Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

The Web's Impact on Student Learning: A Review of Recent Research Reveals Three Areas That Can Enlighten Current Online Learning Practices

Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

The Web's Impact on Student Learning: A Review of Recent Research Reveals Three Areas That Can Enlighten Current Online Learning Practices

Article excerpt

RECENTLY, I SET OUT TO FIND AN ANSWER TO THE question of what current research was saying about how, if at all, the Web impacted student learning. My recently released monograph, Quality in Distance Education: Focus on Online Learning, is a compilation of more than 100 studies drawn from several online journals, conference Web sites, as well as some interesting sites maintained by associations and institutions. (The one maintained by the Asynchronous Learning Networks organization at www.aln.org is an especially rich source of studies.) One of the unintended lessons learned from this project was discovering how easy it is to locate good research on the Web and how many studies there actually are. My search focused on current research and studies--usually no earlier than the mid-1990s--completed on college students. I think many of the findings also will be applicable to K-12 students. In any case, the search sent me on a circuitous route to a number of answers, some of which I think are very sound and will stand up over time, while others are more tentative, although intriguing.

Anyone who has been around distance education for a while is familiar with the compilation of 355 research studies by Thomas L. Russell of North Carolina State University (1999), who coined the phrase, "no significant differences phenomenon." Many of the studies in Russell's report were comparison studies, comparing the new mode of education--be it telecourse, interactive video or satellite--with traditional education. Subsequent writers have faulted these studies for poor research design and inadequate controls, a naive understanding of what affects learning, and a lack of recognition that online students are different from their on campus counterparts.

Therefore, it may surprise you to know that more than 30 of the studies I found were a comparison of Web-based courses against traditional ones. Better studies have been done, of course, some of them attempting to repair the deficiencies of earlier research, while others opt for a case study approach to Web-based learning. While it is difficult to summarize all of the findings, there are three areas of the studies worth mentioning:

* The role of individual differences;

* Instructional design; and

* Specific skills that are enhanced by online environments.

Individual Differences

No educator will be especially surprised to learn that success in a Web-based learning environment is heavily influenced by what the student brings to the learning situation. There is evidence that students with certain learning styles (e.g., visual) or behavioral types (e.g., independent) do learn better in the Web environment. Conversely, aural, dependent and more passive learners may not do as well. It is this sort of insight that leads some to propose that the potential for maximal learning results when instructional approaches are matched to student learning styles and are supported by appropriate technologies.

Furthermore, students with a high motivation to learn, greater self-regulating behavior, and the belief they can learn online do better; as do students with the necessary computer skills. These are not particularly profound insights, although they do tend to explain why online learning will work as well as other forms of education for good students, but may not work as well for students who struggle because of a lack of motivation or self-confidence.

Interestingly, gender differences appear in online exchanges just as they would in regular situations. Based on content analyses of exchanges in Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) courses, Blum (1999) found differences in male and female messages that mirror traditional face-to-face communication. Males were more likely to control online discussions, post more questions, express more certainty in their opinions and were more concrete. Whereas females were more empathetic, polite and agreeable. …

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