I would say that both types of relationships and classes have their place. Yes, we do loose something in a virtual environment, but we can also gain. I think many people feel far less isolated because of these virtual connections. While I do not think that virtual relationships should completely replace face-to-face connections, they can play a role in our lives. It is the same here as in any other area of life, balance and proportion are the key.
I have a friend that recently completed his master's degree in a 100% online setting. He said if he could do it over again he would have chosen a traditional setting, as he felt disconnected from the whole process never meeting a professor or classmate.
I believe online education can work and can be powerful, but I don't think "research and development" have gotten us to the place that the programs available can replace traditional education.
I believe face-to-face communication is always better than online classes, chatting, etc. However, for long-distance communication, virtual communities are great, and it provides an easy access to friends in faraway places.
I completely agree with post 3 and 4. Online education, I think, is incapable of facilitating the same depth of learning that is possible in face to face instruction. The higher one progresses through the curriculum, the more this is the case. An online course is no replacement for a senior or graduate level seminar in college, for example. I agree, in particular, with the previous poster's observation that online discussion is more rote and repetitive. They do not require students to internalize skills or content to the same extent that traditional courses do. This is not to say they cannot improve, but that I, like others so far, am a bit skeptical of their potential.
Contrary as it may sound, another downfall of online education is that it isn't actually as instant as face-to-face to communication. Online discussions can never be as dynamic as a good classroom discussion. Emotions and passion are more difficult to detect. The first post suggests it is easier for some students to be "vocal" and honest online. I've found that more often than not, these types of students (and answers) are in the minority. Online discussion, in my experience, tends to be more bland, more rote, and often repetitive.
I will never be a proponent of replacing face-to-face anything with technology.
On a positive side, however, I do believe there are many classes/subjects which are, in themselves, not subject to a lot of discussion, opinion, nor emotion. These subjects make very good candidates for the convenience of online study.
Just in terms of education, I have not seen any reason to believe that online education will be as effective as education in person. It really is so much more impersonal that it is very difficult to build a rapport with students. Of course, in many in-person educational settings, many teachers struggle to have a good rapport with their students. So maybe the benefits of online learning will outweigh the problems. But I'm a skeptic.
I think that virtual communities can be as relevant as physical relationships and friendships. Virtual communities can go one of two ways. First, they can be more honest than face-to-face relationships. Some people may feel very awkward when in contact with others (their self-esteem may be lacking). Therefore, the lack of physical contact may allow them to feel more at ease. Second, some people may make themselves out to be something they are not (this can either elevate their self-esteem or it can be harmful to those involved in the "relationship" (based upon deceit).
For those who are uncomfortable with face-to-face relationships, virtual communities and relationships can be beneficial. Virtual communities also allow people to reach out to others similar to themselves (rape victims, the abused, and the bullied).