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.