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While there is no official consensus on how we learn, most education theorists agree that the student and his experience play an essential role. Learning, they say, is not simply a process of passive absorption, but one that requires student participation and collaboration.

If it is true that the ability for students to work together enriches the learning experience, then there is no better place to learn than the Internet. In online courses, time to formulate questions is not limited. Students can reflect on the information presented, and then enter chat rooms and read threaded discussions to help them better grasp the material.

Infographic: Rachel Powell Norton, CNET

Jerry Schutte, a sociology professor at California State University at Northridge, took a first step toward proving this last month. In a groundbreaking study, Schutte showed that students who learned in a virtual classroom tested 20 percent better across the board than their traditional classroom counterparts.

Schutte believes that the unexpected results can be explained by the online collaboration created in the virtual classroom. Without a teacher, students in the virtual class spent 50 percent more time working with each other than the students in the traditional campus setting.

A virtual classroom is far less inhibiting than its traditional equivalent, Schutte says. "The students formed peer groups online as compensation for not having time in class to talk...The very way classrooms are set up, with everyone facing forward, deters interaction."

The anonymity of the virtual environment also fosters a dialogue that wouldn't exist otherwise. According to Schutte, all of what he calls status characteristics--including gender, race, and social group--disappear. For example, one student said she felt much freer in the virtual class because she was not sitting next to the typically intimidating "A" student.

Some argue that group work could be just as easily encouraged in a traditional setting. Schutte disagrees, saying the online technologies themselves facilitate collaboration and interaction.

"Technologies, such as email, newsgroups, and chat, lend themselves to collaboration because they are by definition collaborative," he said. And, more important, "virtual technologies not only require the assignments to be collaborative, but because of the lack of the classroom, they lead students to informal interaction outside the classroom."