Principal-Agent Online?

A few weeks ago, I referenced a research study that examined retention and performance of students in online and onsite collegiate classes. While I discussed some of the main findings in another blog post, I’ve been really contemplating a quote the authors shared at the end of the paper. The authors write:

online courses change the constraints and expectations on academic interactions. Professors and students do not interact face-to-face; they interact only by asynchronous written communication. Thus, students likely feel less oversight from their professors and less pressure to respond to professors’ questions. In the standard principal-agent problem, effort by the agent (student) falls as it becomes less observable to the principal (professor).” (Bettinger, Fox, Loeb & Taylor, 2017, p. 2873)

The authors identify that online students may feel less pressure and less motivation to participate because the professor isn’t physically present. As economists, the researchers connect this decrease in effort to the “principal-agent problem.” To be honest, prior to reading the study, I hadn’t heard of the principal-agent problem, so I looked it up. The Economics Times says the problem “arises when one party (agent) agrees to work in favor of another party (principal) in return for some incentives.” Economic comparisons like this are pretty common in higher education. We’re told to view our syllabi as “contracts” and we use student evaluations almost like businesses that survey their customers. Students even refer to a college degree as an investment in their future. With the pervasiveness of this economic verbiage in education, it’s not really that much of a stretch that these researchers would view grades as “incentives” and schooling as “work.” It’s the larger connection that the Bettinger and his colleagues make that has me thinking.

In their explanation, a student’s effort is “less observable” in online education but I don’t know if that’s really the case. When I teach face-to-face classes, my students physically attend the class but I don’t really know whether they’ve read the material to prepare for class. Sure, I can do some sort of assessment of their learning but I’ve witnessed many students who try to fake their way through these. I’ve also witnessed my share of students who were significantly contributing to face-to-face discussions without really knowing anything about the content at hand.

And that’s my point. Effort is only observable by monitoring students’ participation. As teachers, we observe students’ contributions in classroom discussions and through assessments and monitor their learning. But this can be done in online and face-to-face environments. I would also argue that, in some ways, effort and participation may be more observable online. When I teach an online class, I know when a student hasn’t logged into the course for several days or hasn’t accessed assigned content. I can also see whether students have read or contributed posts to a discussion forum. Students’ participation is observable in the data that the learning management system collects.

That’s the other big takeaway from this research study. Bettinger and his colleagues argue that students need to feel “oversight from their professors” in their classes. Online instructors typically refer to this as “teaching presence” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). Personally, I work hard to establish a presence in my online classes so students know that I’m there to monitor their participation, assess their learning and provide feedback for their growth. While the researchers identify this a potential reason for the negative impact that the online classes in their study had on student performance and retention, I think other forces may be at play. While the principal-agent problem aligns with the larger incentive system that education represents, our classrooms are still social spaces where learning is fostered through interaction between students and instructors. Interestingly, these are not areas that Bettinger and his colleagues identify as factors in their work.

Bettinger, E., Fox, L., Loeb, S., & Taylor, E. S. (2017). Virtual Classrooms: How Online College Courses Affect Student Success. American Economic Review, 107(9), 2855-2875.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.


The Failures of Online Education?

A research paper has been circulating around my institution recently.  Published in the September 2017 issue of American Economic Review, the research examined students who had taken online and face-to-face classes at a for-profit institution. Comparing the grades and retention rates of students enrolled in both formats, the authors write:

“We find that taking a course online, instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college. Grades are lower both for the course taken online and in future courses. Students are less likely to remain enrolled at the university.

This is pretty compelling stuff.  Especially considering that the study involved four years of data with over 230,000 students enrolled in 168,000 sections of more than 750 different online classes. That’s a lot of data. The other part that’s novel is that the university offers almost identical coursework in face-to-face and online formats.  The classes use the same syllabus, use the same assessments and assignments and have similar class sizes. The big difference is that online participation is mostly through recorded lessons and asynchronous discussion forums while face-to-face involves real time student-student and student-instructor interactions.

Looking at the study from a methodological or analytical perspective, it’s hard to critique it. The study involves thousands of students who self-enrolled in similar face-to-face and online classes. The study is also longitudinal in that it tracks students’ future performance and success over a four-year span. The researchers also wisely remove students from the participant pool who may not have been able to enroll in the face-to-face classes due to distance from the physical locations. The only real criticism that some of my colleagues had was that the research focused on a large for-profit university that some inferred was a predatory institution. Otherwise, it’s a solid study.

I guess what I’m saying is that the findings can’t be easily dismissed from applying a critical perspective. We might be able to question its generalizability to other student populations but we can’t dismiss the big takeaway. This study shows convincingly that online classes negatively impacted student learning and their future success for the student enrolled in this institution.

So, what do we do with this information? Some of my colleagues are seeing this research as evidence that we should do away with online classes. For a lot of financial and cultural reasons, I don’t see this as likely. Rather than dismissing online education outright, the study offers a road map for our institutions to do some self-study. The type of data collected for this study can be easily obtained by almost any institution. But, how many of our campuses have? From my perspective, those are the real questions each of us needs to ask on our respective campuses:

  • How are online classes serving our students’ learning needs?
  • How can we be doing it better?

It’s easy to answer these in the abstract. Instead, we should use this study to start a larger, evidence-based conversation on our campuses about how we can close any performance gaps that our online students may be experiencing and work institutionally to provide the best online learning environments for them.

Communicating Online

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2014.  Enjoy!

In past posts, I’ve discussed the Community of Inquiry framework  and how it relates to our work in online classes.  The framework, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), identifies the need for instructors to attend to three different domains in an online class:  a social presence, a cognitive presence and a teaching presence.  As instructors build and manage online classes, they need to thoughtfully and purposefully build these presences into the learning environment and consider how they will be present to instruct students, challenge them cognitively and interact and communicate with them.  I think most online instructors find the cognitive and teaching presences easier to visualize and foster than the social presence.  In response to this, I wrote a post last year where I offered some suggestions to build social presence in online classes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social presence online in response to research I shared a few weeks ago.  In work conducted by Chambliss and Takacs, they found that undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring and caring faculty member in an introductory course.  Students were also equally likely to write off an entire field if they had a single negative experience with a professor.  With communication mediated through electronic means in an online class, I worry that negative experiences may occur at a greater frequency.  I’m not saying that online instructors are treating their students poorly or demonstrate less compassion than instructors in face-to-face classrooms.  I just worry that the means of communication may undermine how students perceive a message.  I think we’ve all sent or received an email whose tone was misread.  That’s why communicating and interacting online requires great care and attention.  And sometimes some creative thinking.

Let me provide a scenario.  Last week, I started a new online class and one student did not log in for the first two days of the course.  Although the class was being offered asynchronously, I was worried that the student would not be able to meet the first due dates of the course and would be a potential problem through the remainder of the class.  My initial reaction was to send an email saying something like:

“Student,  Our online class started two days ago and you have yet to log into the course or complete any of the first modules.  Without consistent attention to the course, you are likely to fail the class.  Please log in and start working.  The first modules are due tomorrow.

As I thought about the reasons a student may not have logged in, I started creating fictional scenarios in my head.  Maybe there was a death in the family.  Or maybe the student was having technical difficulties.  Or maybe…  There were a bunch of possible scenarios that didn’t necessarily fit the email I was planning to send.  In light of these, I sent this email instead.

Student, I see that you have not contributed in our online class yet.  The first modules are due on Thursday by noon.  Are you having any technical challenges of which I should be aware?  Just checking in.   I hope all is well.

It turned out that the student was having some serious medical issues and appreciated that I reached out through email.  We discussed whether she would be able to complete the class and what accommodations could be made to help her be successful.  I’m happy to report that she is now feeling better and is actively participating in the class.   I wonder whether the original email would have been received as positively or had the same impact.

I understand that communication is a two-way street and that the student should have taken some responsibility in contacting me about her situation.  The student and I discussed this responsibility in our email exchange.  As instructors, however, we have to remember the power we have in establishing the social presence in our courses.  In some ways, it conjures up images of Old Fezziwig in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up.

In online communication, the power lies in carefully crafted words, which should never be considered slight or insignificant.

Online instructors, show yourself?

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in January 2016.  Enjoy!

Last week, while helping to coordinate an online teaching workshop for faculty on campus, a colleague asked about the importance of having an instructor appear visually in a synchronous classroom space.  We had just demonstrated our institution’s online classroom tool and one of the faculty members wondered whether it was important for students to actually see the instructors who was leading the synchronous online lesson.  My first thoughts went to Mayer’s multimedia principles.  As I’ve shared before on this blog, Mayer’s multimedia principles outline ways to successfully design and incorporate multimedia in educational settings to foster student learning.  Mayer’s image principle says that incorporating an image of a speaker in a multimedia presentation has no significant influence on students’ learning of the content being presented.  Using Mayer as guide, I explained to my colleague, one could conclude that incorporating an instructor’s face in a synchronous classroom probably wouldn’t have much impact on learning.

My colleague, however, was persistent.  While student learning may not be impacted by instructor visibility, maybe there were other areas to consider?  Maybe the instructor’s image could foster more social presence in the class?  Or maybe the instructor’s image could motivate students?  Needless to say, my colleague’s questions motivated me to do a little digging and see what I could find.

I came across some research that examined the use of video tutorials with students.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the study examined the impact of having an instructor’s face be visible in recorded lessons.  While not a direct match with my colleague’s questions, the results were pretty compelling.  In the first phase of the study, the researchers found that the vast majority of students preferred to see the instructor during the recorded lessons.  While 35% of the participants found the instructor’s image distracting, most would choose to have the teacher be visible in the lesson.

With this in mind, in the next phase of the study, the researchers examined whether having the instructor constantly visible or visible only during strategic times would have any impact on student learning.  In this phase, participants were placed in two groups (constantly visible and strategically visible) and a host of different factors were examined.  Researchers examined learning outcome, attrition, cognitive load, social presence and assessment taking.  For most of the areas, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups.  For both groups, the participants completed similar numbers of assessments, watched the same amount of the videos and demonstrated similar levels of learning.  When looking at the social presence and cognitive load, however, the groups differed greatly.

Students who watched the instructors appearing strategically during the lessons reported higher levels of social presence than the students who saw the instructors who appeared constantly.  When the instructors appeared only at certain times during the lesson, the students reported feeling more connected to the class and developed a sense that the instructor was there to support their learning.  When the instructor was constantly visible, the students eventually began to ignore the teacher’s image completely.  Since they were ignoring the image of the instructor, the students didn’t report similar levels of belonging to the class and reported lower levels of social presence in the class.

Ignoring the instructor has some positive value, however. The students in the strategic group reported much higher levels of distractions than the students in the constant group.  While this self-reported “cognitive load” didn’t translate into lower assessment scores for students, the research suggests that this could create challenges for students who prefer to learn visually.

So, what does it all mean?  When instructors are visible in online spaces, they can help to foster more social presence with students.  While it won’t impact student learning or their participation in the class, being visible can help students feel more connected to classes.  Instructors should remember that this is a case of diminishing returns.  More instructor visibility in video lessons (or synchronous classrooms) doesn’t necessarily lead to more social presence.  Much like many things in life, a little can go a long way.


Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724–739.

Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2013.  Enjoy!

You’ve been assigned your first online class to teach and you feel like you’re ready. You’ve done your homework and learned the ins and outs of the institution’s course management system. You’ve structured your content in purposeful ways and developed thoughtful guiding questions to situate student learning and motivate them. When the class starts, however, you realize that while everything is technically functioning correctly, many of the students are not engaged. While you were looking forward to teaching online and interacting with students, the students are approaching your course as if it’s an independent study. This wasn’t what you anticipated when you agreed to teach online!

In their framework outlining educational experiences for students, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) identify and explain the critical elements of a Community of Inquiry that supports instruction and learning. The elements include: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. For online classes, many new online instructors tend to focus on the cognitive presence and teaching presence, and overlook the necessity of the social presence. They’ll build great online modules that help students enhance their understanding of course content but forget to attend to the critical social aspects that engage students and foster community building. While these aspects can happen naturally in face-to-face courses, they must be intentionally built into online classes.

Here are five ways you can build social presence in your online class:

  1. Have your online students introduce themselves. This may sound simple but the first module of my online courses asks students to introduce themselves to their peers. I create a discussion board where students share short introductions with the group either through text or through a short multimedia production using Fotobabble, MyBrainShark or some other Web 2.0 tool. I usually try to connect the introductions to course content in some informal way to assess the students’ prior knowledge and experience with the material. More than anything, the introductions are designed to foster open communication amongst students outside of course content.
  2. Introduce yourself to your students. When I ask my students to create short introductions of themselves, I offer my own introduction as an example. I also create a short orientation video where I provide an overview of the course and share a little about myself. Presented in a short video where students hear my voice, students can connect with me outside of the written text that I provide for most of the class material.
  3. Create a “commons area” for off-topic discussions. In a face-to-face class, it’s easy to engage in off-topic discussions. Students walking into the classroom will argue about last night’s football game, discuss the latest movies, or talk about their favorite music. This type of engagement is extracurricular but it can help students build relationships that are advantageous inside the classroom. Without purposeful inclusion of risk-free environments for sharing, online students’ affective needs will not be met and they may not fully engage with course content or with their classmates. In my online classes, I create a discussion board labeled “Commons Area” or “Water Cooler” and offer some guidance to the purpose of the area. While I’ll often peek in to add a question or respond to a post, I generally give the students some free rein over this forum.
  4. Use synchronous tools for office hours. Most course management systems offer chat rooms or synchronous online classrooms as tools for teaching and communication. I schedule online office hours where students can meet with me to discuss course content and ask questions. While not every student takes advantage of the office hours, publishing their availability communicates to students that I am committed to their success in the course.
  5. Don’t be the center of every discussion. Many new online instructors try to respond to every post in a discussion board. This habit can actually limit student-to-student interaction and discussion. In a face-to-face class, few instructors would break up lively classroom discussions by evaluating every remark from students. In online classes, however, instructors will do exactly that. Instead of excessively participating in discussion boards, provide some thought-provoking questions and allow the students to discuss course content openly on their own. Offer guidance when necessary and communicate that you’re present in the discussion through carefully chosen posts. Give the students some space to interact with one another and build their understanding through collaborating with their classmates.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Note:  This post was originally published on Faculty Focus on May 13, 2013.

Five ways to build a more engaging online class

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in October 2015.  Enjoy!

A few months ago, the US News and World Report identified 6 signs of a bad online instructor.  The list includes such markers “no set timetable for emails” and “an unclear syllabus.”  The list was primarily designed for students enrolling in an online class so they could easily assess the quality of a class and withdrawal if needed.  It’s kind of like the brown M&M story for Van Halen.  In their concert contracts with venues, Van Halen would require a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all of the brown M&Ms removed.  While many people felt the band was just exerting their excessive celebrity status, the reasoning was actually much different.  Since the contracts usually outlined explicit safety considerations that were needed for the band to perform, the brown M&M’s gave the band manager an easy way to assess whether the venue had done their due diligence.  If he saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he would know that the venue hadn’t followed the contract to the letter.  It’s a quick and easy assessment.

While these “signs for bad online instructors” may provide the same easy assessment for students, it’s not that helpful for people wanting to develop engaging online classes.  An online instructor could essentially correct the “6 signs” and still have a poorly constructed online class.  Rather than focus on these areas, I offer the following strategies for building more engaging online classes.  Most of them are directly or indirectly related to Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis’s work with the Social Presence Model.

1.  Be involved.  Students find online courses more engaging when they know the instructor is participating herself.  I’ve blogged about this before and discussed the need for instructors to be VOCAL (visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example).  When students submitted an assignment, provide individualized feedback to students.  If you’ve assigned participation in discussion forums, respond to their discussion posts.  It’s important that you’re e a participant in the online class and not just an observer.

2.  Get students talking early.   In the very first module of my online courses, I usually have students introducing themselves to their classmates.  This helps to break the ice in the class and fosters a larger community across the group.  I find early involvement in online classes leads to more extended engagement with course content and in the discussion forums.

3.  Use a mix of media.   Students like to hear the voices and see the faces of the people in their online classes.  Rather than having students submitting papers or taking online tests, have them use online tools (MyBrainShark, Screencastomatic, etc.) to record their voices as they present their ideas.    Instead of uploading text-based documents, create short lesson videos that teach the content.  By using a variety of modalities with your online students, you can help them engage with the class at multiple levels.

4.  Connect the content to students’ lives.  While this may be difficult with some subject matter, it helps to build social presence with students.  By having students connect the content with their experiences, you tap into the element of the Social Presence Model that Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis call “Knowledge and Experience.”  When students share their knowledge and personal experience with a topic, they feel more connected with the content.

5.  Seek out new alternate forms of content.  The Internet houses a wealth of educational material. From blogs to videos to simulations, the online instructor really has a world at their fingertips.  Not finding anything valuable on YouTube or through Google?  Check out some of the sites for Open Source Educational Content.

Digging deeper into Social Presence

I’ve written several times about the Community of Inquiry framework and how it relates to online education. Developed initially by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), the framework examines the different “presences” that need to be cultivated to build an effective online learning community. As they design and facilitate an online class, instructors need to thoughtfully foster a teaching presence, a cognitive presence and a social presence with their students.communitylearning1

Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on how instructors can do this, including:

Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class
Online instructors, show yourself?
Online Instructors: Be VOCAL!

While these presences are often discussed as being discrete entities, it is clear that they relate to one another and impact one another. The presences are also pretty complex. There are loads of factors that impact whether a student feels a sense of social belonging in their online class and feel cognitively connected to the content being taught. To this end, I thought I’d dedicate some time this week unpacking social presence a little and discussing some of the research that details the factors that impact it.

In a 2012 issue of Learning and Leading with Technology, Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis present the Social Presence Model as a way for online instructors to “get present.” The model was developed from research that the authors conducted with students attending a virtual high school. By looking at the students social connection to the school, the authors found that online students’ sense of belonging related to five key elements.  These include:

Affective Association: This element relates to how emotionally connected students feel to the class and the community. This emerges from the use of language, humor, praise and reassurance. Instructors can support the development of affective association by providing opportunities for students to connect the content to their personal lives and by being supportive when they struggle.

Community Cohesion:  This element captures how much the class develops a cohesive group. Instructors can support this development by getting students to introduce themselves early in the course and to engage and interact with one another.

Instructor Involvement: This element details how interconnected the presences are. By being an active, invested partner in the class, instructors can build a sense of “instructor involvement” and foster a larger “teaching presence.”

Knowledge and Experience: When students have the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and knowledge base, they feel more connected to the class. Encouraging students to draw on the personal experiences with the content and make connections t can develop this social presence element.

Interaction Intensity: This element relates to students’ level of engagement in the class.  Instructors need to intentionally manage students’ interaction with their peers and the content to foster this element. By leveraging social tools like blogs, discussion forums and social media, instructors can build a greater sense of interaction intensity with their students.

Teaching online can be a challenging endeavor. The important part to recognize is that instructors have to focus on more than supplying content for their students or using a variety of tools in a learning management system. There’s a lot at play in an online learning environment and instructors need to thoughtfully consider how individual technologies and activities foster a community of inquiry through the development of cognitive, social and teaching presences.

Dikkers, A. G., Whiteside, A., & Lewis, S. (2012). Get Present: Build Community and Connectedness Online. Learning & Leading with Technology, 40(2), 22-25.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.