The first time Stefan Duma offered his face-to-face course on Concussion Perspectives at Virginia Tech, 50 students signed up. The next time, 100 students signed up, then 250, and later 500. When demand persisted, he offered the course online through lectures in an asynchronous format with in-person visits Helmet laboratory, where students can see, for example, how helmets are tested. More than 1,000 students signed up.
“Every time I taught it, it doubled,” said Duma, a professor of engineering and director of the Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Sciences. “We tend to think, ‘Oh, we have to do everything in person.’ It’s not something students think about … They really like having the flexibility of some in-person classes and some online.”
Before the pandemic, 3 percent of undergraduate classes at Virginia Tech were taught online. This share has more than doubled — to 8 percent—by fall 2022, and some of the new online courses are quite large. U news release, the university noted online courses for offering students access and flexibility. But some experts question whether quality has improved, especially given that the institution pays little attention to understanding outcomes.
“Are Mass Courses Online Best Practices?” asked Justin Ortagus, associate professor of higher education administration and policy and director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida. “Not at all. But it is important to think about what is being replaced. Here, everything is a little more complicated.”
Good intentions, enthusiastic students
According to Ortagus, a massive online course may have one advantage over a course with hundreds of students in a lecture hall. That is, the online format can provide opportunities for students to participate.
Gregory Tew, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech College of Architecture, Art and Design, had student engagement in mind when he took two of his classes, Design Evaluation and Living in an Anthropogenic Environment, online. As with the Duma course, enrollment for the online offering has grown dramatically. This semester, for example, he is teaching both courses, which together teach more than 5,000 students.
“I am 100 percent convinced that my courses are better online than when I taught them live,” Tew said. When he taught in person in large lecture halls, students were often distracted by their devices and attendance was a problem. Now, in his massive online courses, students tell him they appreciate the conversational prose in his digital course materials, which also include questions and references. When students post on the discussion board, they receive participation points. Tew also responds to some student posts on the forum. Tests are graded automatically.
“Many students say they feel more connected to me in a classroom of 3,500 students than they do in the live classes they attend in their majors,” Tew said.
Many students also report that they appreciate the addition of a flexible online option to their in-person courses.
“So many things happen” in students’ lives, Duma said, adding that his online course is designed with flexibility in mind, including the ability to view lecture recordings. “They are very sick. Sad things happen in their family. Some have sports events. Flexibility is really important.”
Duma is not wrong about students’ desire for flexibility. According to research Ortagus published in Research in the field of higher education. However, as with in-person courses, online courses may or may not follow best practices.
And Virginia Tech students seem excited about these massive online courses. For example, Duma and Tew’s student course evaluations for several semesters of their massive online courses scored above average in the “overall learning effectiveness” category.
What about the results?
When colleges combine more students into fewer course sections, they can reduce their net costs. This may make good economic sense for the university, but may not offer the best educational outcomes for enrolled students.
“You can’t talk about quality in a vacuum,” Ortagus said, adding that colleges often have to deal with the financial reality of connecting cost and quality. “It might make financial sense for Virginia Tech that instead of having 300 students in an in-person lecture hall, they have 1,200 students online.”
However, colleges sometimes brag about low student-to-faculty ratios in their classrooms for good reason. That is, the measure often serves as a proxy for the level of individual attention that students can expect in class. According to Ortagus, as with quality in-person courses, quality online courses prioritize student-faculty interaction and offer students diverse, active feedback.
“When you have over 1,000 students, even if you’re giving the most compelling lecture in the history of civilization, it’s very difficult to consistently engage with students and have an engaging learning experience,” Ortagus said.
Since Tew began teaching online five years ago, he has taught more than 30,000 students — all without the support of an administration or teaching assistants, he said.
That’s the case for Fiona Hollands, a research and evaluation consultant at Columbia University’s Center for Technology and School Change, who wondered how students cope with navigation. thousands discussion board posts from their classmates each week.
“If I had to read 3,000 to 4,000 messages a week,” Hollands said, followed by a pause. “Do they make sense? Are they saying anything useful? Could I just reply to the last comment and that’s my homework for the week?”
Luke Dowden, director of online learning and associate provost at Alamo College District, shared similar concerns.
“I’m concerned about using quality design standards,” said Dowden, adding that when changing from a smaller in-person course to a larger interactive one, all elements must scale. “On a discussion board that says, ‘Read four posts and reply to two,’ does that really scale with 1,000 or 1,500 people?”
Hollands was also concerned that Virginia Tech’s press release about the expansion of online courses did not mention course outcomes — either individually or compared to in-person offerings of the same course.
“I’m worried about classes of 1,200 people. What is the dropout rate?’ Hollands asked, citing the potential for minimal opportunities for students to receive substantive feedback or individualized instruction. “It doesn’t say whether someone learned anything from the courses.”
Student course reviews by Duma and Tew provide some feedback on the course, but a significant number of reviewed research showed that such instruments are biased and poor indicators of learning effectiveness. In addition, they may be influenced by characteristics unrelated to the quality of instruction. For example, courses with a lower workload or engaging teachers receive better ratings. Indeed, a Virginia Tech press release noted Duma’s ability to infiltrate “many Star Wars jokes”.
“We cannot say everything Star Wars endless jokes,” Hollands said. “Some of us are artists and some of us aren’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of wisdom to share.”
Student surveys can contextualize student experiences, but they are not effective learning assessment tools, according to a methodological research in Journal of Academic Ethics.
Tew acknowledged that his student evaluations are not a comprehensive study of outcomes.
“But for now, that’s all we have,” Tew said. “College has become—perhaps always has been—a way of learning for people who are motivated enough to learn on their own.”
Dowden also had questions about the results, especially given that some courses are offered both face-to-face and online.
“The results should be the same,” Dowden said. “We shouldn’t have different learning outcomes for the same course” based on modality. When Virginia Tech moved face-to-face courses to large online courses, the university could develop a protocol to ensure equivalence of outcomes across forms, Dowden suggested.
Virginia Tech, however, doesn’t seem inclined to find out.
“There has not been, and is not planned to be, a study/benchmarking of courses on teaching style,” David Guerin, associate vice chancellor for communications at Virginia Tech, wrote in an email.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Justin Ortagus’ last name. This has been fixed.