Online learning continues to be among the fastest-growing sectors of higher education. Many states are beginning to use online learning in middle and high school to assist at risk students and to provide opportunities for credit recovery for those students who are struggling. Online learning in the K-12 environment is a recent movement that expands to the significant work to incorporate technology into the classroom. K-12 Teachers and education professions outside of the K-12 classroom are becoming more interested in educational technology programs that will provide them with credentials necessary to serve in the growing areas of educational technology incorporation and online learning.
A degree program in educational technology was established at a southeastern university that offered classes through a variety of delivery methods. Classes were delivered in traditional, face-to-face; online; and hybrid formats. Hybrid classes were offered with some portions online; traditional, face-to-face; and, in some cases, two-way, interactive video. To address needs for an increasing number of students who traveled for some distance to participate in the degree program, the faculty began moving the entire program online. Two classes were particularly difficult to move to an online format. These two design and development tools classes required the learning of skills related to specific software packages, of which most students had very little experience. The classes required much practice with the software packages and much instructor support that included demonstration of skills and troubleshooting during the learning process.
This research explored student performance in a class that moved from face-to-face to hybrid delivery in the transition toward an online format. Student perceptions, activities and preferences were used to group students into one of five categories: prefer online, prefer face-to-face, prefer hybrid, no preference and online-strugglers. Brief case studies of one or two individuals from each group were described in this study to provide insight to the learning preferences of students. A significant finding in this project was that a class with a high level of technology skill development and a significant requirement for hands-on practice was difficult to deliver in an online format. This study provides important instructional design considerations for these types of courses.
Course and Masters Program Description –
This study explored student activity, performance and perceptions in a design and development tools course at a southeastern university. The course was part of an educational technology program that was offered as a joint program between two, autonomous campuses of the same university system. Six faculty, three from each campus, served as the program faculty for the masters degree. When the degree was established, the program faculty worked to determine the most appropriate delivery format for each course. The program required twelve classes or 36 hours to complete. Five classes were listed as face-to-face, five as online and two as hybrid. All of the online classes and the online portions of the hybrid classes used Blackboard. Face-to-face meetings were held on each campus. Some courses had separate sections of the class that individually met on each campus. Other courses held the face-to-face classes with a single instructor at one campus who used two-way, interactive-video to include students from both campuses in the activities.
After the first year of the program, the two hybrid classes transitioned to online delivery with two class meetings during the semester. One of the face-to-face classes became a videotape class that required occasional class meetings during the semester. After the second year, another face-to-face class became an online class with occasional, optional laboratory time with the instructor. After the fourth year, the year in which the study took place, one of the face-to-face courses became an online class with occasional, optional laboratory time. The remaining, two, face-to-face classes became hybrid classes with four or five meetings with the instructor during the semester. The hybrid approach for the classes was implemented as a transitional step in the process of moving the course to an online format.
The Design and Development Tools II course that formed the context for this study was the second course in a sequence of two. During the Design and Development Tools I, the students were introduced to a variety of software packages that they used to design educational content. During the second course, students learned to use more advanced features of the software packages while creating educational projects that they designed. The software packages included graphics editors, html editors and multimedia authoring programs.
Participants for this study enrolled in a design and development tools course in partial completion of a master of education in educational technology program. Students enrolled in the first three years of the study (n=X) were involved in a face-to-face class that met for three hours, once per week for 15 weeks during the spring semester. Students enrolled in the last year of the study (n=Y) were enrolled in a hybrid course that had five face-to-face meetings during the spring semester. Other activities were conducted online using Blackboard and an instructor-created series of websites. Case studies of participants in the last year of the study were used to describe examples of students who fit into one of the five categories.
Learning preference groupings
Student perceptions, activities and preferences were used to categorize students into one of five groups: prefer online, prefer face-to-face, prefer hybrid, no preference and online-strugglers. The instructor assigned students to the groups based on observation in face-to-face environments, evaluation of online activities, performance in all course activities, student/instructor conversations throughout the course and perceived preferences in other courses. Student conversations were conducted in an informal manner at various times during the semester so that subjects were unaware that they were participating in a study. This was done in order to remove the possibility of a Hawthorne effect.
Preference for online course delivery – Case study: Onliners
A main purpose for the move of this educational technology program to an online format was to meet the needs of people who preferred an online format. During the early years of the program, recruiting efforts indicated that many prospective students were selecting programs at other universities because of the flexibility of an online delivery format. Despite the fact that a number of courses required at least some face-to-face meetings, there were people with a preference for online courses who still enrolled in this program. A total of X students were identified as having a preference for online learning. Two students provided important insight into students with this learning preference, they were called, “Onliner” and “Surprised Onliner.”
In this study, Onliner indicated her course-format preference clearly. She lived more than two hours from campus and was very happy when she enrolled in online classes that would not require her to travel nearly five hours in an evening. When she enrolled in face-to-face classes, she worked in a positive way with faculty to avoid having to make the trip to class whenever possible. When travel to campus was required, she was very happy to comply and was a model participant. She did very well in both her online and her face-to-face activities. She spent time prior to face-to-face classes in preparation for the anticipated hands-on activities. She was often prepared with a nearly completed project that she could have completed without the benefit of the face-to-face interaction. Only occasionally did Onliner receive greater benefit from her attendance in the face-to-face classes than she would have achieved in an online format. She was often observed working with other students in class who recognized her abilities, understanding of the required skills and willingness to help because she was often ahead of the other students in the class. In the end, Onliner would have had the same achievement and would have benefited equally well from either an online format or a hybrid format. A complete semester of face-to-face activities probably would have frustrated her because she had the capability of fulfilling requirements without face-to-face contact.
Surprised Onliner also indicated his course-format preference clearly. One of the strongest indicators of his preference was observed through the sequences of courses he took. The suggested sequence of courses during the program included face-to-face courses in the first and second semesters. Surprised Onliner chose to ignore the suggested course sequence and enrolled in the online offerings early in the program. He chose to enroll in the face-to-face courses at the end of the program. Because of this, he was able to take advantage this particular hybrid course during the transitional period from face-to-face to online. Some of the online courses required a face-to-face meeting at the beginning of the semester and some required a second face-to-face meeting at the end of the semester. Surprised-onliner often indicated his online learning preference during the face-to-face meetings, to which he was often tardy. There seemed to be a procrastination and lateness pattern that permeated even to the online classes. Surprised Onliner freely admitted his struggle with lateness as well as his preference for the online format. Earlier in his program, Surprised Onliner enrolled in a course with the same instructor who taught the hybrid course that is the source for this study. This is significant because Surprised Onliner had made some conclusions about the instructor based on his experience in the online class. Essentially, Surprised Onliner categorized the instructor as impersonal, stringent, inflexible and uncaring. After a few face-to-face meetings, Surprised Onliner admitted that he had misjudged the instructor. He was surprised to learn that the instructor was very personable, had a friendly sense of humor and was flexible. Surprised Onliner still categorized the instructor as stringent but he had a higher appreciation for the stringent policies and their positive effect on the overall delivery of the course. The main reason for the surprise portion of his categorization was that he was surprised at how much he appreciated, enjoyed and benefited from the face-to-face classroom experiences. He indicated that he would not have performed as well had the course been totally online and that he would have missed the opportunity to engage the instructor in a different context that enabled him to change his opinion of the instructor. In the end, Surprised Onliner might be considered as part of the group that preferred a hybrid course delivery.