More Research on Online Learning

I recently came across an article that appears in the January 2017 issue of Educational Researcher.  The article shares research that was conducted by June Ahn and Andrew McEachin on the enrollment patterns and achievement in online charter schools in Ohio.  While the research focused entirely on preK-12 environments, I think the findings and commentary transcend academic settings and communicate some important messages to all of us working in education.

In Ahn and McEachin’s study, they examined which students opted into online or face-to-face charter schools across the state.  They disaggregated this data to look at various demographics (race, socioeconomic status, geography, etc.) to identify trends across populations.  They found that while more poor White students choose to enroll in online charter schools, poor minority students typically choose “brick and mortar” charter schools.  While the authors don’t specifically discuss their interpretations of these findings, when I shared the research with an African-American doctoral student recently, she proposed that minority families see schools as a critical center of the community, especially in urban areas.  Without a physical location, she explained, online charter schools didn’t offer that same sense of community to families.  While there’s no data in the study to support this interpretation, the explanation made sense considering the geographical map that the authors share.

Digging a little deeper, I found that my student’s explanation also helped to shed some light on the findings that the authors share regarding the achievement levels of online students.  The authors write:

Our results show that students in (online charter schools) are performing worse on standardized assessments that their peers in traditional charter and traditional public schools.” (p. 44)

This is a horrible testament to online charter schools.  Online students are not demonstrating the same academic growth when compared to students in other educational environments.  The knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss online schooling outright and to create regulations to ban online schooling as an option.  To their credit, Ahn and McEachin discuss this in the concluding remarks:

One potential and simplistic implication is that online schools are unequivocally negative for K12 learners and policy should deter these school forms.  A more nuanced understanding is that online schools – in its current form as a largely independent learning experience- are not effective for K12 students. Instead, learners still need the presence of teachers, mentors, or peers to help them through the learning process.  This interpretation instead suggests different policy implications. In addition, online curriculum might be designed and employed to efficiently deliver content but combined with new ways of distributing human support (e.g. different teaching or mentoring practices) that could serve students more effectively.

While the research provides some damning evidence for the academic impacts on online education, it also provides an important message for those of us who teach online and prepare teachers to work online.  Like my doctoral student said, it’s really about community.  Online classes that are designed so that students interact with content alone are isolating and have damaging impact on students.  Online classes that offer a supportive community including peers, counselors, mentors and teachers provide a different experience for students.  Learning is a social process and we need to design our online classes and online schools to reflect this.  Rather than focus solely on content delivery, we need to create online schools where community is built and design classes where the social and human elements of learning take center stage.


Ahn, J., & McEachin, A. (2017). Student enrollment patterns and achievement in Ohio’s online charter schools. Educational Researcher, 46(1), 44-57


The Challenges with Teaching Online

Some colleagues and I have been surveying online teachers in K-12 and collegiate environments to determine the areas that they feel are critical to online teaching success and which areas are ones in which they often struggle.  After conducting some focus groups last year, we developed a comprehensive survey that we sent out to a few hundred online teachers earlier this year.  Our goal was to examine the most challenging areas that online teachers encounter with the hopes of informing our work with our online teaching colleagues and preservice teachers who may teach online in the future.  We’re pouring through the data now and trying to make sense of the responses.  While I won’t bore you with the analysis that we’re doing, I thought I’d share a few preliminary findings and discuss their importance.

Building rapport with online students can be challenging.  Looking at the data, this was one of the areas that immediately stood out.  While participating teachers identified this as an important aspect to online teaching success, they also reported that this was one of the more difficult things they had to do as online teachers.  This item saw the greatest standard deviation across all of the questions on the survey, showing that while some teachers feel pretty comfortable doing this in their online classes, others struggled with it. Understanding the importance of “social presence” in online classes, I was pretty surprised to see this aspect of online learning so well represented in the survey results.

Establishing routines and procedures in online classes is important. Across the surveyed online teachers, this area was rated as one of the most critical aspects to online teaching success.  Recalling a US News article I shared a few years ago on this blog, provided clear, structured experiences for students is really important for quality online instruction.  Here’s the surprising part, though.  While responding online teachers found this area important, they also rated their ability to do it as really high.  When assessing their own abilities, online teachers rated “establishing routines and procedures” as the area they felt most comfortable across all of the survey items.  The item also had one of the lowest standard deviations.  From the data, it’s pretty clear that while online teachers feel that establishing routines and procedures is important, they also feel pretty confident that they’re doing it well.

Providing feedback is critical to online students’ success.  As we examined the data, this was another surprising finding.  Online teachers working in both K-12 and collegiate settings reported this as one of the most important aspects to effective online instruction.  Looking back at a blog post from a few years ago, I wrote that online teachers needed to be VOCAL.  Building on an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, the post discussed how the VOCAL acronym identified that online teachers needed to be visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example.  In my post, I offered a revision where assessment and feedback replaced being analytical.  Looking at the data from the surveyed teachers, it’s clear they also see the importance of these areas.  The great part is that the online teachers rated their ability to provide feedback as being high.

Now, it’s important to remember that these findings are based on self-reported data from surveyed online teachers.  With the number of respondents and the ongoing data analysis, however, we’re hoping to more clearly define the challenging areas for online teachers.  Ultimately, we plan to use these data to inform professional development opportunities on campus and the courses in our online teacher preparation program.


An Online Pot Luck Dinner?

Online learning environments can be pretty confusing places to new online students and educators. To help reduce this confusion, I like to use metaphors to describe the functions, activities and components of teaching and learning online.  For instance, when I lead professional development sessions, I’m often asked about the planning process for creating and teaching a new online class.  While the process involves the traditional phases that are captured in most instructional design models, I find it’s better to describe my online course development as party planning.  When someone hosts a party, they have to consider how people are going to interact, what types of music they’re going to listen to, what they’re going to eat and so on.  Good hosts do a lot of this planning before a single person arrives.  This allows the host to attend to the needs of their guests and to enjoy the party themselves.

While I understand this is a simplistic metaphor, I find it best captures my role as an instructional designer and as an online teacher. I’ll spend weeks developing a class, selecting content and planning interactions and assessments so that I can focus on the day-to-day business of meeting students’ needs and fostering engagement once the class starts.  I plan my “online party” before the class begins so I can be a better host once the party starts.

I’m teaching two online classes this semester and they are starkly different.  I’ve taught both classes several times and the classes are usually quite interactive, especially in the discussion forums.  It’s my stated goal in both classes that I’m attempting to foster a larger learning community where ideas and resources are exchanged and critiqued.  In one class, the students are sharing links to websites, uploading articles they’ve found online, embedding videos from different sources and really taking the discussions in new directions.  The other class, however, isn’t as active or as collaborative.  Students contribute posts and respond to each other but there doesn’t seem to be any real online learning community being formed.

As I’ve been thinking about the differences, I wondered whether the students had a clear understanding of what online discussion should look like.  We’ve all participated in face-to-face classroom discussions but a discussion forum is something entirely different.  In a face-to-face class, we’d never expect everyone to answer a prompt and then to respond the posts from two peers.  Yet, those expectations permeate online discussion forums.  Although they are used in many online classes, these expectations alone will reduce discussions to “bean counting” and won’t necessarily promote the type of engagement and exchange of ideas that I’m trying to foster.

Maybe a better metaphor is needed for online discussions.  To carry on with the party theme, I offer the “pot luck dinner” as a means of describing the rich and thoughtful discussions that I’m trying to build.  The “pot luck dinner” is a communal experience where everyone brings a dish to share.  The host usually offers a main course and asks the attendees to bring complementary items.  One person may bring a salad.  Another might bring a dessert.  Someone else may bring beverages.  With everyone contributing to the party, the overall meal becomes more complex and appetizing.  And people always leave satiated.

That’s what I’m trying to promote when I “host” a discussion forum.  I’m not interested in my students just submitting a requisite numbers of posts.  I want them to feed the group.  I want them to bring in complementary content and make the discussions more complex and appetizing for all of us.  While I’m contributing the “main course,” I’m hoping that the class will bring in resources and ideas to extend the meal.  Through this “potluck” experience, we’re all satiated.

Best of 2016 – Part 2

As the new year begins, I thought I’d take this opportunity to review some of the most popular posts from 2016.  If you missed last week’s post, I shared the first half of the “Top Ten” list.  Happy New Year!

1. What’s Your Teaching Perspective?  This post, shared in May 2016, was the most visited and shared post of 2016.  The post examines the Teaching Perspective Inventory (TPI) and discusses how the TPI can be used (and potentially misused) in professional development and hiring situations.

2.  The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or Foe?  Written in January 2016, this post discusses how Columbia University has been collecting and analyzing syllabi as part of a collaborative open educational materials project.  While I’m a big supporter of open initiatives, I identify some of my reservations with the Open Syllabus Project in the post.

3. What’s Your Teaching Metaphor? Shared at the start of Fall 2016 semester, this post emerged from a discussion in a doctoral class where one of my students saw educators as “brokers” of learning.  That remark prompted me to do some research on “teaching metaphors” and how different instructors describe their roles.

4. The SAMR Model: A Critical Perspective.  Everyone loves the SAMR model of technology integration!  Okay, maybe not everyone.  In this post from May 2016, I share some of my reservations of the model.

5.  The Magic Pill of Online Teaching?  Written in January 2016, this post examines an instructional strategy for online learning environments that has been shown to have significant impacts on student success.

Walking the Walk

I started a new online graduate class yesterday.  In the first assignment of this course, I ask the students to record a “confession camera” like those used on reality television shows.  In a confession camera, individuals record themselves answering a series of reflective questions.  While these are usually spliced and diced by the reality TV producers to create drama and promote infighting, in this class, my goal is to get the students to reflect on the assigned readings in first module and also to build a larger learning community in the class.  By seeing and hearing their classmates, my hope is that it makes the potentially isolating nature of online learning environments a little more social and collaborative.

The class is one of the advanced courses in our online teaching program and I’ve worked with all of these students in prior courses. I provide a list of prompts that I want the students to answer and also offer a list of applications that the students can use.  I tell my students that ultimately I don’t care how they record their “confession cameras” but I want to be able to see and hear them.  Since many of these students are currently teaching in some face-to-face capacity at their schools, one of the prompts asks them to reflect on the courses in the program so far and whether studying online instruction in the courses in the program has informed their face-to-face instruction.  In last week’s post, I wrote about how some people believe that we should view online instruction as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”  While that may be true, I think teaching online can certainly enrich our face-to-face instruction (and vice versa).  I wondered how the students would respond to the prompt and the first submissions are being posted online.

In one of the confession cameras, a student reflected that she has learned to “walk the walk” when she assigns a project with her face-to-face classes.  This, she says, is one of the big take aways from our online classes.  In my online classes, I don’t just provide directions, guidelines and rubrics for my students.  I “walk the walk” and contribute and participate as I’m hoping my students will.  For example, my confession camera was the first one submitted.  I responded to the prompts, drew on the readings and discussed my thoughts and reflections.  I know the confession camera assignment is uncomfortable for students.  Few people like to see recorded videos of themselves.  Fewer still enjoy hearing the sound of their recorded voices. By “walking the walk,” however, I’m saying to my students “I’m fully participating in this experience with you.”

I hope this doesn’t sound too preachy but “with” is one of my favorite prepositions.  I worry that educators often focus too much on “for” or “to” and lose sight of “with.”  By “walking the walk,” I’m hopefully changing the perception of assignments as being something done to them or being required for their grade in the class.  Instead, I’m hoping that my students see the class activities as something done with their classmates and with me.  From watching some of the confession cameras, it’s great to see that my students recognize that I’m walking the walk with them.

Online education: bias, hope and reality

A post on Inside Higher Education today discusses faculty’s continued reservations to teaching online.  The author, Robert Ubell, shares several studies that examine professors’ resistance to online education and how they view virtual learning environments as being inferior.  As the vice dean for online learning at New York University’s Tandon School for Engineering, Ubell is a proponent of online learning.  In his role, however, he also recognizes some challenges that faculty face when teaching online.  For instance, he explains how many professors have very little experience with online education and therefore have very little personal experience with how to teach well online.  Ubell writes “going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.” To him, teaching online isn’t just about navigating the technical aspects of learning management systems or attempting to “migrate the campus experience online.”  Instead, Ubell challenges educators to visualize online learning as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”

The challenge is that many professors see face-to-face instruction as the gold standard and create a false dichotomy between physical classroom spaces and online ones.  The reality, however, is that we often compare our best face-to-face classroom experiences with our worst online ones.  Also, since many of us don’t have online experiences upon which to draw, we visualize a confusing, highly technical environment where students independently work through low level content in isolation from their classmates.  But these beliefs largely do not reflect reality.  Ubell cites a research study from the US Department of Education which found “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (Means, et al, 2009).  Despite this evidence, some educators like to pit online and face-to-face education against one another, as if they’re battling for dominance in some instructional arena.  Rather than focus on whether “physical nor virtual education will triumph,” Ubell writes, we must shift our attention to “the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning” in whatever learning environment students are enrolled.

So, what are the best pedagogical practices online? One of the things that is becoming abundantly clear is that online learning is more than just accessing content.  Many educators like to think that content is the currency of their courses.  Sure, students enroll in our classes to learn English, physics and mathematics.  More than content, student learning and success is dependent to a large degree on their ability to interact with their classmates and with their instructors.  That’s one of the critical shifts that educators need to make when teaching online.  Interaction is the currency of online learning.  In many ways, this statement is true in almost every learning environment. But interactions happen naturally in face-to-face classes. They don’t have to be intentionally designed. In our physical classes, we don’t have to plan for students to see each other or hear other.  By sharing the same physical space, the interactions occur without educators planning for it.

Online learning environments, however, require that educators plan for interaction.  To be successful, online educators have to build opportunities for students to interact with their peers.  This interaction has to be intentional and purposeful.  In past posts, I’ve written about the Community of Inquiry framework and the importance of building social presence in online classes.  By focusing on these aspects and increasing interaction and engagement in our virtual classes, online teachers can better rise to Ubell’s challenge of making “digital education transformative” for students.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education.

Five ways to build a more engaging online class

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from a few years ago.  This post was originally shared in May 2015 and explores the elements found in engaging online classes. 

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.