courses fully or partially online.

‘The concept of activities, above and beyond the exchange of text, is one of the key software innovations of the Virtual Classroom project’ (Hiltz/Meinke,1989). Participation, independent and collaborative learning is favoured. This reminds me on one of the essay question asked in H800, where we had to discuss the statement ‘Learners now have ownership of technology-enhanced learning’. Downes (2006 cited in Pettit,2010) argues that ‘the students own education’, yet the question remains to what extend. Interestingly ownership of learning, taking responsibility for the own learning was next to collaborative learning one of the concepts as well from the Virtual Classroom. Hence, the participation metaphor was/is  favoured above the acquisition metaphor (Sfard, 1998). Sfard explains that within the acquisition metaphor(AM) teachers provide material that students receive and consume with the goal of individual enrichment, whereas the participation metaphor (PM) emphasizes community building as the goal of learning . AM implies that learning stops after the consumption, whereas participation views learning as an ongoing process embedded in a certain context.

What methods of data collection and analysis are used?  Pre- and post course questionnaires was the main mean for data collection, but also more objective behavioural data (including grades, SAT scores and records of the amount of on-line activity). However, next to quantitative data qualitative data in form from participant observation in class conferences, personal interviews and case reports by instructors was collected. Hiltz and Meinke used an automatic statistical analysis routine to profile participation patterns in each class conference. Matched courses and mixed-mode courses were chosen. Introductory sociology was on of the matched courses. Students were able to select the mode of delivery, but each student had to sit the final examination in the traditional proctored, face-to-face manner to assure the validity of examination grades. Mixed-modes courses were partially offered online and partially in the Virtual classroom, differing from 25% to 75% of the coursework conducted in the Virtual Classroom. Yet, students also met face-to-face every week or two. 107 students were involved in sex sections of mixed-mode course in 1986-1987, in different study levels.

Hiltz and Meinke found out that the Virtual Classroom is a promising and viable option for post-secondary educational delivery and the outcomes are similar good as those for traditional face-to-face courses (findings). Both authors report that both access to and quality of the educational experience were better than those in traditional classroom. Students favoured in particular the convenience and flexibility of online courses (65 percent) and the better and more informal access to their professor (58 percent). Yet, that the VC led to more communication with other students in the class and/or higher exam grades could not be confirmed.

However, Hiltz and Meinke found out that results are course-dependent, but they are also strongly influenced by students and instructor characteristics. They report e.g. from active resistance from faculty members or from the Upsala ice hockey team who signed up for the online course to have more flexible class hours and do not need to attend class, but they were not seen online until just before the midterm. Non-attendance or non-participation was on limitation, next to lacking technical skills, equipment and access, lacking academic skills and a unwilligness to engage actively and independent into the learning process.

One limitation of self-reported questionnaires  is that people tend to present them better. Who wants to admit e.g. that they communicate less, or are less motivated and/or stop participating. This tendency has to be taken into consideration, because ‘objective science is based on an exploration of subjective meaning’. Another problem could be the questionnaire itself, thus the questions asked and we should also be cautious about the sampling. Doubts may arise from the nature of the study, which depend for their validity on the cases and controls being comparable in all respects.

So far I see no great ethical issues involved in this study. Cross-sectional studies like the one conducted by Hiltz and Meinke have the advantage of being relative cheap, simple and ethically safe. However, cross-sectional study only analyse the relationship between different variables (i.e. different places, courses or groups of people), at a point of time or over a short period. Cross-sectional studies can provide a ‘snapshot’, but to see if it provides a general pattern a longitudinal study would be needed, because other years could be different.

Hiltz and Meinke’s research may be considered as forerunner for todays online courses and they definitely initiated a discussion in educational settings, although uptake took a while and changes in learning theories towards (social) constructivism and connectivism are still not fully implemented in all curricula, considering e.g. German curricula. So yes I would say the resarch had some implications for practice, but like mentioned before some longitudional studies would have been necessary to follow up the resarch question if the Virtual Classroom is a viable option for educational delivery to compare and discuss results.


Conole, G. (2010) ‘Week 8 and 9:Designing for learning’ H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates (accessed 27 March 2010)

Hiltz, S.R. and Meinke, R. (1989) ‘Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom’, Teaching Sociology, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 431–46.

Meloni, J. (2010) ‘Integrating, Evaluation, and Managing Blogging in the classroom’, blog entry posted 13 August 2010. Available online (accessed 26.08.2010).

Pettit, J. (2010) ‘Week 19: Mobile device, mobile learners & Web 2.0’, H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates (accessed 19 June 2010).

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’, Educational Researcher [online] vol. 27, no. 2. Available from (accessed 24 February 2010).

Weller, M. (2009) ‘Using learning environments as a metaphor for educational change’, On the Horizon, vol.17, no.3, pp.181–9; also available online at (accessed 12 June 2010).


From → H809

  1. The data is very good. To begin a serious study.Thanks for the info.

  2. Sylvia,

    This is really a comprehensive analysis of the article. I enjoyed reading your blog post.

    Excellent job

    • Thanks Bernard and sorry for the late reply. I like your analysis as well and saw we pretty much have the same answers.

  3. Scouccale permalink

    Sorry for the stupid question. What is the best search engine or

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