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Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech

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The first time Stefan Duma offered his in-person Concussion Perspectives course at Virginia Tech, 50 students enrolled. The next time, 100 students enrolled, followed by 250 and later 500. When demand did not abate, he offered the course online by way of lectures in an asynchronous format with in-person visits to the Helmet Lab, where students may see, for example, how helmets are tested. More than 1,000 students signed up.

“Every time I taught it, it kind of doubled,” said Duma, professor of engineering and director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “We tend to think, ‘Oh, we have to do everything in person.’ That’s not what students think … They really like having the flexibility of some in-person classes and some online.”

Before the pandemic, 3 percent of undergraduate classes at Virginia Tech were taught online. That proportion more than doubled—to 8 percent—by the fall of 2022, and some of the new online courses are quite large. In a news release, the university celebrated the online courses for offering students access and flexibility. But some experts question whether the quality also scaled, particularly given the scant attention the institution has paid to understanding outcomes.

“Are massive courses best practice in online?” Justin Ortagus, associate professor of higher education administration and policy and director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida, asked. “Absolutely not. But it’s important to think about what’s being replaced. That’s where this is a little bit more complicated.”

Good Intentions, Enthusiastic Students

A massive online course may have one advantage over a course with hundreds of students in a lecture hall, according to Ortagus. That is, the online format may provide students with opportunities to engage.

Gregory Tew, associate professor in the Virginia Tech College of Architecture, Arts and Design, had bolstering student engagement in mind when he moved two of his classes—Design Appreciation and Life in the Built Environment—online. As with Duma’s course pivot, enrollment in the online offering soared. This semester, for example, he is teaching both courses that together enroll more than 5,000 students.

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“I am 100 percent convinced that my courses are better in the online format than when I taught them live,” Tew said. When he taught in person in large lecture halls, students were often distracted by their devices, and attendance was a problem. Now, in his massive online courses, students tell him they appreciate the conversational prose in his digital course materials that also include questions and links. When students post on the class discussion board, they receive participation points. Tew also replies to some of the students’ discussion board posts. Quizzes are graded automatically.

“A lot of students say they have felt more connected to me in a class with 3,500 students than in live classes they take in their majors,” Tew said.

Many students also report that they appreciate supplementing their in-person courses with a flexible, online option.

“So many things happen” in students’ lives, Duma said, adding that his online course is designed with flexibility in mind, including the opportunity to watch recorded lectures. “They get really sick. Sad things happen in their family. Some have athletic events. The flexibility is really important.”

Duma is not wrong about students’ desires for flexibility. Students who enroll in some online courses in the first year of college increase their odds of persisting to degree completion, according to a study Ortagus published in Research in Higher Education. That said, as with in-person courses, online courses may or may not adhere to best practices.

And Virginia Tech students appear enthusiastic about these massive online courses. Both Duma’s and Tew’s student course evaluations from multiple semesters of their huge online courses, for example, garnered above-average scores in the category of “overall teaching effectiveness.”

What About Outcomes?

When colleges consolidate more students into fewer course sections, they may cut their net expenses. That may make good economic sense for the university, but it may not offer the best educational outcomes for enrolled students.

“You can’t talk about quality in a vacuum,” Ortagus said, adding that colleges must often contend with a financial reality that connects cost and quality. “For Virginia Tech, it could just make financial sense that, instead of having 300 students in an in-person lecture hall, they have 1,200 students online.”

Still, colleges sometimes boast about low student-faculty ratios in their classes for good reason. That is, the measure often serves as a proxy for the level of personalized attention students may expect in classes. As with quality in-person courses, quality online courses prioritize student-faculty interactions and offer varied, proactive feedback to students, according to Ortagus.

“When you have over 1,000 students, even if you have the most compelling lecture in the history of civilization, it’s very challenging to continually interact with students and have an engaged course experience,” Ortagus said.

Since Tew began teaching online five years ago, he has taught more than 30,000 students—all without administrative or graduate teaching assistant support, he said.

That concerns Fiona Hollands, research and evaluation consultant at the Center for Technology and School Change at Teachers College of Columbia University, who wondered how students fare navigating thousands of discussion board posts from their classmates each week.

“If I had to read 3,000 to 4,000 post per week—” Hollands said, followed by a pause. “Are they meaningful? Are they saying anything helpful? I could just respond to the last comment, and is that my homework for the week?”

Luke Dowden, chief online learning officer and associate vice chancellor at the Alamo Colleges District, shared similar concerns.

“My concern with any online course—whether it’s a massive online course or a course that serves 30 students—is the use of quality design standards,” Dowden said, adding that, when changing a smaller in-person course to a larger online course, all items must scale. “On a discussion board that says, ‘read four posts and respond to two,’ does that really scale with 1,000 or 1,500 people?”

Hollands was also concerned that Virginia Tech’s news release about the expansion of online courses made no mention of outcomes for the course—either on its own or compared with in-person offerings of the same course.

“I do worry about classes with 1,200 people. What’s the dropout rate?” Hollands asked, citing the potential for minimal opportunities for students to receive substantive feedback or individualized coaching. “It doesn’t say whether anybody learned anything from the courses.”

Duma’s and Tew’s student course evaluations provide some feedback on the course, but a significant body of peer-reviewed research has indicated that such instruments are biased and poor measures of teaching effectiveness. Also, they can be impacted by characteristics unrelated to the quality of instruction. Courses with lighter workloads or entertaining professors, for example, earn better ratings. Indeed, Virginia Tech’s news release noted Duma’s ability to sneak in “plenty of Star Wars jokes.”

“We can’t all tell Star Wars jokes endlessly,” Hollands said. “Some of us are entertainers and some are not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of wisdom to share.”

Student feedback surveys may contextualize students’ experiences, but they are not effective teaching evaluation instruments, according to a metastudy in the Journal of Academic Ethics.

Tew acknowledged that his student evaluations are not comprehensive studies of outcomes.

“But at the moment, it’s all we have,” Tew said. “College has basically become—maybe has always been—a way to learn for people that are motivated enough to learn on their own.”

Dowden also had questions about outcomes, particularly given that some of the courses are offered in both in-person and online modalities.

“Outcomes should be the same,” Dowden said. “We shouldn’t have different learning outcomes for the same course” based on modality. When Virginia Tech moved in-person courses to large online courses, the university might have developed a protocol for ensuring that the outcomes were equivalent across modalities, Dowden suggested.

Virginia Tech, however, does not appear inclined to find out.

“There has not been, nor are there plans for, a study/comparative analysis of courses by teaching modality,” David Guerin, associate vice provost for communications at Virginia Tech, wrote in an email.

Correction: An earlier version of this article had misspelled Justin Ortagus’ last name. This has been corrected.

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