Building Engagement Online

The latest issue of Innovate ezine contains an interesting article by Pu-Shih Chen, Robert Gonyea, and George Kuh entitled, “Learning at a Distance: Engaged or Not?”  My first thought on reviewing it was that this was yet another “no significant difference” study…but I was wrong.  While noting initially that many senior academic officers expressed the belief that online learning is inferior to campus-based learning, these three questioned these assumptions through a fairly robust study that used the well-established database in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

The authors of the study hoped to answer three questions:

  1.   1.  Why do distance learners take online courses?
  2.   2.  What are the engagement patterns, self-reported learning and personal development outcomes, and satisfaction levels of distance learners versus campus-based learners?
  3.   3.  What are the engagement patterns, self-reported learning and personal development outcomes, and satisfaction levels of traditional-age (24 years old and younger) versus adult (older than 25 years) distance learners?

For purposes of their study, distance learners were defined as first-year or senior undergraduate students who took all of their courses via the Internet in the spring term of the 2005-2006 academic year.  They reported three findings:

  1. “For distance learners, postsecondary education is but one of many priorities in their lives. Distance learners tend to be older; most work and care for dependents and enroll in online courses because such classes fit more easily into busy, demanding schedules. The top three reasons cited for pursuing learning at a distance—convenience, self-pacing, and self-directed learning—suggest that many of these students were looking to advance their education in the context of their current lifestyles. It is possible that without a distance learning option, many of these students would not be enrolled in postsecondary education at all.
  2. The engagement of distance education learners compares favorably with that of campus-based learners. Distance learners are generally as engaged and often more engaged than their campus-based counterparts, with the exception of engagement in active and collaborative learning activities. In addition, the self-reported gains of distance learners tend to be greater than those reported by their campus-based counterparts.
  3. Older distance learners differ from younger online students in noteworthy ways. Older students report greater gains and are more likely to engage in higher order mental activities such as analysis and synthesis as part of their studies. However, they are less involved in activities that depend on interacting with others, such as working with other students on problems or assignments.”

The authors concluded that their results suggest that distance learning was comparable to face-to-face learning, at least in terms of student engagement in effective educational practices.  I took a slightly different message away.  First, a mantra I have said for several years, the delivery method (online versus face-to-face) is less important than the activities undertaken by the teacher and students.  Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education work equally well on campus or online, and those principles presuppose active engagement by the teacher as well as the students. 

Second, the differences noted in this study between older students and younger students to me aligns with the growth in social interactions of the Web 2.0 generation.  

The authors stated:

“Student engagement takes many forms—intellectual challenge, active and collaborative learning, meaningful interactions with faculty, and the perception that the learning environment is supportive of the student’s efforts to overcome obstacles to learning.  Active and collaborative learning is the one area in which distance learners fell short of their campus-based counterparts.  {my italics} In part, this seems to be an artifact of activities related to group-based interactions such as working on projects during class or outside of class. These kinds of experiences are associated with desired outcomes of college such as satisfaction, persistence, and intellectual and social development.” 

 I would suggest that active use by faculty of the many new web-based social tools could provide the avenues for the types of active and collaborative engagement that these authors found missing from many online courses today.   The digital natives entering our colleges and universities already use socially engaging applications for personal use, and adoption and use by faculty could spread the engagement from the younger students to older students.  It will require thoughtfully designed online activities, but engagement is and should be a two-way street!

As always, I would be interested in my colleagues thoughts and responses.