A few years ago, my friend Sherryl and I signed up to do a Diploma of VET (Vocational and Education and Training) online with a number of colleagues from our university. We were the only two who managed to complete all the units. Many never made it online. This astonished me. These were fellow teachers, committed to upgrading their quals. There's a very important lesson about motivation in that for any would-be online facilitator.
Sherryl and I worked on the course design of this course together, and we structured it to reflect as well as we could those things that work well for us in the classroom. This meant there are plenty of writing exercises, analysis, discussions.
I had also been involved in the development of another subject, but my input had been mainly "teching" -- taking the writing and getting it ready for the web. That subject was more self-directed where students could plug away at their own pace -- complete the whole course in a week (a very intensive week) if they wanted. Ours was much more interactive, requiring students to log on each week (at their own time), and interact both with the teacher and with each others. I suppose each way of doing it would have its own fans and detractors, but I must say I think the second method is far more rewarding -- both for the teacher and the students.
The plus-side of online teaching is that there's very little prep (though I did have to read or reread all the set stories for discussion), that I don't have to travel in to the university to teach my class, that I can do it in my own time. I do have to log in most days of the week, so students feel I'm around and available. And it's fun! And you have students from all over the place -- so this year I had one in outback Queensland and one in Hong Kong as well as the local students. Also, you get to know the students in a different way -- as with all things online, people will often reveal more about themselves than they will in the real world, which can be a rewarding and interesting thing.
The minus-side is that I have to log in most days of the week, and that the workshopping seems so much more onerous to do online. I'd much rather be able to scribble on a typed manuscript than use Track Changes (Word's editing feature) and Insert Comments. There's also the inadvertent misunderstandings that happen when one person writes a comment, perhaps in fun, and someone else misinterprets the tone of the message. That's when the facilitator sometimes has to facilitate, and not let things fester. This didn't happen very often, fortunately. For me, the other downside is that I felt much less like attending to my other online "duties", such as emails and blogs.
I'm not sure I'd like to do all my teaching online -- I value my real-life interactions too much -- but it's a great way of adding some variety to your teaching. It's a different experience but a rewarding one. And, although I still thing the face-to-face classroom is better (with its instant feedback), this is a close approximation and offers some things the face-to-face classroom can't -- for example, feedback on in-class writing exercises is written rather than verbal and hence more permanent.