For more than 15 years, I have had the pleasure of teaching psychology courses to different types of students all over the world, and I’ve enjoyed embracing the many challenges this has presented me. But about 5 years ago, I faced a new kind of challenge when I started developing online courses.
Admittedly, I was hesitant to start this endeavor, largely because of preconceived notions I held about the quality of online courses. When comparing online versus traditional education, I assumed online was simply not as good.
I found some reassurance in the fact that the university where I work (Colorado State University) has a strict policy that online courses have to be as rigorous and comparable to on-campus courses. I at least felt confident that my online students were expected to have the same level of mastery of course material as those who sit in my lectures each semester, but I wasn’t totally convinced.
So I turned to the scientific literature to see whether anyone had conducted research comparing online and traditional education. To my surprise, I found that learning outcomes and student satisfaction were similar for both. For example, one study compared students enrolled in the same course taught in the classroom versus online, and there were no significant differences between students’ performance across the two types of classes.1
What seems to matter most in online instruction is how the course itself is designed. The most effective courses are those that use an online software program, such as Canvas. These systems have tools that facilitate conversation and engagement, such as discussion boards and journals. Also, I’ve found that providing links to media (e.g. YouTube videos) and other resources (e.g., New York Times articles) can replace the classroom experience of watching movies and videos in a large group.2
Given that I am a psychologist and have developed a variety of courses that require mastery of different topics, I have had to be creative in order to make the online learning experience a good one. Some courses simply require me to move my lecture slides online with recorded audio. In this case, students participate in group discussions to demonstrate application of the course material, write short papers, and take exams online. Other courses, such as the counseling skills course I developed a few years ago, are a bit more challenging to execute. For these kinds of situations where students need to practice live, face-to-face counseling sessions, Skype and Google Hangouts have been incredibly successful.
Last summer I created a laboratory course that is taught entirely online. This class is an excellent example of some interesting differences in online versus classroom learning. In the classroom, students work in small groups investigating a social psychology research question. Online, group members still work together, just not in “real-time.” They instead have a deadline for when things need to be done, but they can accomplish parts of the task individually anytime, anywhere. This aspect is important, as students are oftentimes in many parts of the world in different time zones.
I also developed a massive open online course (MOOC) on the Science of Relationships, which is a free, non-credit course designed for a general audience. This was a bit different, as it didn’t have the same types of learning outcomes as the for-credit courses I have developed. Rather than require mastery of material or a skill, the goal of this course was for students to remain engaged. I added lectures, activities, web links, podcasts, etc. to make learning about the science of relationships fun and exciting. My hope was to motivate students to become curious about, and to better understand, where they can turn to learn more.
So, in the end I discovered I don’t really have a preference when it comes to online versus traditional education. I have become confident that online instruction can be as good, or even better, than traditional courses. I think about my classroom teaching differently now too, as I have to think through how students learn differently in-person and online. While I miss being “on stage” whenever I teach online, I do enjoy seeing how students grow and develop when learning at their own pace. In some ways, the online research projects and discussions more closely resemble how social psychologists and other researchers work today, as many of my colleagues live in other parts of the world. I believe online instruction is helping students become even more prepared for work in the fields they are studying.
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1Warren, L. L., & Halloman, H. L. Jr. (2005). On-line instruction: Are the outcomes the same? Journal of .0Instructional Psychology, 32, 148-151.
2Arbaug0h, J. B. (2005). Is there an optimal design for on-line MBA courses? Academy of Management Learning and Education, 4, 135-149.