You ask what I think, and my first reaction is to try to clarify what types of learning may take place in which environments. I wonder if interpersonal and emotional skills are seriously impeded in an online setting, and I fully agree with your comment that ‘usefulness … depends on students’ engagement’. The study you cited, Tonso (2006), looked at different teamwork settings amongst undergraduate engineering majors and was interested in gender and identity issues. I’m not entirely sure why she would need to make the claim about virtual environments. Her quotation does not invalidate the argument, but it seems strangely out of place.
Personally I feel drawn to online discussions and think that traditional face-to-face classes inherently prioritise learner types who are able to participate in, and perhaps monopolise, class discussions in real time. Other students often hold valuable ideas, but their personalities inhibit their direct contributions. This weakness of the traditional seminar format is often acerbated when classrooms consists of speakers with varying linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Roper highlights a method of overcoming such individual differences by noting that ‘…online threaded discussion…may provide opportunities to develop richer discourse by means of written discussion that allows students to spend time crafting their responses’ (Roper, 2007). Online education is a key mechanism in the democratisation of education (Comeau & Cheng, 2013), and barriers that limit access to education can be limited by the use of technologies (O’Malley and McCraw, 1999, p. 22).
Comeau, J. D. & Cheng, T. L. (2013). Digital ‘tsunami’ in higher education: Democratisation movement towards open and free education. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 14(3).
O’Malley, J. & McCraw, H. (1999). Students Perceptions of Distance Learning, Online Learning and the Traditional Classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 2(4). Retrieved 20 April 2015 from: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter24/omalley24.html
Roper, A. R. (2007). The Development of Online Student Skills: Successful online students share their secrets. TCC 2007 Proceedings.
Tonso, K. L. (2006). Teams that work: Campus culture, engineer identity, and social interactions. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(1), 25-37.