Winter 2010 Issue

A Message from Dave King, Associate Provost

It’s Not (Only) About the Money

Although it is true that much of our thinking these days revolves around money, our work is not only about the money. Through this troubled economic time, we must maintain some attention to our ultimate goals: effective teaching and learner success.  

In my mind, at Ecampus, it is not (only) about the money; it is all about providing access to the knowledge base and learning opportunities of Oregon State in ways that make learners and students more successful. Skeptics may raise an eyebrow at that, but read on and tell me whether you agree.  

For more than a decade, online and distance learning experts have been quoting studies from literally every educational corner of the world that identify the “no significance difference phenomena,” meaning that study after study continually find no measurable differences between online students and face-to-face students in achieving learning objectives. In fact, researcher Thomas Ramage, wrote in 2002 that, “Interestingly (he) found no studies that exposed lower grades or test scores of online students compared to traditional students.”

Now, there is research that indicates what we’ve seen anecdotally for some time, it’s not just there is no significant difference, but online learners perform better than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction.

A systematic review by the U.S. Department of Education of the research literature between 1996 and July 2008 brought us a meta-analysis called Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.

Among the key findings:
  • Students who took all or part of their coursework online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course in a traditional face-to-face instructional setting.
  • Either blended or purely online learning opportunities within a single class or instructional setting generally result in similar student learning outcomes.
  • Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the effectiveness of an online learning class.
  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.
Digging deeper into the findings of the meta-analysis indicates possible reasons why online students outperformed their face-to-face counterparts.  Without over-simplifying too much, it appears to relate to time on task. Do online or blended courses enable asynchronous learning to occur, which allows online students to more conveniently schedule their learning activity with other work and family commitments?  Does this in turn give them more time on task as it relates to their learning activity, and therefore make them more successful in class?

Online learning per se may not be the reason learners are more successful. It is probably more how the learners use the tools. The bottom-line outcome is that when the tools are made available and the curriculum is appropriately enhanced to engage the tools, the learners can be more successful.  

Among the types of individual studies that were reviewed in the meta-analysis, a couple of specific examples help provide greater detail, and together they indicate improvement can occur in both undergraduate and graduate programs.

In her article Learning Style and Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction, Charlotte Neuhauser of the School of Business at Madonna University in Michigan, compared two sections of the same undergraduate business class. And then looking at graduate classes, Charles Karr, Barry Weck, Dennis Sunal, and Timothy Cook at the University of Alabama writing in Analysis of the Effectiveness of Online Learning in a Graduate Engineering Math Course, discuss the complications and successes of online high-level mathematics courses. Both studies are good examples of the type of research included in the meta-analysis by the US Department of Education study. And both studies reveal significant success for online learners.  

Our OSU-based faculty members have weighed in on the issue of student success in the online environment also. Ron Reuter from the OSU Cascades campus, compares learning success of online and on-campus students in a general education soil science course with lab and field components. He found there was no difference in overall grades or lab grades between course formats. And Jonathan Katz from History may have hit on an issue that is one of the reasons leading to the student success identified in the US DoE meta-analysis, student motivation.

It is only slightly disingenuous for me to assert it is not about the money when it comes to online learning at OSU. In reality it is not only about the money.  Chris LaBelle, OSU Educational Outreach instructional designer, points out. “I would say that 99% of the time, it’s ‘all’ about the money when it comes to elearning. For the students, distance education is usually about promotions or job advancement that comes with a new certification or degree, which equals money, and these students usually save money by being able to take online courses as opposed to leaving their job, home, etc.” And, of course the Ecampus business model returns significant revenue directly to colleges and department, and that is not inconsequential.

So, if it is, at least in part, about improving learning for our students and learners, what’s next? How do we continue to improve?

In the US DoE meta-analysis, blended learning had the highest statistically significant learning outcomes. Blended learning is defined as a learning environment in which online elements are used to enhance face-to-face instruction. Ecampus is preparing a proposal that will promote blended course development at Oregon State. Basically we are planning to help the University prepare for what Indiana University open systems expert, Curt Bonk says is a “perfect e-storm.”

According to Bonk blended courses, programs, and learning opportunities will link pedagogy, technology, and learner needs (Educause Quarterly, Vol. 29, 2006). He and co-author, Kyong-Jae Kim explore what it takes for universities like ours to improve pedagogy, effectively adopt appropriate technologies, and ultimately satisfy learner needs, ostensibly our ultimate goal.    

And Ecampus’ Alfonso Bradoch, Director of Dept and Learner Services, points out that as we push out beyond Bonk’s “perfect e-storm” we see a future trend toward ubiquitous learning and the ubiquitous university gaining some traction.  University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has created an Ubiquitous Learning Institute.  Its focus includes:
  • Changing our understanding of all the contexts in which learning takes place.
  • Seamlessly integrating education into the flow of everyday life.
  • Exploring how new technologies and constant interconnectivity are transforming when, where, and how learning happens.”
It speaks to the technology driven expansion of the learning environment beyond the walls of the campus and combining with the electronic virtual campus to create something new. It will be a university where learning takes place anytime anyplace, a fundamental change to the concept of what a university is and how it works.

It is the next generation Land-Grant University.

When we focus past today’s fiscal issues this is what we see.  This is what our students will demand of us.  It is not (only) about the money; it’s about innovations in education.