Online Learning may not be Ideal for All Students
By Megan Sumeracki
With advances in technology, the use of online and hybrid (partially online and partially in person) classes has increased. There seems to be a lot of excitement around different course formats that are available in higher education, with some institutions even pushing for more and more online and hybrid options for students to stay competitive. In many ways, this makes sense to me. Offering a variety of course formats can create more flexibility for students. Online and hybrid classes allow for students to complete work more on their own time based on their own schedules, and eliminates at least some of what can be long commute times for students living off campus. Flipped hybrid classrooms also allow for students to engage with the material before class and then ask questions and engage with more learning activities during class.
*(As an aside, I just finished teaching a hybrid class, and the students reported being excited to be able to engage with the material before class, and said it made understanding class easier. I do find this a little bit ironic, given that I've always assigned reading before class. Yet in traditional classes, the students often report that they don't read before class because they don't understand the reading until later and want to attend class first... There could be many reasons for this of course, and this is just an anecdote perhaps better discussed in another blog).
There are, of course, downsides. The non-verbal cues that instructors typically have during class are no longer present, and so it will be more difficult for instructors to identify and correct misunderstandings, and the corrections that do occur will not be immediate. Online learning requires more self-direction and self-regulated learning from the students, and this is something many students struggle with.
Online learning may be more convenient for many students, but do they facilitate learning? The answer to the question seems to be, it depends. When asking whether students are learning more in various formats, we have to be very careful about looking at students' grades in various courses. Students may perform better in one course than another because of the ease of exams, the weight of certain types of assignments, time to take exams, whether they are allowed to consult their notes for assignments, and many other factors. The US Department of Education (1) conducted a meta-analysis looking at randomized control studies and found a relatively small improvement of learning in online courses compared to traditional courses, with hybrid courses showing a slightly larger effect.
However, online learning may not be ideal for everyone when it comes to successful learning. Students with certain learner characteristics may be more likely to succeed in courses with online learning components, while other characteristics may make it more difficult for students to succeed in the same online environment. With more variety available, it is important for us to understand when online course formats can be beneficial to student learning, and when it may actually make learning more difficult. Heather Kauffman (2) published a review in 2015 analyzing what learner characteristics were related with success in and satisfaction with online learning.
So what type of student is more likely to be successful in an online learning environment? Kauffman's synthesis of the literature leads to a few characteristics that seem to lead to greater success in online learning environments. Students who are higher in emotional intelligence tend to be more successful in online environments, including students demonstrating:
- greater self-awareness of their own needs,
- greater management of their own feelings,
- greater self-regulation skills,
- greater self-discipline,
- better time management skills,
- better organization,
- ability to successfully plan,
- more accurate self-evaluation,
- a preference for reflective and visual learning, and
- an internal locus of control
To me, this makes a lot of sense. When a student enrolls in an online or hybrid course they are typically granted more flexibility than in the average traditional class. But, more flexibility does mean the student becomes more responsible for guiding and evaluating their own learning. The student needs to be able to evaluate their own learning and seek out additional help or resources when required. Further, if a student runs into problems with technology and tend to become frustrated easily, they may be less likely to engage with the material and miss important opportunities to evaluate their own learning. Similarly, if students do not like the visual way in which much online material is presented, then they may be less likely to engage with the material as well. (Note, all other things being equal, matching instruction learning preferences or styles does not lead to greater learning. That said, if a student dislikes one type of learning format and as a result avoids the material or quits too early, this probably will affect learning. For more on learning styles, see this post.)
Bottom line: Offering a variety of learning methods, such as traditional courses, online courses, and hybrid courses, can be a really good thing. However, it is important for students and instructors to consider much more than convenience! Online learning platforms are not for everyone. Students need to be aware of their own strengths and how these strengths may help them succeed in various course formats to make an informed decision.
(1) Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., Jones, K., (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online studies. ED No. 04-CO-0040, US Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Washington, DC.
(2) Kauffman, H. (2015). A review of predictive factors of student success in and satisfaction with online learning. Research in Learning Technology, 23, 26507 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v23.26507