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Online Learning Assessment

Concept Paper: Web-Based Learning Environments and Subject-Specific Efficacy

Statement of Purpose

Despite the exponential growth of distance learning programs since the advent of the World Wide Web, a dearth of literature exists regarding the conduciveness of distance learning to specific subject areas. Additionally, while distance learning has been the ostensible subject of extensive research and has been both praised and criticized for a myriad of reasons, the bulk of existing studies regarding distance learning have lacked severely in terms of scientific organization. Using a theoretical framework that is predominately constructivist in nature, this study aims to examine the efficacy of distance education with a critical eye for subject-specific discrepancies.

The inextricable relationship between successful learning and interpersonal collaboration lends support to the frequent criticism of distance learning. However, much of this criticism surrounds distance education in general, affording particular attention to the link between learner characteristics and the overall success of education; there is little evidence to suggest that specific subjects may be more conducive to distance learning than others. More importantly, critiques of distance education lack severely in terms of scientific design. In a thorough review of 170, peer-reviewed articles that illustrated common problems with distance education, only six of the studies were concluded to have used even a quasi-experimental design.

In short, the constructivist, foundational perspective of this study suggests that distance learning does indeed present problems for the student and may well impede learning as a result of the lack of social interaction and experiential teaching strategies; however, the existing literature only partially supports this claim by asserting the benefits and drawbacks of distance education with particular respect to learning styles, teaching methods, and a sense of classroom community. This present study aims to use the existing literature in order to derive what empirical evidence may exist for distance education's subject-specific efficacy and extend those conclusions to identify the gaps in the literature. The research design will then fill in those gaps by ascertaining which subjects are more conducive to the distance learning environment using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Preliminary Review of Literature

Online Learning

From a constructivist perspective, successful learning is tightly bound to the ability of the student to make meaningful, personal connections with that which is being taught. By extension, a profound social component exists to the educational transaction between teachers and students, students and students, and the learning environment and students. Because distance education warrants a higher level of independence than traditional, classroom instruction, those personal connections between subject matter and learner may well be enhanced by the nature of the environment. Alternatively, the lack of social interaction may impede learning by extricating interpersonal contact from the learning environment. In either case, distance learning warrants special consideration be given to the curriculum in order to mediate the effects of the non-traditional learning context.

Defining the Contemporary Context of Distance Education

Literally defined by the physical distance between teacher and student, distance learning is any form of education that is accessible at a higher level of convenience to the student, channeled via phone, mail, CD-ROM, electronic mail, or video. While any correspondence study is learning at a distance, the contemporary context of distance education cannot be extricated from the internet. The internet allows distance learning to be both synchronous and asynchronous, and defines the most typical context for distance learning as web-based distance learning (WBDL).

WBDL has brought with it a range of considerations related to assessment, curriculum, and the roles of teacher and student. In their article entitled "Problems with Assessment Validity and Reliability in Web-Based Distance Learning Environments and Solutions," authors Wijekumar, Ferguson, and Wagoner write that some "techniques in web-based distance learning apply age-old techniques to a new medium and are not adequate for web-based distance learning environments (WBDLE).... Web-based distance learning environments (WBDLE) are growing exponentially and appear to be driven by a technology focus and not a learning focus" (2006, p. 199). The new challenges posed to educators, institutions, and policy makers by WBDL largely surround adapting traditional elements of education to the newer electronic media, and accreditation of distance learning programs is increasingly rooted in the ability of WBDL to not merely mirror the traditional classroom in terms of strategy and assignments but instead exist within an entirely new framework.

Thinking Skills, Inquiry, and WBDL

Molding the classroom to be a community of inquiry is critical to effective education. Pedagogically, the social presence of a student is not only valuable to learning but also crucial to cognitive processes. Critical thinking, for instance, is a widely recognized element skill that facilitates effective learning.

Critical thinking authenticates existing knowledge in parallel with generating new knowledge; it is, by extension, a core, education goal. Critical thinking charges learners to reflect on and personalize the material in a way that is meaningful and memorable. Within the distance learning environment, critical thinking must be facilitated differently than it is within a traditional classroom.

From one perspective, critical thinking is more conducive to WBDL because these distance learning environments use text as a primary vehicle for communication instead of dialogue or other forms of verbal communication. Text-based communication fosters deeper and more prolonged reflection than does verbal communication. However, not all learners automatically absorb text-based communication in reflective way, thereby neither engaging in critical thinking nor authentically learning the material.

Higher-order thinking, a progressive extension of critical thinking, is the process by which students' direct experience fosters meaningful connections between old and new knowledge and, in turn, provides the foundation for questioning and critiquing the students' environment. In the WBDL environment, higher-order thinking is not always ensured but can be supported through small classes and technological design considerations. Substantial, empirical evidence suggests, however, that the ability of the WBDL environment to support critical and higher-order thinking depends wholly on the learning styles of the students.

Student Learning Styles and WBDL

Well-documented is the role played by student motivation in self-directed learning. Students that have a higher degree of self-discipline in conjunction with the ability to effectively and consistently organize have proven to be more successful within the WBDL environment. The range of learning styles present in the modern, student population can be divided into processing strategies, related to how students study, and regulation strategies, referring to how students keep studying. The cognitive processes of perception, scanning, and reflecting are all innate and tend to exist at the same level, relatively unchanging, throughout the learner's lifetime.

Some evidence suggests that certain learning styles gravitate toward different majors, which is particularly relevant to this current study. Students majoring in the humanities exhibit a conceptual learning style while those that majored in mathematics and sciences exhibited a more practical learning style. Psychology and education students, for instance, scored higher on the Inventory of Learning Processes (ILP) scale which identified students' ability to deeply process information than biology majors. The evidence suggests that students who major in more visual-spatial majors may be more inclined to grasp abstract concepts than those who gravitate toward logical-mathematical majors.

Regardless of major, however, the literature suggests that the ability to self-motivate is critical within the WBDL environment. In an empirical study, authors, Hsu and Shiue write that "the success of distance education delivery lies in understanding individual participants and their varying requirements for successful instructional delivery. This understanding may lead to better design and delivery of services offered to distance learners" (p. 143). The desire to genuinely pursue the path of knowledge in a given subject is rooted in the conscious choice to know that which is being taught. The authors compared the results of a self-directed readiness questionnaire with actual course performance for 156 distance-learning students of various subjects, ranging from engineering to pharmacy, and determined that there was a direct correlation between the ability to self-direct learning and course performance.

An additional empirical study hypothesized that learning disabled (LD) students would have lowered ability to self-direct and organize course material than non-LD students and would subsequently have an impaired ability to perform well within a WBDL environment. The 212 participants in the study answered a self-reported questionnaire (SRQ) regarding their learning styles, and the LD students revealed that stepwise processing, memorization, and lecture-and-drill learning were their preferred methods for learning, most of which are not conducive to the WBDL environment. Students with LD demonstrated significantly lower ability to self-regulate than non-LD students and thus struggled more greatly within the WBDL environment; this occurred across all majors.

Student Characteristics and WBDL

Other literature suggests that characteristics such as gender, age, technological prowess, and previous experience with distance learning may significantly inform student success within a WBDL environment and concurrently be linked to learning style. Female students, for instance, have a higher potential to be visual-spatial learners while male students are more likely to be logical-mathematical learners. Previous distance learning experience has been linked to receptivity within the WBDL environment but not necessarily success within the WBDL environment. Age was not found to significantly inform WBDL success. The greatest student characteristic in an empirical study of over 200 students found to inform success within the WBDL environment was technological prowess, defined largely through computer savvy and web navigation.

Teaching Styles and WBDL

While some literature suggests that the role of the teacher within the WBDL environment is minimized too severely to drastically inform student success, there is empirical evidence to suggest that the teacher can mitigate potential challenges posed by distance learning. A qualitative study of thirty faculty members in the nursing departments of American and Canadian universities concluded that the ability of the teacher to clearly communicate was crucial to student success as was practical knowledge of and previous experience in the WBDL environment.

Assessment and WBDL

Assessment has been highly criticized within the WBDL environment for a range of reasons. Primarily, authentic assessment practices such as portfolio-based evaluations are not conducive to distance learning. Traditional classrooms hold the contextual factors of immediate feedback and physical community which directly inform the ability of the student to perform during assessments.

The most frequently used assessments within WBDL environments regardless of major are multiple-choice tests and written projects. In a review of 500 graduate and undergraduate courses that spanned the sciences, humanities, and business courses, multiple choice tests were used most frequently and had a higher probability of student cheating and a markedly lower ability to genuinely reflect learning. The authors suggested that chat-room assessments would be valuable as a channel through which learning can be authentically assessed. However, this form of assessment would not be as conducive to mathematics and other logical subjects as humanities which foster open, easily debated discussion.

Community and WBDL

Student community is widely perceived to be a crucial component of effective WBDL. Online communities cultivated through knowledge, survival, pleasure, and survival permeate the World Wide Web, thus creating a meaningful sense of community within WBDL is wholly possible. Dabbagh contends in her article entitled "Distance Learning: Emerging Pedagogical Issues," that WBDL warrants community be purposefully created in way that is pedagogically appropriate:

The compatible bonding of telecommunications technologies and social constructivist learning principles premised a pedagogical ecology that has challenged traditional teaching practices, faculty and student roles, institutional roles, and academic infrastructures.... Supporters of this view argue that each medium has a unique set of characteristics and that understanding the ways in which students use the capabilities of the medium is essential to understanding the influence of the medium on learning...(2004, p. 37).

The author continues with the assertion that while distance learning was traditionally, pedagogically inappropriate when it was channeled via mail correspondence or telephone, the advent of online technologies is making genuine, pedagogically relevant learning possible within the WBDL environment.

Synthesis: Redefining Context without Redefining Learning

Learning is essentially a social process in which the student acquires and applies information in a culturally appropriate, personally meaningful way. Within WBDL environments, the social component has the potential to be elusive whilst the personal meaning of the course content may be conversely enhanced. By extension, subjects that have a greater need for social communications during learning may be challenged in the WBDL context, and yet the lack of immediate, social communication may be mitigated by the learning style of the student or teacher's previous experience within WBDL environments.

Several key points emerge from the literature that are relevant to the current study. Primarily, there is a dearth of literature regarding the subject-specific efficacy of WBDL, as most of the literature has studied how learning styles, assessment modality, and a sense of community within the WBDL context. However, in synthesizing the current literature hypothesized is it that the existing literature can undoubtedly provide a firm foundation for this study.

If critical thinking and higher-order thinking skills are possible within the WBDL environment as the literature suggests, then authentic learning is possible as well. Because critical thinking is fostered by individual reflection on textual communications more so than during interpersonal, immediate discourse, WBDL communications cultivate critical thinking and thus enhance learning. While the literature does not suggest that the learning style of the student might inform the level of critical thinking that takes place within the WBDL, likely is it that students who are more independent learners have a higher probability of thinking critically than students who need greater direction.

A significant point which emerged from the literature is that students who have a genuine interest in the course content are more highly motivated to learn; they are thus more likely to succeed within the WBDL environment. By extension, students who are enrolled in WBDL courses related to their personal interests will likely be more successful than they would be in WBDL unrelated to their personal interests, such as required core courses or prerequisites to graduate courses. In essence, this may suggest that student interest in the course content may mitigate the inconduciveness of certain courses to the WBDL context.

The evidence of how learning styles inform success within WBDL is useful as well, as visual-spatial learners are presumably less likely to major in logical-mathematical driven courses. However, they would likely be required to take those courses as part of the core requirements. By extension, visual-spatial learners enrolled in logical-mathematical WBDL courses are likely to be less motivated and perhaps challenged by their lack of genuine interest in the course content.

Perhaps the most salient point emerging from the literature, however, is the need for community interaction and authentic assessments within WBDL environments. Continual discussion, collaborative projects, and assessments that exist outside of the realm of multiple-choice testing may not be as conducive to mathematics or other more logical subjects as humanities courses would be to WBDL. Additionally, course content that requires greater social interaction, such as basic language courses that require face-to-face oration, may be hindered through distance learning.

Research Questions

The literature in conjunction with the researcher's previous, personal experience with WBDL environments has birthed the following research questions.

Abridged Methodology

The current study will be a mixed-method study using both quantitative and qualitative methods in order to address the aforementioned research questions. The study aims to have at least 100 participants grouped according to major currently enrolled in WBDL courses. Ideally, the participants will be enrolled, full-time undergraduates and graduate students at accredited, American universities. At least 1/3 of participants will be logical-mathematical majors (engineering, mathematics education, etc.) and the remaining majors will be humanities majors (literature, history, etc.). Every attempt will be made to ensure that there is a mix of directly major-relevant courses and non-major-relevant courses; for instance, engineering majors enrolled in a engineering, WBDL course and engineering majors enrolled in a history course.

After the major of each participant is identified, the learning styles of each participant will be evaluated using a peer-reviewed instrument that has yet to be determined; potential instruments are Gardner's Learning Style Inventory and Memletics Learning Styles Inventory. Qualitative methods including interviews and brief, short answer questions will be used to assess student motivation in the course with a critical eye for discrepancies between students enrolled in major-relevant courses and students enrolled in non-major relevant courses. A specifically designed survey will be used in order to address the content of each WBDL course. The survey will evaluate the elements of the distance learning course in questions, paying particular attention to how the online community is constructed, how frequent interaction is between students, how assessments are delivered, how often and through what channels feedback takes place, student perceptions of their own success and actual course outcomes.

An expected limitation of the study is that the researcher will not have access to actual grades due to privacy restrictions. The students' description of his or her grade will need to be used in order to judge student success. Additionally, the researcher will not have access to teachers' biographical information and thus will not know what role has been played by teacher experience with WBDL delivery and facilitation.

Overall, the methodology will compare how course content is delivered with specific respect to overall subject matter. Hypothesized is it that logical-mathematical course content will not be delivered as successfully within WBDL environment as it will employ inauthentic assessments such as multiple-choice questions and not be particularly conducive to community interaction as humanities courses. However, student success within logical-mathematical courses may be supported by student motivation; this motivation will likely be linked to major-relevance of courses.


The study depends precariously on its timeline, as participants will need to have sufficient experience with the course content and grades will need have been administered on assessments thus far. Student success will be determined solely through qualitative interviews, but final grades will need to have been determined. By extension, the proposed timeline for the qualitative research will begin several weeks into the semester, while the initial, learning styles survey could be administered earlier. The final, quantitative survey will be administered following the course's completion at semester's end. The semester in question is fall of 2010, and the proposed timeline is as follows:


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