Smaller online classes may be way of the future

Photography senior Laura Houghton views a “call-to-artists” post on Blackboard on Monday.(Claire Warden/The State Press)
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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
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Smaller online classes that encourage student interaction may be the way of the future, experts said.

James Klein, a psychology in education professor, said he believes active learning among students in online lectures will make a significant difference in online and hybrid classes.

With ASU aiming to eventually enroll 100,000 students in online courses, Klein said his research focuses on the most effective way to teach students online.

“If you really want to impact learning and performance, you’ve got to get students actively involved,” Klein said.

To look further into the way online classes work, Klein chaired a study by Christy Alarcon, an instructional designer at the W. P. Carey School, in which students enrolled in a class were prompted to interact with one another. Alarcon’s study was an element of her dissertation, which was part of an award-winning paper in 2008.

Alarcon said she observed two classes of students who took the same computer-literacy course. One class was taught through Blackboard, and one was taught face to face. Alarcon said she looked at interaction cues in the online setting versus the face-to-face setting.

In both classes, students were in a computer lab and randomly assigned partners, she said. In the face-to-face class, students worked side by side on projects, though the online class was conducted differently.

“The only way [online] partners could communicate was through Blackboard chat.”

The course taught students how to make an Excel spreadsheet, Alarcon said. Both classes used the same coursework. There were cues in the lectures telling students to interact with their partners. Each partner learned a specific set of skills and taught their partner what they learned, and vice versa.

“By the end, everyone knows all the skills they have to know for Excel,” Alarcon said.

Alarcon and Klein found the face-to-face interaction was easier for students, though the online interaction was richer, because classmates had to explain everything in detailed writing, Alarcon said.

Also, the study showed that in both the online and face-to-face setting, the same skills were learned.

Though the results were nonconclusive, Alarcon said she believes the study accurately displayed the outlook students have on online classes.

“What had an impact was the instructional setting on the student attitude,” she said, as the students in the face-to-face class were more excited about learning.

And that is the problem with some online classes, Klein said. Students are not actively participating in the coursework, which is why some online classes can be ineffective, he said. Also, he said some online classes have too many students enrolled for the learning to be successful.

He said many believe increasing online enrollment may alleviate universities’ budgets, though he feels that is not the case.

“There’s a belief that it’s going to be cheaper because you can put lots of students in online classes,” Klein said, “but if you want to have a highly interactive online class, research shows a maximum number of 20 people per class was most effective.”

And it’s the quality, not the quantity that educators should be thinking about, he said.

“If it’s not sound learning, what are we contributing to their education?’” Klein said.

And though the way online classes are taught in the future may change, students said they like having the option of taking classes online.

Jewel Loree, an interdisciplinary studies junior, said she has taken five online classes at ASU, and she finds them very effective.

“I think when [a class is] online, I tend to put more effort into it, since there are more tests and assignments to make sure you’re doing the work,” she said.

Loree said she chooses online classes so her schedule is more flexible, which allows time for her to work, and because she finds large lecture classes boring.

“Big lectures don’t encourage you to keep coming to class,” she said.

Ashley Nelson, a nutrition sophomore, said she likes taking online classes because she lives far from campus and because she feels online classes are easier for her.

“If you apply yourself, stay on track and watch the online lectures, it’s easy,” she said.

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