This blog was kindly contributed by Rachel Ambler, an independent researcher, Gervas Huxley, Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol, and Mike Peacey, Senior Lecturer at the New College of the Humanities.
Without warning, and almost overnight, the higher education sector has embarked on a whole-scale experiment in online learning. There is no doubt that this is a challenging time for both students and teaching staff, but what can the academic literature tell us about online learning?
In this review of the literature, we define online learning as ‘a learner’s interaction with content and/or people via the Internet for the purpose of learning’. For example, students interact by watching a pre-recorded lecture online (interaction with content) or participating in an online discussion group (interaction with people). An important distinction that the literature makes is between synchronous and asynchronous learning – whether student and teacher are online at the same time. A Zoom meeting is ‘synchronous’ whereas an instructor-moderated Facebook discussion is ‘asynchronous’.
Universities were early adopters of the internet for research and this has trickled down into teaching. For the past two decades, teaching resources have slowly migrated online, initially for administrative purposes. Reading lists and lecture handouts, that once were given out in lectures, are now accessed via a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). The phrase ‘blended learning’ is used in situations where learning takes place both online and in the classroom. The timeline below shows the adoption of online learning.
More recently, the technology to provide synchronous online communication has become accessible to almost all academics. The current pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of these technologies for teaching. The closure of university campuses has left lecturers with no choice but to experiment with 100 per cent online learning. We believe that when universities re-open, increased use of online learning will be the new normal.
Until now, the resource-allocation decision has been primarily about contact hours, class size, and the provision of physical learning space. Online or blended learning adds another layer of decision-making:
- synchronous (same time, different place); and
- asynchronous (different time, different place).
When traditional classes and lectures are replaced with synchronous, online learning, staff time constraints remain, but physical space constraints disappear.
There is a small but growing empirical literature that compares learning gain between traditional and online learning. In an ideal world, there would be a host of studies comparing classroom-based learning with synchronous online learning, with students randomised to one or other environment. Unfortunately, few such studies exist and the literature does not always distinguish between different kinds of online learning. Researchers are still at an early stage in answering the fundamental question: if a student learns online, will their learning gain be better or worse than if they had learnt in a classroom?
If you read the Times Higher Education (THE) or The Times at the beginning of April this year, you might think that this question had been answered. In coverage of a newly published paper, the THE declared ‘online is fine’ and The Times reported ‘Online university as good as the real thing’. Headlines of this kind risk over-interpreting the results of one small study, as this blog explains.
In a random controlled trial in 2013, Figlio et al. divided Economics students into two groups – one group attended a lecture whilst the other group watched a recording of the same lecture online. The live-lecture attendees performed better in their exams than their online-only counterparts. This was a small study, with only 312 observations. A larger but non-randomised study (2.3 million observations), published in the American Economic Review in 2017, found similar results. At a large not-for-profit university in the US, students chose to take courses either online or face-to-face, with two-thirds of all courses being taken online. Bettinger et al. found that, on average, students taking a course in person received a B- while their online peers achieved a C.
The recently published paper by Chirikov et al. which received the favourable press coverage, finds no difference in exam performance between online, blended and in-person instruction, although students are less satisfied with their courses. The authors argue that resource-constrained universities could save money by outsourcing their lecturing to highly-ranked institutions. To test this theory, academics from top Russian universities recorded Engineering lectures and 325 students were randomly assigned to one of three groups. An online group was taught wholly online with access to the recorded lectures but no discussion groups. A blended group accessed the online lecture and attended a discussion group at their home university. A traditional group attended a live lecture and discussion group, both at their home university. There were minimal differences between final exam scores across all three groups.
The blended learning results from this paper follow the trend of previous research. Other papers had also found no difference in outcomes between traditional and blended learning. In 2016, Alpert et al. randomised Economics students to classroom, blended and online learning groups. The classroom group attended a weekly discussion group and a weekly lecture. The blended group attended a weekly discussion group and watched a lecture online. The online group accessed an asynchronous discussion group via Facebook and watched a lecture online. The same instructor taught all formats. Exam results were worse for the online group but there was little difference in results between the blended and classroom group.
The following table shows the differences between these four studies. Across the rows, coloured cells indicate where class, instructor or resources are the same between learning formats. As an example, in the first paper the orange cells show that the same instructor taught both live and recorded lectures. Comparing the colour patterns between the papers, demonstrates some of the difficulties of interpreting the literature – each paper compares something different.
In addition to learning gains, some of the online learning papers use dropout as a measure of outcomes, asking: Are online students more or less likely to finish their course than classroom-based learners? Within the distance education community, nearly everyone agrees that online learning increases dropout rates. Bernard states ‘we already know that dropout in … courses is higher than in classroom settings’. Bettinger et al. find ‘evidence that taking a course online instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college’. This is particularly worrying as university students who leave a course in term three still have to pay back all of the tuition fee loan for that year.
One difficulty with interpreting the literature is that most of the studies look at asynchronous learning. It is assumed that online-only students either never interact with their teachers or only interact via online asynchronous discussion boards. This excludes any online replication of face-to-face learning, such as the video-conferencing that students are now experiencing. Choosing when to deliver asynchronous or synchronous online learning is the single most important online learning decision for universities. We urgently need more evidence of the impact of synchronous online learning on outcomes.
In most of the studies, the way that learning is blended is for small groups to learn face-to-face, with lectures online. The implicit assumption is that, for larger groups, student-teacher interaction matters less. Therefore a lecture is more suited to an asynchronous online format than a discussion group. If social distancing continues, it may not be possible for large lecture halls to re-open. But academics will be able to take advantage of available recording technology, albeit in an empty lecture hall. Lectures could then be uploaded, providing asynchronous online learning. This would benefit students in different time zones.
This is just one example of the many opportunities to experiment with (and gather data about) blended learning. For blended learning, the decision is more complicated than the former staff time allocation choice. Now we must choose the best bundle of face-to-face, online, synchronous and asynchronous learning. That bundle may look very different from the current synchronous learning moved online experience.
Universities could use sophisticated interactive learning platforms, especially for Mathematical subjects for question and answer practice. We will always need teachers face-to-face in small groups and ideally in an actual classroom. But universities collaborate with each other daily on research. Why don’t they collaborate more on teaching? Why don’t universities share their best lectures (particularly for more generic first- and second-year courses)?
New technology is usually first used to do what has always been done. In the race to get teaching online, there has not been time for innovation or implementation of interactive online learning. Practice needs to keep up with current advances in technology. Students are digital natives, already skilled in online communication.
Asking the question ‘If a student learns online, will their learning gain be better or worse than if they had learnt in a classroom?’, at a time when universities have no choice but to teach online, may be opening Pandora’s box but higher education classrooms will not be closed forever. 100 per cent online learning will end. Social distancing will do what inertia has prevented – shift higher education learning into a blended format. We need more evidence than we currently have of the benefits of online and blended learning. The research needs to catch up with the technology and to study synchronous online learning in more depth. We believe that there will always be a role for synchronous learning, we also believe in the disruptive potential of high-quality asynchronous lectures delivered by world class teachers.