SCHOOL CLIMATE: Sense of Classroom and School Communities in Online and On-Campus Higher Education Courses

Article excerpt

Multivariate statistical analyses were used to determine if there were differences in sense of community and perceived learning between university students enrolled in fully online and fully face-to-face on-campus courses (N = 279). Study results provide evidence that online students feel a weaker sense of connectedness and belonging in both classroom and school-wide communities than on-campus students who attend face-to-face classes. Moreover, results provide evidence that nontraditional students tend to form stronger social bonds and feel more connected with each other in a university setting than do the younger, more traditional students. However, no differences in perceived learning were found between online and on-campus groups.


The professional literature provides substantial evidence to suggest that there are no significant differences in learning and other relevant educational outcomes based on the instructional delivery medium. In particular, Russell (1999) reviewed 355 studies to determine if educational outcomes differ between coursework presented at a distance and face-to-face. He concluded that the course delivery medium does not make a difference, which he portrayed as the no significant difference phenomenon, a conclusion that many proponents of distance education frequently cite to endorse the worth of online course delivery. Moreover, the professional literature suggests that learning is not caused by the technology, but by the instructional method embedded in the media (Clark, 1994).

While many facets of distance education have been thoroughly investigated, other facets have not, and two issues repeatedly surface, notwithstanding Russell's (1999) no significant difference phenomenon. The first issue is the lingering concern among some educators and researchers regarding the quality of learning in distance education courses. Abrami and Bures (1996), for example, assert:

In particular, social and intellectual isolation are two course-related factors that may contribute to weaknesses in DE. Distance learners appear to experience fewer and less-essential opportunities to interact with teachers and other students to discuss course content, assignments, learning strategies, and personal concerns about learning. DE students are physically separated from the social learning environment, and this may have effects on their perceptions of psychological isolation and detachment, which in turn, affect learning. (p. 39)

Tabs (2003), writing for the National Center of Educational Statistics, also raises the issue of quality when he reports that 26% of U.S. postsecondary schools feel that concerns about course quality are keeping them from either starting or expanding their distance education course offerings. Unfortunately, research regarding the quality of online learning is still significantly limited (Arbaugh, 2002) and many negative perceptions about the quality of distance learning may be based on instances of poor online course design and pedagogy.

The second issue of concern is the lower student persistence rates in many distance education programs vis-à-vis on-campus programs. As used here, persistence refers to a college student's academic continuation behavior that leads to succesdistance learning courses than for equi-campus courses. She notes that during the Fall 1998 semester, the withdrawal rate was 9% from the University of Central Florida's online courses and 5% from face-toface courses in the same subjects. Carr also outlines evidence from qualitative studies that suggests one reason for these higher distance education dropout rates is the tion that some students feel with the school, other students, and their professors.

The presence of issues such as quality of learning and student persistence suggests the existence of factors that negatively influence some students in courses delivered at a distance. The present study examines studentinstitution fit as a possible factor that can help explain the lower perceptions of learning quality and lower persistence rates in some online programs. …