At Oregon State University, students use a “virtual spectrometer” to measure the absorbance of different solutions in an online chemistry course that features a “virtual lab.” At the University of Central Florida, aspiring teachers practice their skills in a simulated middle school classroom that features digital avatars controlled by trainers who act like students. At Weber State University, students in an online marketing course issue time-stamped critiques of student presentations.
These are some of the ways technology is transforming teaching and learning in higher education. And the trend is likely to continue.
Consider the following statistics from a January report produced jointly by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, titled Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. According to the report:
• More than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course in the fall of 2011, 570,000 more than the prior year.
• Thirty-two percent of students now take at least one course online.
• The percentage of chief academic leaders who say online learning is “critical to their long-term strategy” has reached an all-time high at 69.1 percent.
• Seventy-seven percent of academic leaders rate learning outcomes in online education as “the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes.”
But as technology increasingly moves instructors from behind the lecterns to in front of computer screens and webcams, new questions and concerns arise about the best ways for educators to harness the immense power that technology provides. A paramount concern, experts on technology in higher education say, is how to use technology to enhance access and attainment among diverse groups of students, from traditional 18- to 24-year-old students to adult learners who may only attend part-time.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of opportunity in higher education to very thoughtfully and proactively embrace different technologies that will help us serve students,” says Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, an association that represents the presidents of more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions.
An array of solutions
“We have all these diverse institutions and they can employ technology in ways that best suit their particular niche and their particular students,” Sandeen says.
That’s what Hooman Estelami, a marketing professor and director of blended and distance learning at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business, had in mind when he set out a couple of years back to study whether students thought they learned more in a pure online marketing course or a “hybrid” marketing course that blended both face-to-face instruction and online learning.
To compare methods, Estelami used both formats to teach multiple sections of two marketing courses. One was called Marketing Research and the other Marketing of Financial Services.
What he found is that when the course was quantitative in nature, such as the Marketing Research course, “having the hybrid format was not essential.”
“The students perceived their learning to be the same, whether they took it in purely online form or hybrid form,” Estelami says of one of the key findings of his paper, titled An Exploratory Study of the Drivers of Student Satisfaction and Learning Experience in Hybrid-Online and Pure-Online Marketing Courses.
However, with the more qualitative course — Marketing of Financial Services — students preferred the hybrid form.
“They wanted that contact,” Estelami says.
Estelami says the paper has ramifications for higher education administrators and course designers.
“The number one key takeaway is, if it’s a qualitative course, it needs to engage some face-to-face teaching,” Estelami says. For courses that are quantitative in nature, the online videos, materials and tutorials must be designed well enough to make the materials self-sufficient, he says.
However, researchers urge caution in using just one study, or even several, to draw up technology battle plans.
“A holistic look at the literature assembled provides little, if any, evidence to suggest that online or hybrid learning, on average, is more or less effective than face-to-face learning,” says a 2012 literature review titled “Current Status of Research on Online Learning in Postsecondary Education.”
Customizing the experience
Sandeen says, “The best online courses have a high degree of interaction.”
Interaction is what Oregon State chemistry professor Michael Lerner had in mind when he started incorporating “collaborative web-based laboratories” into an online chemistry course at the university.
Previously, he says, students were working on the software individually. But that didn’t meet the standards espoused by the American Chemical Society.
“One reason they want lab components is to foster teamwork,” Lerner says. “And that doesn’t happen in a one-person, one-computer experience.”
So the university started using a beta version of software from onlinechemlabs.com that has interactive components and enables multiple students to work on one exercise together.
The software is not synchronous — that is to say, students aren’t looking at the same graphic screen simultaneously and seeing it in real time. However, the students can share data with each other and communicate through messages and cooperate to solve problems, Lerner says.
The university has tried it on one group of about 150 students with two experiments last fall and plans to go full-bore with the software next fall with thousands of students, Lerner says.
One of the labs involves using a “virtual spectrometer” to measure the absorbance of various solutions.
“The idea of the interactive lab is students are working on different samples and sharing data to draw conclusions about the techniques,” Lerner says.
Anecdotally, Lerner says, the initial feedback has been “very positive.”
“They liked being able to work with other students,” Lerner says.
But online education doesn’t always benefit all students equally.
In February, a paper issued from the Community College Research Center within the Teachers College at Columbia University found that males, Black students and students with lower levels of academic preparation experienced “significantly stronger negative coefficients for online learning compared with their counterparts, in terms of both course persistence and course grade.”
“These results provide support for the notion that students are not homogeneous in their adaptability to the online delivery format and may therefore have substantially different outcomes for online learning,” states the paper, titled Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas. The paper is based on a dataset of nearly 500,000 courses taken by 40,000 or so community and technical college students in Washington State.
“These patterns also suggest that performance gaps between key demographic groups already observed in face-to-face classrooms … are exacerbated in online courses,” the paper states. “This is troubling from an equity perspective: If this pattern holds true across other states and educational sectors, it would imply that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity.”
Beyond concerns about which students benefit the most and least from various forms of online learning are concerns from faculty members, who must design the courses and use the technology to deliver course content—things that take considerable time.
For those reasons, says Shih-Hsung “Alex” Hwu, associate vice president for distance and extended education at Humboldt State University, administrators must make sure faculty get adequate training and technical assistance.
Hwu is the author of a 2011 paper titled Concerns and Professional Development Needs of University Faculty in Adopting Online Learning. Among other things, the paper — based on Hwu’s research during his time at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — found that most faculty were willing to improve their technological skills and incorporate online learning if they “received proper administrative support, recognition in tenure, professional development and technical support.”
Administrators should make sure that faculty concerns are taken into account throughout the process of transforming a class from face-to-face to online, Hwu says.
“If faculty are not ready to adopt, students will suffer,” Hwu says. “That’s why it’s so important to include faculty in the discussion of adapting online learning every step of the way, because sometimes faculty feel left out and then they don’t have a chance to share what they think.”