online learning, writing, and student engagement

A new report was issued this week from the National Survey of Student Engagement. You can read the full report at http://nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2008_Results/.  Part of the report deals with online
learning, where the survey concludes

Controlling for student and institutional characteristics,
the percent of first year courses primarily delivered online was
positively related to active and collaborative learning. Though this
result seems counterintuitive, the online setting may offer more
opportunities for collaboration and faculty who teach online courses
may be more intentional about fostering active learning experiences,
such as asking questions or participating
in discussions. For both first-year students and seniors, the percent
of courses delivered primarily online was significantly related to
level of academic challenge. Online courses seem to stimulate more
intellectual challenge and educational gains. This suggests that
integrating technology-enhanced courses into the curriculum for all
students might have some salutary benefits. On the other hand, it is
also possible that faculty who are incorporating new technologies are
inherently more inclined to provide engaging experiences for their
students, regardless of how content is delivered.

I’m not sure why this is "counterintuitive." Actually, I suppose I do know where that comes from–the idea that students and teachers cannot make real connections without face-to-face contact. I do think it is interesting how the report notes two possible reasons for this outcome:

  • Online courses seem to stimulate more intellectual challenge and educational gains

or

  • faculty who are incorporating new technologies are inherently more inclined to provide engaging experiences for their students, regardless of how content is delivered.

It’s an interesting interpretive problem. I would suggest that both could be true. That is, (some) faculty who are inclined to provide engaging experiences for students turn to online environments because those environments offer affordances that stimulate intellectual challenge and educational gain. Now asking a room of faculty if they don’t want to provide engaging experiences for their students is somewhat like asking a room of people to raise their hands if they are racist. Instead, it’s one of those things we always suspect of the "other guy." Still, this would seem to indicate that we can still do more–institutionally and as professions–to reach out to faculty about the possibilities of engaging students and the potential of the online option, at least as a component in classes.

In my view, this connects with another important finding in this report on writing.

In its examination of writing, the survey concludes

Results affirmed that when institutions provided students with extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, the students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, integration of ideas from various sources, and grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. In turn, students whose faculty assigned projects with these same characteristics reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development. Taken together, these findings provide further support for the movement to infuse quality writing experiences throughout the curriculum.

Needless to say (but said here anyway), there are many kinds of writing projects. Networks may provide an excellent means to distribute/publish any student writing, but clearly some genres are meant for print rather than screen. That said, I would hypothesize (though it is not explored in this study) that there might be a correlation between the writing that is done by students in online courses and the general value found in writing assignments. The network component of a course allows students to write to one another, as well as to a broader public. Though "intellectually challenging" is not defined here, in my view part of that could be writing for a larger and real audience.

In any case, taken together or separately, these findings are certainly supportive of the move toward courses that incorporate writing in online spaces.

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