Distance education is generally intended to serve a "non-traditional" student population. That is, most students who benefit from the availability of distance education courses, such as my online class, tend to have been away from school for a number of years, have families, full-time jobs, mortgages, and a whole host of other responsibilities that prevent them from moving across country to attend school and which differ from "traditional" students who are fresh from high school and their parents' homes. (Actually, I'm becoming convinced that "non-traditional" is more the norm than "traditional" these days, but that is another post for another time.)
One of the major components of the online classroom is the discussion area. This area is set up like the discussion groups that appeared on webpages, in which a person starts a thread and people respond to that thread. In practice, a discussion should operate much like a comments section on a blog, with my lesson being the blog post and their comments being their reactions to the material and to each other.
People who are comfortable with this sort of online conversation, however, seem to be either very involved in technology or at the younger end of the age spectrum, in their twenties and early thirties. Again, these are my very subjective impressions based on no data.
I'm wondering about the relationships among three factors here: the blogosphere, online education, and age. Do people who participate in the blogosphere as bloggers or commenters or both take online classes? If they do, do they perform better or interact more frequently in the participation portion of the class? Is there a noticeable or significant age difference in people who participate in the blogosphere and those who don't? For instance, is a person in their 20s more likely to participate than a person in their 40s? Is there a noticeable and significant age difference in people who take online courses?
What other factors might affect participation in online class discussions? For instance, a 30 year old mother of two with a full time job might just check in and respond to the initial post, thereby essentially turning in an assignment, then go on about her business until the next response is due; but would this behavior be a result of her comfort online or a result of her outside responsibilities or a combination of both? Would a 20 year old blogger exhibit the same online classroom behavior because they see the class as work and spend the rest of their online time pursuing their own interests? These, of course, are just straw-students. I am just wildly guessing as a starting point for further reading (and will be happy to hear from anyone with any ideas, experience, or information).
In any case, I'm wondering how this semester will go in terms of the online participation. I'm hoping for something dynamic, such as you see on blogs (but no trolls, which would amount to a disruptive student in a traditional classroom). I worry that I will just get "turn in the assignment" responses. At this point, we will have to wait to see how the simple aspect of interaction develops.