Yes, Virginia, Teaching Online Is Effective
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many of us remember where we were when we found out that our school was transitioning online in the spring. For me, it was around 4:00 p.m. on March 11, and I was standing in line at the pharmacy to get my epileptic cat’s medicine refilled. That seems a very mundane thing to remember, but I’m betting you and your colleagues remember odd details too—especially if you supervise or supports faculty who have little to no hybrid or online teaching experience. As someone who teaches almost exclusively online, I cannot imagine what went through the minds of colleagues in a pretty opposite situation, or those of their department chairs and deans. Labeling the moment and what followed as “stressful” was just the tip of the iceberg.
What followed for my institution and many others was a weeklong “break” for students while faculty were given the time to shift to online. Many of these instructors had used their LMS a little, but a significant number of faculty had never used it for more than a document repository or an assignment drop box, and their worlds were seriously upended. Everyone did their best to make the shift to remote teaching using web conferencing or even to a completely online format. It generally wasn’t pretty, and there were lots of missteps, as Doug Lederman emphasized in his April column in Inside Higher Ed. For some people, it was a complete flop; Amihai Glazer argued this could be due to having faculty teaching online who did not want to be. Because of this, cries about the poor efficacy of online education came from students, parents, the media, and politicians; it seemed that suddenly everyone had an opinion about how horrible this widespread modality was. There were also many calls for refunded tuition, as if classes had not carried on and students not still earned credit for them. Reports of students asking for refunds or even suing their institutions appeared on CNBC, on the EdSurge podcast, in the New York Times, and in Inside Higher Ed.
But here’s the kicker: what those faculty did to make this shift was not actually online learning, as Rebecca Barrett-Fox acknowledged in her argument for faculty transitioning their courses. It was emergency learning. Was a lot of it online? Yes. But was it what many educators, instructional designers, and instructional technologists have dedicated themselves to studying, researching, and implementing over the last couple of decades? Absolutely not. Bessette et al. shared their thoughts on this in response the subsequent negative commentary on online education, such as Zimmerman’s. While I’ll agree with anyone who wants to share war stories that transitioned classes in spring 2020 could by and large have been better (even though, truly, everyone did the best they could with the few days they were given), it is simply not true that online classes are less effective and should thus require a lower tuition rate than their in-person siblings. In fact, students enrolled in well-crafted online courses generally fare the same as or better than their peers taking in-person sections of the same courses. There is much literature to support this.
In 2015, Tuan Nguyen of Vanderbilt University wrote about the efficacy of online courses, citing many studies. Nguyen covered Navarro and Shoemaker (2000), who found that online students in introductory economics courses had better outcomes than those in in-person classrooms and that the students enjoyed the online environment (p. 311). Nguyen also discussed Harmon and Lambrinos (2006), who shared that when taught by the same instructor for a foundational macroeconomics course, their online students scored higher on tests than their in-person students (p. 311). There might be concern about students self-selecting into online learning and thus being more successful due to that factor. With that in mind, Nguyen shared Bowen and Ithaka’s (2012) results of students who were assigned randomly to either a hybrid or an in-person introductory statistics course: the researchers found similar learning within both groups (p. 311). A more recent look at student success comparing online and in-person formats in an environmental science course found that regardless of gender or class standing, there was no significant difference in achievement (Paul & Jefferson, 2019).
While I could cite many individual studies showing that online learning can be at least as effective as its traditional counterpart, many educators consider the 2010 meta-analysis by Means et al., funded by the US Department of Education, to be a comprehensive look into student success in online courses. Across 45 studies, the authors found that students in online courses were more successful than their peers enrolled in traditional, brick-and-mortar classes (pp. 17–18). The data revealed that “instruction conducted entirely online is as effective as classroom instruction but no better” (p. 18) and that “blends of online and face-to-face instruction, on average, had stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone” (p. 19). In other words, hybrid courses that combine both in-person learning and online work—which so many faculty and students are engaging in this fall—seem to be most effective. But there are also studies that show that not everyone fares well in online learning (just as not everyone can be successful in college). Nguyen (2015) cited a study by Xu and Jaggars (2013) that found that “male students, younger students, Black students, and lower achieving students” were less likely to perform well in online classes (p. 313). Some institutions might limit or deny online course enrollment for students meeting certain criteria to improve those students’ chances of success; for example, at my institution, Western Kentucky University, students who have previously failed a general education English course cannot retake the course online.
But what does it take to create a good online course? A high-quality online course begins with sufficient institutional support for the faculty member and adequate technology. It is not enough to have an LMS in place and all of the supporting technology that goes with that. There needs to be training and support for how to use the LMS, and not just links to the LMS’s YouTube channel. Your school has a great student services department on campus? Terrific! Make sure that those same services are available to your online learners too. Your faculty development center might offer events that teach basics about online pedagogy or tools, but do you have instructional designers and technologists who can work one-on-one with your subject-matter expert faculty to transform that great in-person experience into an equally great one online? These are the oft-forgotten components that help to create a strong foundation for viable online courses long before anything is built inside of a course. With these in place, and with adequate time, faculty can create virtual classrooms where students can interact with their instructors, the content, and each other as they would in an in-person course. While faculty might have had strong institutional support and resources this past spring, they didn’t have time to take advantage of such services and take the steps needed to design a quality online course.
Since 2010, programs that focus on quality course design, such as Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium’s Scorecard, have grown in popularity nationally due to their grounding in the literature on what makes successful online and hybrid courses. Many educators also like California State University–Chico’s Quality Learning and Teaching (QLT) Rubric. These each offer opportunities to learn about how to construct a high-quality online course according to research-based recommendations—without having to do an extensive search on your library’s databases. For a practical approach from experienced online faculty, there are publications, blogs, and individual articles, such as this one, that offer just-in-time ideas for implementation. These resources, in addition to what faculty development centers on campuses around the country offer, can help faculty to create courses where students are highly likely to succeed.
Not only can online classes be just as effective as those conducted in-person, but students find them enjoyable too. Many factors contribute to students’ enjoyment, but a few seem to come up time and again. Lee et al. (2011) found this was dependent upon students’ awareness of assistance being available. In a 2014 article for Faculty Focus, Rob Kelly shared that students preferred classes with a clear instructor presence, that were easily navigable, and that included interactivity. What the students share without knowing it is that well-designed courses help them to be more successful. All the major rubrics that assess online course design include both Lee et al.’s (2011) and Kelly’s (2014) ideas as best practices from the literature.
This fall is not going to differ much from the spring. Many faculty are teaching in a modality that is still new and uncomfortable to them, and students are taking those same classes wishing they could be sitting in a classroom on campus with their peers and faculty. Both mourn the absence of that traditional experience. And that is okay. If you are an administrator, remind your faculty that you know they are doing their best in to teach via a modality that is not their forte, and if you have contact with students, take time to listen to their concerns about how they can do their best and what is working well (and not!) in their classes and share those ideas with your faculty. If you teach, be up front with your students. Tell them you’ve had to rethink some activities for this new way of teaching and that you’re open to feedback on how to make them better in case you have to do the same again in the winter and spring terms. We’re all in this together, doing our best to put together good courses, engage in good discussions, and have good outcomes. The key to making it through and creating the best experience you can is knowing what some of your resources are (online and through your institution). As I told participants in a recent Magna Online Seminar, your courses don’t need all the bells and whistles that you might think make a well-constructed online course. Courses need only an instructor and students, and the students simply need to know that someone is there for them when they need help. This is how they will learn, how everyone will feel better about the experience, and how faculty and students alike find out what little things to do to be better for next time. The combination of students making an effort, instructors being present, and everyone, including department heads and deans, allowing for another imperfect semester is how remote, hybrid, or online courses are most likely to be an effective and satisfying experience.
Online learning, when it is well-designed and with willing students enrolled in the classes, has so many benefits for today’s learners. I don’t want that to get lost in the debate about how effective we are or aren’t being during this pandemic. High-quality online classes offer flexible environment that allows students who can’t come to a traditional classroom—due to distance or schedule or even disability—to still receive the education they desire. It allows the working parent to finish a degree or the student who wants to work through school to avoid debt the chance to do that. It allows someone who might be painfully shy to open up on a discussion board and be far more active in their virtual class than they might have been on campus. Students who succeed in online courses also tend to be good at time management and self-direction, qualities employers seek. And given the nature of the beast, they might also develop better technology skills than their on-campus peers. At the end of the day, institutions want to graduate knowledgeable students who meet the needs of the regions they serve, and online learning can help them to do just that. When this pandemic is over and things settle into whatever our new “normal” will be, I hope faculty who don’t usually teach online will look into transforming their hurriedly developed online experiences into true, quality online courses, which will open their programs to even more students than they are reaching right now.
Lee, S. J., Srinivasan, S., Trail, T., Lewis, D. & Lopez, S. (2011). Examining the relationship among student perception of support, course satisfaction, and learning outcomes in online learning. Internet and Higher Education, 14(3), 158–163. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.04.001
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010, September). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf
Nguyen, T. (2015). The effectiveness of online learning: Beyond no significant difference and future horizons. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11(2), 309–319. https://jolt.merlot.org/Vol11no2/Nguyen_0615.pdf
Paul, J., & Jefferson, F. (2019). Comparative analysis of student performance in an online vs. face-to-face environmental science course from 2009 to 2016. Frontiers in Computer Science, 1(7). https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomp.2019.00007
Wren Mills, PhD, is a pedagogical assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research at Western Kentucky University.
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