Lessons About Online Learning

Yoram and Edith Neumann, who have been involved with online education for decades, share some lessons about what factors most help students learn.

May 3, 2016

In its infancy, online learning was viewed as a more accessible alternative for students unable to commit to the traditional higher education path. But in recent years online education has been gaining more acceptance. The most recent U.S. Department of Education data from fall 2014 indicate that 5.8 million students took at least one online course, with 2.85 million of them studying exclusively online. After thousands of online launches and millions of students, it is important to assess the advancement made in online learning as we look to further enhance online learning for future students.

Thirty years ago, we committed ourselves to a long-term program of research into higher education and how to improve it. Together, we have conducted several studies on student learning at colleges and universities.

Several factors emerged as determinants of students’ academic performance and related outcomes, such as retention, graduation, satisfaction and commitment toward their college or university. The four major predictors of student learning outcomes were:

  • student engagement and involvement in a variety of activities aimed at different cognitive domains of learning;
  • student-faculty contact, including faculty members’ helpfulness and accessibility -- as manifested through the immediacy of feedback and a concern for students and their problems;
  • factors related to degree programs, including the integration and relevance of the various required and elective courses, as well as the quality of teaching focused on student learning and of academic advising; and
  • learning opportunities beyond traditional courses, including opportunities to engage in self-directed learning and address critical issues in the course.

In addition to our interest in advancing policy-based knowledge in higher education, we have held leadership positions at several colleges and universities and have been involved in pioneering distance and online learning programs. In 1996, we developed a vision for a new online university in which all functions (academic, support, services and administrative) were directly linked to the development of a comprehensive online learning environment. We named it the Robust Learning Model, and all components of the model were designed to:

  • enable systematic applications to all degree programs;
  • be relevant for many groups of learners -- including adult and mobile learners;
  • have a mechanism for accountability, transparency and quality assurance;
  • use resources efficiently aimed at affordable tuition;
  • develop a budget and resource-allocation plan based on projected enrollment growth and predefined quality improvements; and
  • demonstrate a verifiable attainment of learning outcomes for students for each degree program.

The pedagogy included a completely interactive threaded discussion that allowed students to interact and engage with faculty members as well as each other. For each course, we introduced problem-based learning through case studies and project-based learning through a signature assignment. Self-reflection was included as part of the course as well as through a required essay at the end of the course. And when it came to assessment, the RLM was, to our knowledge, the first attempt to align institutional learning outcomes, program learning outcomes and course learning outcomes.

In 1998, we founded Touro University International, an independent branch campus of Touro College New York, using the RLM approach to online learning. It became a separately accredited institution and an academic and financial success. (Sold in 2007, it was later renamed Trident University International.)

Then, in 2012, we rejoined Touro in a new role of turnaround management for a division that it opened in 2008 named Touro University Worldwide. In the past four years, we have implemented a more advanced version of the RLM, based on our past experience with it and cloud and mobile technology, as well as on new developments in our conceptual map for an online university.

Throughout our two decades of experience, we have continued to improve the comprehensive learner-focused model using continuous assessment, experimentation and tests of new ideas and innovations. What have we learned about the factors in the online learning environment that directly or indirectly affect students’ learning performance?

Lessons Learned

  1. The major factor that consistently predicts successful performance outcomes is the student’s skill at learning to learn. By this we mean the student’s ability to persist in learning through an awareness of his or her learning needs, to effectively search for information and raise questions, to manage time to focus on learning, and to acquire or use support mechanisms to overcome challenges. Students with a high learning-to-learn ability will successfully prepare in advance how to progress and benefit from their learning experiences as well as persevere in finding the path to learning, despite adverse circumstances. We have continuously improved the learning model and the online learning environment by focusing  pedagogy, faculty-student interactions, student-to-student interactions, self-reflection and the variety of learning strategies and activities to support students in their improvement of this ability.
  2. Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments -- problem identification, problem solving, analytical tools, projects, reflective inquiry, discussions, critical thinking -- enhances learning outcomes when a component of self-assessment is added to each of those activities.
  3. Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments improves learning outcomes when the feedback received from the professor and/or other learners is immediate (less than 24 hours), constructive, substantial and (in case of professor feedback) guides students in how to strengthen their learning efficacy.
  4. The professor’s direct involvement in all facets of course development and management -- including design, instruction, meaningful and frequent interactions with the learners and assessment -- enhances student learning outcomes across all degree levels and programs. When the learning experience is divided (unbundled) among several segments, student learning outcomes are considerably lower. We have tried unbundling the learning process and have experimented with course developers and designers, teaching assistants, mentors, success coaches and a learning team, and we have always received inferior results compared to when a faculty member is fully involved in all facets of the course.
  5. Periodic course assessment and improvement based on self-reflection and peers’ and previous students’ comments can boost student learning outcomes. The key is to explicitly examine, for all courses across the institution, what worked well and what did not work previously for the same course.
  6. An eight-week session maximizes learning outcomes for adult learners (24 or older), compared to a four- or 12-week session. A 12-week session maximized learning outcomes for traditionally college-age students (23 or younger), compared to a four- or eight-week session.
  7. With all other learning activities and assignments remaining the same, courses without a problem-based learning component have resulted in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include it.
  8. Similarly, courses without a project-based component, a threaded discussion or a self-reflective component result in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include them.
  9. Students who receive either professors’ or peers’ constructive feedback at least twice a week substantially outperform those who do not.
  10. Students who perform mid-session self-assessment with the professor’s constructive feedback on that self-assessment outperform students who do not.
  11. Students who submit their learning assignment ahead of the deadline outperform students who wait until the last minute.
  12. Students who participate in precourse learning orientation activities (related to time planning, learning tips and a variety of supporting techniques) outperform students who do not.
  13. Students with high levels of student-faculty or student-to-student interactions in threaded discussions outperform students with lower levels of interactive learning.
  14. Students who received weekly tips directly from their professors encouraging them to take control of their learning activities outperform students who do not receive such tips. This finding led us to implement this practice as part of the threaded discussion.
  15. Students who can relate the signature assignment as well as the capstone to their work environment outperform students who cannot.
  16. Adding academic quality assurance -- staffed by an experienced senior faculty member who works collaboratively with all professors to study the lessons learned and implement the derived improvements into the online learning environment -- enhances student learning outcomes.
  17. When comparing online students using our model with students taking the same course with the same professor under the traditional classroom model, online students outperform their face-to-face counterparts.
  18. All the aforementioned factors that enhance learning outcomes also increase student retention rates as well as graduation rates, while reducing the time to degree across all degree levels and degree programs.

Of the various lessons that we have discussed in this piece, some are related to policy issues currently on the agenda of higher education and its future directions, such as MOOCs, competency-based education, the unbundling of the learning process and the like. Our lessons are based on the distinct learning model and web-based learning environment that we envisioned, developed and implemented -- and are important additions to the public discourse. That said, they are not intended to be the ultimate conclusion applied to all online learning environments, nor are they intended to end discussion of these important issues. As educators, it is our responsibility to continue to examine and improve how our students learn through online education.


Yoram Neumann is chief executive officer and university professor of business administration at Touro University Worldwide. Edith Neumann is provost and university professor of health sciences at Touro University Worldwide.

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