Personal Engagement in the Classroom: Online vs. Offline

August 6th, 2012 No Comments Other

Kid with computer

Many people have speculated about the efficacy of an online classroom. After all, distance learning is just that – students are geographically separated. Not only are they in different rooms, but they are in many cases also in different cities, countries and time zones. This has created a fear in many teachers’ eyes that students can lack engagement and not get as much as they should out of the classroom.

A study done by education researcher Benjamin Bloom in 1984 showed the need for engagement in the classroom.  His two sigma study determined that students who learned in group settings, such as lecture halls, were two sigma’s lower than those who had individual tutor based learning.

This meant that students, who on average would score a 50% in the lecture based approach, would score in the 98th percentile in an individual learning session. This study determined the need for personal engagement in a classroom setting.

With this in mind, Universities have still seen an increase of 12% in enrollment in online classes according to researchers Allen and Seaman.  In the same study, conducted in 2008, they accurately guessed that enrollment in online courses would continue to rise.

This begs the question that if learning decreases when engagement decreases, than why would distant learning among motivated students increase.

After the recent launch of a program called Coursera offered college classes for free to anyone who wanted to attend, several findings suggested that engagement actually has the potential to increase in an online setting. There are a few ways they determined this could happen.

Build in retrievable study into coursework

In many lectures, professors will stop intermittently and ask a question to get some engagement from their students. Typically, the majority of the classroom is so busy scratching down notes that they may not even realize a question has been asked, or they want to finish their thought before they answer the question.

Once somebody who is usually more familiar with the material answers the question the professor moves on with the lecture. This is not an effective form of engagement, but is often times the only way in a classroom filled with 400 students.

Online, however, students can each be interrupted with a question that they must answer in order for the video to continue. Not only do they have to answer the question, but they must do so correctly to ensure they are paying attention.

This is a different form of engagement that touches each student, regardless of class size and keeps them involved with the material. This involvement is called retrievable study because they are not simply being told the material, but they must then retrieve the answer from their notes and answer it on the spot.

Question and answer forums give faster responses

In the traditional setting, a professor sets office hours where they are available to help students better comprehend material that they may not have understood fully in class. This is something that frequently helps students when it comes to test time and many people fear will be missed if the class goes to an online setting instead of making office hours available.

People who posted a question in the classrooms forum often times received a response within 22 minutes – far under the average response time for traditional classrooms.

However, response times have actually been seen to be faster in an online setting.

In the Coursera study, they found that because of the odd hours people were online, combined with the various time zones, people who posted a question in the classrooms forum often times received a response within 22 minutes – far under the average response time for traditional classrooms.

New types of communities are formed online

Communities and study groups are an important part of college learning. In the traditional classroom setting, many students either form their own group or are assigned teams to work with on projects. This engagement is important to peer to peer learning and helps students frequently absorb the material better because they are forced to study for longer, and can reinforce learning by teaching each other or having immediate questions answered within a group.

Online, study groups are often times formed when some of the students are in the same city. In other instances, students form small groups together with people of other cultures and meet in video hangouts or chat rooms via the internet.

These new connections allow for a different style of learning and a deeper experience from the class with contacts and friendships formed around the world.

Hypothesis learning turns into data learning

Perhaps the biggest benefit to online learning was seen by the increase sample size that was found through online testing. In classes offered via the internet, there can be as many as 100,000 students in one classroom. This allows the curriculum not only to reach a wider number of people, but also to deliver more substantial results back to the teacher.

In traditional classroom settings where there are fewer students, teachers are not always able to see the biggest points that people are missing from the way the curriculum is set up. However, with larger sample sizes, they can see when larger numbers of students miss the mark.

This allows for more and better data to be sent back to the professor so they can alter the material and teach a particular area more effectively. This type of engagement is different in that it does not involve peers and professors speaking to each other, but it can still engage the professor with the comprehension of the students and the material they are teaching.

In an online setting, students are actually able to be more engaged not only with each other but also with the material and the lectures. Together with technological advancements, this increase in engagement may be one large factor in why there has been such a large increase in online enrollment.

Image by Travis Isaacs


Kimberly Crossland is a writer, educator and business woman with a passion for bringing cultures together via the power of the internet. She works closely with companies of all sizes across the globe to help teach them how to harness technology to achieve more in their ventures. You can find her on Google+.

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