Student participation thrives in online learning environments

More time for reflection equals lively interactions,new e-learning study shows.

The virtual classroom can be as effective as other traditional learning methods and even give students more time to reflect, according to a recent study of MBA students.

And while online students rarely meet their classmates, the study found that online learning isn’t an isolated or lonely experience for students.

“This study clearly shows that an online education can add to learning communications and open the door to a high level of thought and introspection. That introspection in a team environment creates exceptional business leaders,” said Peter Carr, associate director of Athabasca University’s Centre for Innovative Management and co-author of the study.

The study tracked the learning experiences of 220 MBA students taking online courses and traditional in-class courses from the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London and Alberta-based Athabasca University. The purpose of the study was to examine how MBA students learn based on their interaction with other classmates in the two types of learning environments. It asked students how they perceived the social, procedural (how work was assigned for example), explanatory and cognitive learning aspects of both environments.

Researchers from both schools found online courses gave students more time to reflect on learning material. It also allowed for more lively interaction and participation by students because they have more time to formulate complete thoughts, said Carr.

“The advantage of learning together in a collaborative online environment is the level of asynchronous contributions from students and professors. Over a week, there could be 200 contributions to the discussion in our online classroom in a group of eight or 10 students. That’s not likely in a traditional classroom because there just isn’t time,” said Carr.

And that contribution adds richness and diversity to the learning experience, said Carr.

“There’s an opportunity for a richer learning environment online because you’re getting people from everywhere participating. Someone is sitting in their home in Canada and the other could be across the world.”

Compared to traditional learning, online learning can improve explanatory and cognitive learning. Face-to-face classroom interaction does however improve social or procedural learning slightly more than online learning.

The benefits of online learning can be transferred to the workplace, where training via online courses can also be cost-efficient, said Carr.

“For straight workplace training it can overcome issues of distance, travelling and other additional costs like bringing employees in from another office. There’s certainly a cost-benefit for employers.”

While learning online offers students more flexibility and time, it isn’t the answer for all types of learning situations and is not a substitute for other traditional learning methods.

“There are good things about both worlds and we need not one or the other but both.”

And not all online learning programs are effective. “(The design of courses) certainly needs a great deal of genuine effort and a commitment. There’s a lot of bad ones out there,” said Carr.

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