Thursday, August 14, 2008

Learning Science Online - A Study

From the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, here's a really interesting study written by Elizabeth Rowe and Jodi Asbell-Clarke from TERC . TERC is a not-for-profit education research and development organization focused on improving math and science education from pre-kindergarten through college. It's one of the few fairly comprehensive studies of its' kind that I've seen.
Online education is a rapidly growing phenomenon for science teachers. Using a sample of 40 online science courses for teachers offered during the 2004-2005 academic year, the Learning Science Online (LSO) study explores what characteristics of online science courses are most strongly associated with positive learning outcomes among science teachers, after accounting for teachers’ prior science experiences and demographics. This research is unique in that it is the first aggregate study of teachers learning science online in a wide variety of educational programs. Hierarchical linear modeling points to changing roles of instructors and students in online courses, with lower perceived levels of instructor support and a supportive course design strongly associated with positive learning outcomes.
Here are some interesting findings from the study:
Summary and Implications

This study examined three types of student outcomes: final grades, mastery of science content, and quality of participation in online discussions, and their relationship to specific course characteristics. Important findings include that:

  • High levels of course supports, meaning scaffolding within the materials to help students understand and link concepts, were important for student’s mastery of content and quality of participation in online discussions.
  • High levels of instructor support were related to higher grades but lower mastery and quality of discussion.
  • Students in courses with high frequency of hands-on and minds-on activities tended to get lower grades, while those in courses with high frequency of pen and paper activities tended to get higher grades.
Some overall implications of these findings for developers include the importance of course design for students’ success. Courses with supportive structures in place through materials presented opportunities for student achievement, even when there was less instructor support. This suggests that the role of the instructor shifts in online learning to one who must pre-design the course with the student in mind, but then fade the interaction and let students play a significant role in their own learning, including choosing relevant discussion topics.
Really interesting finding that is sort of counter-intuitive, making the case for greater faculty involvement in course design and less online interaction. Most faculty I know that teach online feel obligated to be in their courses constantly, interacting, starting and jump-starting discussions, prodding students and really being as much a presence online as they are in a traditional classroom. I like the point made that instructors need to "... fade the interaction and let students play a significant role in their own learning, including choosing relevant discussion topics." Giving up control - not an easy thing to do. Download the full article here.
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