Between the Pipes
I then realized that my comment was so long (long-winded??) that I should probably just post it on my own blog. Without further ado, here goes:
I completely agree that the instructor has always been the stitching that holds the small pieces of every course together, both in terms of content and delivery. As you noted in your post, in the f2f classroom, the instructor joins multiple media herself by switching from handouts to overhead slides to the textbook. This "multimedia" has been around for so long that we hardly consider it media at all any more; as such, it has -- perhaps for the best -- become transparent, leaving the instructor and the students to focus on the important part of the lesson, namely the content.
Online education, being such a relatively new field dealing with such relatively new media, has brought the media of instruction back to its opaque state. With online multimedia staring us so squarely in the face, it's easy for both instructors and students to get lost in the "how" at the expense of the "why." Of course, the "why" must always win out (although in reality it often doesn't). However, I don't think it's possible to leave the "how" completely up to the individual students in the online environment any more than an instructor would leave the "how" up to the students in the f2f classroom.
I think online media may offer a wider array of options than are available in the f2f classroom. After all, a f2f classroom could get pretty chaotic if an instructor told the class to read an assignment either from the textbook, from a photocopy she was passing around or from a slide she was showing. Out of necessity, the f2f instructor needs to choose one medium for that reading and ask everyone to use it, even though some students might prefer one form over the other if given the choice. No such confusion need occur in the online classroom. One group of students could choose to complete a project by communicating through wikis; another group could choose to use a blog; still another could choose to use a forum. However, the instructor still needs to give direction, especially when dealing with students who are less familiar with what technology is out there. The online instructor who tells a group to "complete this project" without providing any suggestions for which media to use may find that the group, when faced with boundless -- perhaps overwhelming -- options, chooses nothing at all. I think this will certainly become less and less of an issue as online media become more and more transparent; this will happen naturally over time as generations of children raised with this technology come of age. Just as the written word was once a revolutionary form of media that completely transformed the nature of knowledge transfer but has now become such a standard that we don't even give its use a second thought, today's "revolutionary" online multimedia will one day be second nature to everyone. In the meantime, though, too many options and too little direction may cause more problems than not (see here for an interesting example).