Frequently Asked Questions in Higher Education about e-Learning

1. Can e-learning be as effective as classroom learning?

Insights from the research:

Through meta-analysis (studies of studies), educational researchers have concluded that e-learning is as effective as classroom learning. This has occurred in every major learning context: primary/secondary education, higher education, and workplace learning.

For more information, check out:

Meta-Analyses

* Bernard, Abrami, Borokhovski, Wade, Tamim, Surkes, and Bethel (2009). A Meta-Analysis of Three Types of Interaction Treatments in Distance Education. Review of Educational Research 2009 79: 1243.

* Bernard, Abrami, Lou, Borokhovski, Wade, Wozney, Wallet, Fiset, and Huang (2004). How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction? A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 379-439.

* Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami, and Schmid. (2011). What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study. Review of Educational Research 2011 81: 4.

US Department of Education (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.

Some specific studies of possible interest:

Arbaugh, J. B.  (2000). Virtual Classroom versus Physical Classroom: An Exploratory Study of Class Discussion Patterns and Student Learning in an Asynchronous Internet-Based MBA Course. Journal of Management Education 2000 24: 213.

* Devey, P.L.  (2011.) Survivor: Online Courses:  A Study of Voluntary Student Attrition in Asynchronous Undergraduate Online Courses Using a Multi-Analytic Framework. Montreal, QC. Concordia University. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Rovai, Wighting, Baker, and Grooms (2009). Development of an Instrument to Measure Perceived Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor Learning in Traditional and Virtual Classroom Higher Education Settings.Internet and Higher Education 12 (2009) 7–13.

Smart and Cappel (2006).Students’ Perceptions of Online Learning: A Comparative Study. Journal of Information Technology Education, Volume 5, 2006.

* Concordia researchers

2.  Can students have meaningful interaction with instructors in e-learning courses?

Insights from theory, research, and practice:

On a conceptual level: three types of interaction exist: student-content, student-student, and student-instructor.  We tend to emphasize the latter but all three types of interaction are essential for learning.  For example, cooperative and peer learning are forms of learning between students.  eLearning (including MOOCs) can emphasize this.

The actual extent and nature of interaction is a design issue, not an issue of the medium.  The primary concern among many online instructors is interaction with students—but not the lack of it, but rather the extent of it.  It sometimes overwhelms them and their Teaching Assistants. As one online student observed, “I actuallly had more contact with my online professor than my face-to-face professors.”

Part of this is a design issue Early e-learning efforts suggested that online students feel anonymous, so elearning groups typically build in extensive interaction.  For example, e-Concordia has many course design and administration guidelines in place to require ongoing contact between students and instructors in online courses.  (Instructors not only includes professors but also Teaching Assistants.)

3.  Is the pedagogical quality of the e-learning experience an inferior one?

Insights from practice:

There are many quality controls in place in an elearning course that are not available to classroom courses.

The most significant is that, rather than designing the course by him or herself, instructors usually design the course in collaboration with an instructional design team (this is true for almost any elearning course). All of the instructional designers are formally trained. This allows us to map out a teaching strategy that’s aligned with the nature of the content, and provides the staffing to create the resources and activities that support that teaching strategy.

In terms of the technical and editorial quality of materials, everything gets a second and third look, which does not always happen in other learning contexts.

In addition, we also closely watch the first offering of the course with the expectation that we will need to adjust it in response to real-world issues identified by our students.

So from a strategic and quality control standpoint, checks are in place to ensure it.

Furthermore, in a related—though separate—effort, we are working on a detailed set of guidelines and processes for designing e-learning programs as a means of institutionalizing existing practices.

4.  Is e-learning is better suited to some disciplines or learning goals than others?

Insights from the research and practice:

The evidence does not support this concern.  With carefully thought through teaching strategies, almost every subject has been taught online.

The most significant challenges are those courses involving physical skills—like painting or acting.  But with live, two-way video, even some of those barriers have been broken—and the courses have been effective. (And computers are increasingly used as a drawing and painting tool, and software allows us to share this.)

Note, too, that e-learning encompasses both asynchronous learning (when the instructor and students are not online at the same time) and synchronous learning (when they are online at the same time).  Blended learning encourages instructional designers to choose the format best suited to the teaching objectives.

Note, too, that some organizations have made effective use of simulations, virtual worlds, and other technologies to close this gap between what we want to teach and what we can teach online.

5.  Is e-learning better suited to some students over others?

Insights from the research:

On a most basic level, the research supports this.

From an historical perspective, students who do well in e-learning are typically (Devey, 2011):

  • Mature
  • Goal-oriented
  • Self-motivated

But the situation is more complex.

One of the problems has been that some students, especially traditional ones, have viewed elearning as an easy A (Devey, 2011).  When they realize that, even in elearning courses, they need to work hard to get a B or C, many drop out.  We see the same behavior, however, in face-to-face courses.  It just gets magnified online.

Research is also clear that students who are treated anonymously online are less likely to succeed than those who are contacted and required to engage.  So our practices actually emphasize this level of engagement and interaction with students.  One simple tool (used at another university):  no extensions of deadlines significantly increased completions and the submissions of assignments.

Our own experience at Concordia also shows that such interventions have a positive impact on students: both retention rates and performance—not only among the ones who, by nature, are best suited to e-learning but also for traditional students.

6. Are massive open online classes (MOOCs) are a threat to Concordia’s e-learning efforts?

Insights from industry news:

A concern about MOOCs and an assessment about how they could affect us is definitely in order.

Like most technologies, MOOCs are multi-faceted and, like most newer technologies, the full implications might not be known for a while because this one is still in alpha or beta test, despite the exceptional press coverage they’ve received.

A few things to be aware of with MOOCs:

  • In their current state, they are not economically viable.  (Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.)
  • The largest company, Coursera, does not offer credits for its courses nor do any of the schools that Coursera contracts with offer credits to outside students; most do not even offer credit to their own students, unless they take the face-to-face version of the course.  Other competitors are trying to fill that gap; but they only offer credits to their own students or charge fees that are 10 to 20 times higher than ours for credits.
  • Nearly all MOOCs are undergraduate courses, though they are available in nearly every discipline now.
  • One possibility is that MOOC companies might license their courses to universities, who would augment them for credit.  We have a workgroup on campus (with some participation from McGill) to explore possibilities.
  • Despite the initial promotion of MOOCs as “the best lecturers” teaching courses, recent criticism directly attacks teaching quality, mostly on a conceptual basis (the design is teacher centred) rather than on an actual basis (the buzz on most Coursera courses is actually positive; the same cannot be said for other MOOC providers, especially Udacity).
  • Completion rates for MOOCs are low—sometimes below 5 percent.  This is the result of that anonymity issue.  Athabasca’s George Siemens has piloted a more social design for these courses, but dropout rates even in those courses is still disappointing.
  • The most likely impact of MOOCs for the time being: professional, continuing education—especially for professional workers.  Other studies have shown that companies have systematically reduced their investment in training in the past 12 years; other studies have suggested that workers are not investing in training, even if they are self-employed.
  • MOOCs and other types of elearning do not need to exist separately; MOOCs can be used to engage prospective students.  When they become serious about their studies, they look for something that offers a recognized credential (like a degree), will be recognized for purposes of licensing and certification (again, a degree or certificate), and that provides access to experts for advice (professors, career services, student services—why the communication aspect of e-learning is essential)
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