First, I have to agree with Luke in his distinction between an online class and a web-enhanced class (which is what I am doing). The objective of the first is to reach out to students who cannot attend regular classes for whatever reasons. The objective of the second--at least for me--is for the students to be able to do things they could not do (or do as fast--an important point in a school with 12-week semesters) in a regular classroom. Networking is one such obvious engagement that would be mighty hard to do otherwise. But even a simple activity like a collection of pictures entitled "Othello and Desdemona's Wedding Album" can sometimes yield some amazing results thanks to the immediacy of communications technology.
To wit: on the spur of the moment during a computer lab class before we began studying Shakespeare's Othello, I asked my students to upload a picture of their choice from the web that would be included in "Othello and Desdemona's Wedding Album," a slideshow that would be prominently displayed on the main page of our Ning. They had to write a line or two as why they chose their particular photo. I got a variety of responses, from
which, of course, started a lively debate about representations of blackness and interracial marriages in class (they also chose a photo of Tiger Woods and his wife).
Now, we could have done a similar job with paper photos that we made into an album, but the assignment would have taken much longer ("go home and find a photo..bring it to class...") and the resulting album could only be viewed one person at a time, so that the experience of seeing everyone's contribution simultaneously and recurrently (the album is placed on top of my assignment instructions) would be lost. The spontaneity of the discussion (and the frankness that came with it) may have also been lost (but this is just a hypothesis). In all, I feel that being able to use this digital tool helped my students plunge into one of the main issues of Othello before they even read the play, and all in a matter of minutes.