Economics, Finance and Quantitative Analysis
Undergraduate students at a large, public, southeastern university enrolled in one of two independent, fully-online courses were released from the instructor-regulated structure mid-semester. Subsequently, the course was structured as student-regulated and students self-managed pace of study and timing of assessments for the remainder of the course. The objective of the research is to assess student preferences in learning structure (instructor-regulated versus student-regulated) in order to inform effective course design options in the online learning environment. At the end of each semester included in the study, a survey was administered to ascertain students’ perceptions of the student-regulated (self-paced) learning environment. After analyzing the survey results, but before drawing final conclusions, it was acknowledged that student preferences might be skewed if coupled with altered performance in the course, real or perceived. Therefore, student performance was evaluated to ensure neutrality in this component. To this end, exam grades were collected over multiple semesters based on the original instructor-regulated structure (control group) together with the student-regulated structure (study group) and analyzed to compare mean grade performance between the two learning formats. Results indicated that the slight decline in grades for the self-paced students were not statistically significant. Given the benign performance results, the survey results were analyzed for statistical reliability and revealed a strong student preference for the self-paced online structure. The survey and grade performance results were compared against other research literature on online learning. Issues relating to incompatibility of student-paced flexibility and group-based assignments are also presented. Implications and opportunities for increasing student-regulated learning in online course design are addressed.
Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration
Introduction Online courses are widely offered and eagerly embraced by many undergraduate students. In a news report, the Babson Survey Research Group estimated that 5 million North American students were engaged in distance learning in 2014, with nearly one-third of all students taking at least one distance education course. “In addition, online students rate class conflict with work, reducing commuting time, and flexibility in studying as being more important to them in their choice of course format than do lecture students” (J. Dutton & M. Dutton, 2002). In instructional and course design, administrators and instructors may choose between active and passive learning styles. Active learning can be designed for the group or at the individual level. “Changes in educational approaches and technologies have created new opportunities for learners to study in unsupervised situations where they must make active decisions about their own study” (Carvalho, Braithwaite, de Leeuw, Motz, Goldstone, 2016). Considerable research supports a variety of modalities and interactive engagement such as group discussions, group assignments and exercises, etc. “Despite acknowledging the benefits of interactive learning, students remained steadfast in preferring strategies that were convenient, comfortable, and allowed control over one’s grade, in essence passive modes of instruction” (Cuthrell & Lyon, 2007). Online courses are less viable candidates for the active learning style. “It might seem that the online course setting inherently utilizes the active learning style given the self-study environment. However, if learning is driven by narrated lectures that the student accesses and views, the learning modality is passive”(Robertson & Wakeling, 2017). In addition, it is challenging to incorporate group-based activities into an online course. Online courses allow students increased flexibility in when to study in lieu of scheduled classroom meetings and/or in-person group assignments (Powell, 2007). This points to a tension from the students’ perspective between the convenience of independent, asynchronous course delivery versus active engagement strategies and group assignments attempting to simulate the face-to-face environment. Further, in designing a course, administrators and instructors may consider student-regulated or instructor-regulated structures. Under instructor-regulated, the instructor sets a schedule through which students’ progress, commonly organized as a linear series, perhaps with start/stop stages, of individual and group assignments, synchronous discussion/participation, etc. This common format has the entire class bound together within the instructor’s timeline. An ordered sequence of assignments, assessments, required group discussions, and/or group exercises restricts students from moving at either their preferred quicker or more measured pace. Like face-to-face courses, online courses may be designed as instructor-regulated or student-regulated. Many online students with work or family-related obligations could be conflicted when having to operate at a groups’ pace within an instructor-regulated start/finish sequence (Block, Udermann, Felix, Reineke, & Murray, 2008). Rhodes (2009) addressed the imposed-pace model which “sets definitive parameters for the course and stipulates that all learners engage in the same learning activities at specific time periods,” but said that “the self-paced approach affords more autonomy to learners, allowing each to proceed at an individualized pace while providing benchmarks for progress and achievement.”
Conclusion Research has long concluded that students prefer the flexibility associated with online courses, and for very practical reasons, e.g. independence, commuting, distance, work and family commitments. This research incrementally shows that students enrolled in online courses strongly prefer the added flexibility of the student-regulated structure. For distance administrators and instructors designing an online course, a passive learning style with limited group-based activities is most compatible with the student-regulated structure allowing a high level of student self-management through an online course. Future Research Opportunities The courses used in this research to evaluate student perceptions of student-regulation in online courses were delivered with (1) the passive learning style and (2) no group-based activities. The research found that students prefer the flexibility of online courses and the incremental benefits associated with the freedom to self-regulate, and these preferences were not influenced by course performance either way. Many distance learning administrators, supported by ample research, prefer to integrate group-based activities into online courses, ostensibly to simulate the sense of community associated with the on-campus setting. However, incorporating major group-based course assignments/assessments in an online course is in conflict with the perceived benefits of student-regulation. If students are constrained by the progress of the group to which they are assigned, it is similar to being constrained by the instructor. Therefore, it would seem that group-based activities and an instructor-regulated structure pose the same limitations, and the only way to offer pure student-regulation is to have only individual assignments/assessments. That said, holding the student-regulation piece constant, the theory could be tested by conducting research on if and how performance and student perceptions change if group-based activities are included in the course. The data for the control group is already collected. The same course (or courses) could be modified in future semesters to include group-based activities before and after the announcement of the student-regulation component. The course performance would be, once again, compared to ensure it did not unduly contribute to student perception and, if it did not, the survey could be administered and the results compared to this research. Powell (2007) conducted similar research by surveying 90 online students for preferences among five instructional strategies that spanned from individual to group-based assignments. The individual “Read and Respond” assignment was most preferred. Here, students read their assigned text and respond individually to questions at the end of the chapter. The individual responses are read by other students in the group. The least preferred assignment was “Audio Files,” where students listen to an auditory lecture, discuss the content in assigned groups, and submit an audio file from the group. Additionally, similar research could expand to a wider variety of subject-matter courses, especially those outside the business school and with or without the nuance of including group-based assignments. Future research might also collect multi-dimensional performance data under a flexible self-paced format to identify which student behaviors and course features either enhance or inhibit learning and performance. Except for survey feedback that “I like to bundle my work, so being able to complete several chapters at once was more efficient for me,” this paper did not collect information about how students specifically adjusted their study patterns from the instructor-regulated to self-paced environment.
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