Within the national conversation on how to make college accessible and available in a world in which postsecondary education is increasingly a necessity, the growth of online learning is one of the most significant trends in preparing the next generation of leaders. According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, a third of all university students are taking at least one online course, while 15.4% are earning their degrees entirely online. Those numbers are based on fall 2017 data.
Gerard Beenen, professor of management and associate dean of community engagement and faculty and staff development at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics, and Sinjini Mitra, associate professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences, compare online and face-to-face instruction in business and related disciplines in their new study, “A Comparative Study of Learning Styles and Motivational Factors in Traditional and Online Sections of a Business Course,” appearing in the journal INFORMS Transactions on Education.
“There has been explosive growth in online and hybrid classes in higher education,” says Beenen. “We were curious to explore potential differences in what makes students successful in traditional face-to-face and online instructional approaches.”
Online Learning in “Bottleneck” Courses: Who Benefits and Who Doesn’t?
The co-authored study particularly looks at the benefits of online learning in so-called “bottleneck” courses within business education. These are the types of courses, such as introductions to macroeconomics, microeconomics and accounting, that undergraduates are often forced to repeat, causing delays in their educational masterplan.
Beenen and Mitra caution that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all for student success. “Some students may have a motivational profile better suited for online classes, while others prefer face-to-face,” says Beenen. “Since online classes are more scalable without a physical classroom, it may be possible to shift resources so some students struggling in bottleneck courses can get additional in-person attention and support.”
Mihaylo Tutoring Services and Supplemental Instruction (SI), available to the college’s nearly 10,000 business students enrolled in both traditional and in-person courses, is a prime example of reprioritizing to ensure student success.
“I think our college has been ahead of the curve by expanding our tutoring services,” he says. “In fact, our business statistics course used to be a bottleneck but isn’t any more due to tutoring and SI improvements.”
As the faculty liaison for SI for ISDS courses, Mitra has also witnessed the transformative impact of these services on student success. “I have seen firsthand how this program has helped boost success rates in a course on business statistics that a majority of our students struggle with and require additional support,” she says.
In an educational marketplace in which both online and traditional courses are commonplace, Beenen and Mitra discovered that students who are already more self-directed in their motivational profile are more likely to both enroll in and succeed at online classes.
Conversely, those seeking a more structured learning environment and are less self-motivated are likely to excel in a traditional face-to-face format.
And regardless of course format, students with a more reflective learning style, who are more intent on applying concepts to their experience, do better than their peers.
“I have been conducting research on student success in bottleneck courses for a long time, but previously focused mostly on background academic and demographic factors,” says Mitra. “This research showed me how critical cognitive and motivational factors are in understanding what promotes student success in traditionally difficult courses, especially in different learning environments.”
Beenen has recently published a second study, “Flipping class: Why student expectations and person-situation fit matter,” co-authored by the late University of Wisconsin professor Ben Arbaugh, comparing student motivation, attitudes and intentions for conventional and hybrid classes. The results were similar to those observed with Mitra.
“Students who were more self-motivated were more likely to enjoy the hybrid format and to pick such a class in the future. In that study, however, students were randomly assigned to either a conventional or hybrid class, so a hybrid class was an unexpected surprise, especially for those who were less self-motivated,” says Beenen. “Yet despite this unexpected, and for some unpleasant, surprise, students in the hybrid class worked harder.”
A significant takeaway from the study was how critical it is for instructors and institutions to make expectations clear in advance so students who take hybrid courses know what to expect.
Beenen believes there are opportunities for further research on the topic.
“I think the motivational differences and learning processes between face-to-face, hybrid and online classes needs further exploration, including the factors that lead students to work harder in hybrid classes, even if some are less satisfied with the format,” he says. “For instance, it would be interesting to see if students later recognize it as a more robust learning experience.”
Where is Online Education Heading?
In a world of artificial intelligence (AI) and ubiquitous mobile devices, opportunities for presenting course materials in an online format are likely to continue to grow. At the same time, in-person instruction is unlikely to ever disappear completely.
“I think we’ll continue to see growth in hybrid classes, which combine online and face-to-face learning,” says Beenen. “I’ve been teaching in this format now for the last seven years and really enjoy it. This provides students the flexibility of fewer hours in a physical classroom, while freeing up scarce classroom space for the university.”
On the other hand, students who otherwise excel more in either a fully online or a strictly traditional course format may face challenges in the combination posed by hybridization.
More About the Authors
Mitra, who is also a faculty associate of the Center for Cybersecurity in Cal State Fullerton’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, earned her Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. She has published research on statistical applications in security and biometric authentication, health care, education and information systems. Her studies have appeared in such journals as Frontiers in Psychology, Communications of the ACM, Journal of Computer Information Systems and INFORMS Transactions on Education. Her research has received external funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH).
More information on Mitra’s research can be found online.
An expert on organizational behavior, Beenen, a Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. alumnus, has published research on workplace motivation and learning, leadership, and management education. His studies have been published in such journals as Human Resource Management, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Academy of Management Learning and Education and the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.
Beenen is also the incoming division head for the Management Education and Development division of the Academy of Management, the primary global conference for management faculty.
When Beenen isn’t teaching courses, conducting research, or administrating the faculty and staff of the largest business college on the West Coast, he is likely to be found at Newport Beach, his most frequented surfing spot. Some of his other favorite surf destinations are Church near San Onofre and Swami’s in Encinitas in North County San Diego.
For more information, visit his research online.