Students who switch from face-to-face teaching to high-quality online even within a semester show similar learning outcomes – yet overall prefer the online setting, a new study has found. This spring, when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the University of Missouri and other institutions of higher education to move all courses to digital learning (fully online or remote teaching), the team’s research suddenly became extremely relevant.
A research article published in the International Journal of Engineering Education looked at how student learning outcomes would be impacted if the modality of an engineering technical elective class switched from in-person to online learning mid-semester using a course that had been previously designed/offered online and that had previously passed a quality course review process. Johannes Strobel, a professor in the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies and his PhD student Hao He conducted an experiment in 2018 in Heather Hunt’s hybrid bioengineering class. Hunt is an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering and a Faculty Fellow for Strategic Initiatives in the Office of eLearning at the University of Missouri. She taught her class with one group of students spending the first eight weeks in a face-to-face classroom setting and a second group starting the semester online. After eight weeks, the two groups flipped. The research study shows both groups had no significant differences in learning outcomes, yet the group that started face-to-face learning and ended up with online learning had higher learning satisfaction and course ratings compared to the other group.
“I was happily surprised that, in that particular scenario in 2018, there were no significant differences in learning outcomes,” Hunt said. “I think one of the things this does tell us as we prepare for the fall term, because we know summer is completely online, is that we do know how to design a high-quality online course for the whole term. As faculty and instructors, we need to be prepared in case the situation arises again that we have to go online for a period of time or the remainder of the term.” When the instructors and courses are prepared ahead of time following high-quality course design principles, the transition may not be detrimental to the students’ learning outcomes, as many instructors, students and parents have feared.
“However, it is important to remember that students knew and understood ahead of time that this was a hybrid class, that we were doing a study, and they were prepared for that transition like we were,” Hunt said. “A planned modality switch, where students know before they register, is a vastly different scenario than what we experienced this spring.”
Hunt started working on online courses about six years ago after receiving a request from her department chair at the time, Jinglu Tan, to take her junior-level technical elective class online to see how it would work.
“The idea was, if we did a really good job and showed our faculty that a high-quality online course could have the same outcomes as a face-to-face course, then more faculty would be willing to do it,” Hunt said. “This study arose out of that initial class.”
Hunt said it’s difficult to compare the results from one semester to the next because it’s a different set of students. So, she reached out to Strobel for assistance. SISLT has been a leader in online learning at MU with the first fully online master’s program starting in 1999 and a leader in online learning research as well. SISLT offers an online Educator graduate certificate preparing higher education faculty and K-12 teachers to design high-quality online classes and effectively teach in this modality.
“I asked him if there was a way we could do this and get valid data that looks at student comparisons, and with his graduate student Hao He’s help, he developed an experimental design that allowed us to look at students as their own control.”
The team secured approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and told students when they registered that they could wait to take her course if they did not want to participate in her switching modalities study. She said all of the students who registered for the class were willing to do the study.
“They each got face-to-face and online in the same term, which is interesting because that’s what we did inadvertently this term,” Hunt said. “One caveat of this study is the students knew ahead of time they were going to do this and already said yes. The other caveat is my class had been designed to be fully online, so I wasn’t quickly trying to bring a class online.”
Hunt said she thinks the reason students who started face-to-face and switched to online were more satisfied is because they went from a constrained in-class setting to an incredibly flexible online setting, whereas students who had gotten used to having that flexibility in the first part of the semester were less satisfied when they had to go to campus and sit in class. Strobel added that the research also points toward the great flexibility that online learning affords students as study participants did not prefer that flexibility being taken away.
Surprised but Not Surprised
Hao He is the first author and Strobel is corresponding author of “Switching Modalities: An Empirical Study off Learning Outcomes and Learners’ Perceptions in a Hybrid Engineering Course.” Strobel said that switching modalities works, but notes that in the study the switch was planned and they already had an online version prepared.
“There is an opportunity here to look back at the last weeks of the semester and take it as a learning opportunity and reflect on what worked and what didn’t in this ‘emergency remote’ teaching,” he said. “For future online efforts, I would recommend to offer in the beginning of online classes opportunities for students to see and interact live with the instructor. As an instructor, you want to develop an ‘instructor or teaching presence.’ Students should also be able to see that the other students are real—what is called facilitating a ‘social presence’ for your students.”
Hunt said the idea of an instructor establishing a presence with students—engaging with them early for online courses—is very important.
“If you start an online course or remote teaching for a week and you’re not individually reaching out to your students, they feel abandoned, especially if they were face-to-face before,” she said. “An important lesson coming out of this pandemic and the switch to remote teaching is for those faculty who reached out in that first week and had Zoom meetings or had some sort of one-on-ones, I’m going to guess their students are much happier than the students who did not have that opportunity.” She noted that she held individual Zoom meetings with every student during the first week of her hybrid class to establish her presence as an instructor.
Hunt said she was surprised but not surprised that the learning outcomes did not change.
“To an education professor, the results of this study are probably not that surprising because they’ve seen this time and again, but this study, where we did a hybrid class and flipped modalities in the middle has never been done in engineering to the best of our knowledge. There is a lot of talk right now about, ‘How much are students really learning?’ and ‘Is this a good experience for them?’ and it really depends on how well the instructor does in producing that high-quality online or remote portion.”
Strobel previously has researched how one’s inner clock predicts when a student is most active and effective in online learning. The study indicated an early-type student may prefer studying online in the morning while a late-type student may prefer studying at a later time of the day.
“It’s good to keep in mind that online provides a flexibility for both students and instructors, and it is good to design courses with this flexibility in mind,” he said.