Any student considering taking courses online who has never done so before may understandably have some trepidation. Is an online course really going to give you the experience and knowledge that you need to pursue the degree — and eventually career — that you want?
Luckily, we are no longer sitting at the starting gate with online learning. With more than 20 years of research available, it is much easier today to assess the impact of online learning on the learning experience, as well as the comparative learning outcomes for students that take an online path versus a more traditional one.
The following experts in learning methodology and online education have taken the time to research, write and publish their own findings. Each is employed by a university, most are full-time professors, though adjunct faculty are also represented.
Mark Bullen, PhD Adjunct Professor, Master of Educational Technology, University of British Columbia
The college learning experience extends far beyond what students may learn in a course. In fact, from one perspective, college as much about learning how to learn and how to think critically as it is about the actual substance of the courses themselves. Because of the importance of the critical thinking aspect and how that process is often supported by interaction between students and faculty, one of the criticisms levied against online education is that it makes these interactions more difficult.
In his piece for the International Journal of E-learning and Distance Education, Dr. Mark Bullen sets out to analyze one particular online course to determine:
- whether the students were actively participating, building on each other’s contributions, and thinking critically about the discussion topics; and
- what factors affected student participation and critical thinking
The conclusions of this study, which had a very small sample size, was that students’ discussions in the online course for the most part did not build upon one another, with most students adding comments that were independent from those of their classmates.
It is important to note that Dr. Bullen undertook this study in the nascent stages of online education with what would be very remedial technology in comparison to what is in use today. Advances such as live chat features, video conferencing, and “threaded” forums and discussion areas may all help facilitate interaction between students and faculty. Further, the instructor of the courses noted that “he might have been able to stimulate some discussion if he had taken a more active role, challenging students to elaborate their positions and to compare them with those of other students.”
Dr. Bullen has a Ph.D. in Adult Education, a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology and a B.Ed. from the University of British Columbia. He was also the Chief Editor of the Journal of Distance Education from 2006 to 2012.
Participation and Critical Thinking in Online University Distance Education
Gregg Bennett, EdD Professor, Texas A&M University (University of Florida at time of publication)
Frederick P. Green, PhD Professor, University of Southern Mississippi
In the journal Quest, Drs. Gregg Bennett and Frederick P. Green undertake a thorough review of the available research on the phenomenon of online education as it compares to traditional classroom-based courses. The article identifies three key factors that collectively determine whether students in online and traditional learning environments will achieve the same outcomes: the instructor, the students, and the tools used for the course. Although the technology (such as the Learning Management System, or LMS) does play a role, it is only a well-designed course with a dedicated instructor and students who are motivated to learn that will, together, determine the success of an online program. Drs. Bennett and Green also find that collaboration, convenience, and easy access to additional resources are benefits that give online courses an advantage. The takeaway from the analysis as a whole is that with the right instruction — and the right students — it is possible to conduct courses online just as successfully as in a more traditional setting.
Dr. Bennett currently serves as a Professor of Health & Kinesiology at Texas A&M University where he was awarded the 2010 ING Professor of Excellence, while Dr. Green continues his scholarship focus on the relationship between leisure, leisure lifestyle and the community inclusion of marginalized groups at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Student Learning in the Online Environment: No Significant Difference?
Jennifer Jill Harman, PhD Associate Professor, Colorado State University
Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman is an Associate Professor in the Psychology department at Colorado State University. In that role, she has written about the process of developing and teaching online courses from a personal perspective. Having taught in classrooms for more than 15 years, Dr. Harman was at first skeptical about the possibility of translating her rigorous psychology coursework to an online platform. However, with the right tools, she was able to create online courses that provided comparable learning outcomes and that, by their online nature, were accessible to more students. Dr. Harman was even able to incorporate counseling skills into her courses through the use of video conferencing tools like Skype and Google Hangouts.
Dr. Harman holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Connecticut and has published work in the Journal of Family Psychology and Children & Youth Services Review, among others.
Online Versus Traditional Education: Is One Better Than the Other?
Steven Stack, PhD Professor, Wayne State University
In the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, Dr. Steven Stack has written about how learning outcomes differ in online and traditional educational settings. The study that Dr. Stack uses is particularly interesting because, unlike most other online learning studies, students were not able to choose whether or not they took an online or classroom course, due to an error in the course selection process. Therefore, a set of students took the same class with the same instructor, with some online and some in the classroom. The data from this study, which used 64 total students with a nearly balanced gender ratio, found that both sections of the course performed largely the same, with the online students outperforming the traditional students just slightly. Further, when students were asked to evaluate the course, the two sets gave nearly identical ratings for how much they learned and how they would rate the instructor.
Because of the unique “blind selection” data for this study, it is fascinating to note that the course delivery method, with the same instructor and the same materials, made little to no difference in how students perceived the course or how they performed on exams.
Dr. Stack continues to work as a Professor in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Wayne State University, where his research interests include Social risk and protective factors for suicide, Cultural Axes of Nations and link to Public Opinion on Criminality and Deviance, and the impact of the death penalty on homicide.
Learning Outcomes in an Online vs Traditional Course
Yuliang Liu, PhD Professor, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
In the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Dr. Yuliang Liu directly addresses the idea of how well students learn in an online environment as opposed to a traditional classroom setting.
Unlike the study that Dr. Sacks published, Dr. Liu used self-selected students at a midwestern university for his analysis. Subjects in one online and one traditional course, using the same learning objectives, were given pretests and posttests to assess their learning, as well as quizzes throughout the course. The results of the study found that online students did measurably better on quizzes and in the course overall and had fewer complaints about the course. In fact, Dr. Liu concludes that “online instruction can be a viable alternative for higher education.”
Dr. Liu holds a PhD in Educational Psychology from Texas A&M University in Commerce. Prior to joining the faculty at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, he taught both graduate and undergraduate courses both in classrooms and online at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Effects of Online Instruction vs. Traditional Instruction on Students’ Learning
Maureen Hannay, PhD Professor, Troy University – Florida Region
Tracy Newvine, MSCJ, MSM Faculty, Troy University – Florida Region
In the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT), Dr. Maureen Hannay and Tracy Newvine conducted a study to assess student perceptions of their online learning experiences as compared to classroom courses. The study surveyed 217 students, most of whom were adults taking courses part-time and found that by and large, this student population preferred online learning and felt they were able to achieve more in an online environment. Students noted the convenience of online learning and being able to balance school with other commitments, something that is a great importance to part-time students. 59% of respondents reports achieving higher grades in their online courses while 57% indicated that they learned more in the online setting.
While this questionnaire may not hold all the answers to online vs. traditional education, it is certainly important to consider the views of students who have experienced both formats.
Dr. Hannay holds a Ph.D. in Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management from the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada and is a Professor of Management at Troy University while Tracy Newvine is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Criminal Justice at Troy University – Global.
Perceptions of Distance Learning: A Comparison of Online and Traditional Learning
Cindy Ann Dell, EdD Assistant Professor, Montana State University-Billings
Christy Low Director of Distance Education, St. Ambrose University
Jeanine F. Wilker, PhD Assistant Professor, Western Illinois University – Quad Cities Campus
In another article from JOLT, Dr. Cindy Ann Dell, Christy Low, and Dr. Jeanine F. Wilker analyze student results from online and traditional sections of the same courses. Rather than relying on tests and student reporting, this analysis looks directly at the work handed in for the different courses and compares the quality. The study looked at both graduate and undergraduate courses, using different assignments for each analysis.
Ultimately, this study found that the quality of work turned in was not significantly different for the online and traditional courses. Rather, the more important indicator of student success was method of instruction that the teacher chose. The study concludes that: “There are a few pedagogical variables that can have an influence including (1) the use of problem-based learning strategies, (2) the opportunity for students to engage in mediated communication with the instructor, (3) course and content information provided to students prior to class starting, (4) and the use of video provided to students by the instructor, to name a few. ”
It can be easy to get weighed down in the technological specifics of online learning, but what this analysis shows is that any instructor can excel in the online space with the right resources and attention to methodology.
Dr. Cindy Ann Dell holds an EdD in Adult and Higher Education from Montana University at Bozeman while Dr. Jeanine F. Wilker holds her PhD in Education with a specialization in Professional Studies from Capella University. Christy Low currently works as an Instructional Designer at Old Dominion University.
Comparing Student Achievement in Online and Face-to-Face Class Formats