“Have you ever learned special things from faraway places?” That's how a famous 1993 commercial began. Then it proceeded to show a MOOC, where a student in one country asks a question of a professor at a podium in another country. After a series of similar technologies followed on-screen (videoconferencing, GPS, pen computing, etc.), the commercial concluded “You will…and the company that will bring it to you is AT&T” (Rispo, n.d.).
That series of ads stimulated a lot of high-profile interest in online learning. Has it created a better system for students?
Just three years after those AT&T ads, Linda Harasim (1996: 203) wrote, “Computer networking and conferencing have found important practical application in education with such innovative developments as online delivery of courses, networked classrooms, and knowledge networks linking peers and experts. The benefits have been powerful and compelling, and have contributed to a paradigm shift in education. This shift is especially evident in higher education.”
One of the underrated benefits of an online class is the ability to monitor what students are doing in a course in a way that is much tougher to accomplish in a traditional class setting. At the same time, we can test assumptions about both types of classes if there is a hybrid component. Just a decade after those “You Will” ads, Jeffrey R. Young (2002) wrote of blended education that would link both traditional and online instruction.
One such assumption is that a student will take full advantage of the hybrid system, utilizing the online component to enhance the traditional teaching methods. Opponents of this approach find that such online benefits add little to the old methods of in-person lectures and classroom discussion.
Comparing traditional and online methods of instruction is not necessarily a new idea. Mary K. Tallent-Runnels, et al. (2006) compared the type of students for both teaching delivery methods, as well as communication between faculty and students, pace of learning, and student expertise in computers. Alfred P. Rovai and Hope Jordan (2004) found that blended courses do better than traditional and fully virtual classrooms for developing a sense of community. Kyong-Jee Kim and Curtis J. Bonk (2006) conducted a series of surveys about who teaches such online courses, how they feel about these courses, faculty training, monetary support, and a variety of other factors, even comparing the “expected quality of online versus traditional education.” And students have also been surveyed about how effective they feel online teaching is in Suzanne Young's study (2006).
To learn more about how students learn, I conducted a test of a core subject that I teach. It's titled “The American Experience,” and it's a required course for juniors and seniors at LaGrange College. I've taught the course using in-class presentation of the material and student discussions of key points and questions posed to the class. I've also taught the course in an online format, complete with presentations and podcasts, discussion forums and chats. In both cases, papers are emailed to me.
But it is always difficult to compare across classes because my traditional-oriented class tests are of the closed-book, pencil-and-paper variety with a format of multiple-choice questions and short essays for in-person classes, while online exams tend toward essays that are open-book and open-note.
The solution was to offer a hybrid course that blended the in-person experience with an online supplement. While attendance would be mandatory, accessing the online materials would be optional. If it was made available, would students utilize the online methods? Would the online material help them in a traditional class?
In the spring of 2014, I ran such a test. I compared a pool of students who simply relied upon the in-person format to prepare for the exams to the group of students who chose to take advantage of the online materials to assist them in their in-person exam.
The supplemental material constituted copies of those PowerPoint lectures, some of which had an audio podcast, a variation from my lectures. They were similar to, if not carbon copies of, the material available in class.
I gathered the data on the 19 students who took the American Experience course that semester. Eight chose not to view the supplemental online material while 11 did, even though all had access to it (for turning in papers and group research assignments). I calculated the exam averages for both groups, as well as their standard deviations, to conduct a difference of means test.
The group average for those who relied solely on the traditional methods of lecture, note-taking, and discussion was an 84.78. For the 11 students who took advantage of the online materials before the exam, the class average was 89.81.
Certainly the students thought a five-point swing was significant enough. But the results were not statistically significant at the .10 threshold, just missing the mark. But I took another look at the data, and found there was an outlier. A hardworking student (Student “S”) who had one of the highest grades in the class (99.5) chose not to access the online material. She clearly outperformed her counterparts who did not use the online material; none of the others who ignored the online material made an “A” on the test.
Rather than just eliminate her scores before rerunning the data, I also chose to eliminate the best-performing student who chose to adopt the online material (Student “Z,” who had a grade of 98), to be fair. When eliminating students “S” and “Z,” we had a class average of 82.67 for those who did not choose to use the online teaching materials. The average grade of those who opted for the online teaching materials was an 89. For the students, the results were still significant. But this time, the difference of means test showed that we could reject the null hypothesis of no relationship between the variables with a 99 percent level of confidence.
Anecdotal evidence suggested that the students who used the online materials appreciated them. “As a student I loved the slides,” wrote one student. “Even if the slides were questions about the material we were supposed to read, it helped highlight the material,” he added. Another student, expressed his appreciation for video links to the episodes “America: The Story of Us,” which students watched online as well as in class.
I presented the results at an in-house teaching and learning conference at LaGrange College, and it stimulated a lot of discussion about whether it was the technology or the student motivation to do more in a class that accounted for the significant difference in test scores. Certainly additional research about the student quality before the class should be analyzed. But at a minimum, the early results for the online component of a hybrid class are encouraging.
Linda Harasim (1996) “Online Education: The Future.” In Computing Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First-Century
, Teresa M. Harrison and Timothy Stephen, eds. New York: SUNY Press.
Kyong-Jee Kim and Curtis J. Bonk (2006) “The Future of Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: The Survey Says…” Educause Review Online
. January 1. www.educause.edu/ero/article/future-online-teaching-and-learning-higher-education-survey-says%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%C2%A6
Vito Rispo (n.d.) “How Accurate Were AT&T's ‘You Will' Ads From 1993?” AdSavvy. www.adsavvy.org/how-accurate-were-atts-you-will-ads-from-1993/
Alfred P. Rovai and Hope Jordan (2004) “Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A Comparative Analysis with Traditional and Fully Online Graduate Courses.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning
, Vol. 5, No. 2.
Mary K. Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) “Teaching Courses Online: A Review of the Research.” Review of Education Research
, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Spring): 93-135.
Jeffrey R. Young (2002) “‘Hybrid' Teaching Seeks to End the Divide Between Traditional and Online Instruction.” Chronicle of Higher Education
, Vol. 48, No. 28, March: A33-A34.
Suzanne Young (2006) “Student Views of Effective Online Teaching in Higher Education.” American Journal of Distance Education
, Vol. 20, No. 2 (June): 65-77.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.