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Researchers strive to improve online education

February 23, 2009

Education researchers know that interaction increases learning, but the challenge is to find a way to prompt that interaction as online education continues to expand.

Among the many goals and desired outcomes of Arizona State University’s vision of the New American University is to enroll 100,000 students in online courses by 2012. To accomplish this lofty goal, researchers, such as ASU professor James Klein are trying to find the most effective way to present instruction via the World Wide Web.

“It’s a very exciting time. Learning can be as effective online as it can be face to face,” said Klein, a professor of educational technology with the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, who is investigating the use of collaborative learning in various settings, including computer-based, classroom and online. Klein noted that a number of his studies have examined the effects of collaboration in those settings with many types of students in public schools, community colleges, universities and corporate training settings geared for working adults.

One series of studies conducted with Jeremy Tutty during his doctoral work at ASU examined how to teach teachers online and help them integrate technology into their classrooms. Tutty, now an assistant professor at Boise State University, compared the effectiveness of working online collaboratively versus individually. Another graduate student, Christy Alarcon, now an instructional designer in ASU's W. P. Carey School of Business, later built upon Tutty’s research by adding computer-based cues that prompted interaction online as well as interaction between students working side by side on computers. 

“Jim Klein is one of the preeminent instructional design scholars in the United States, and his work has significance for practitioners and researchers alike,” said Rita Richey, Professor and Program Coordinator in Instructional Technology for the College of Education at Wayne State University, who with Klein on co-authored the book, Design & Development Research: Methods, Strategies and Issues.

“His recent research in online learning holds great promise of providing a comprehensive empirical basis for the design and development of these programs. This is especially important today given the many pressures on universities to quickly launch programs and enter the online marketplace,” Richey said.

Tutty and Alarcon’s doctoral dissertations, chaired by Klein, were the basis of a paper recently honored as the Outstanding Featured Research Paper by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). The paper titled "Effects of Instructional Setting and Interaction cues in Collaborative computer-based instruction,” also has been submitted to the Journal of Computing and Higher Education.  The research team also hopes to present their study results at the next meeting of the European Association for Research and Learning and Instruction (EARLI) in Amsterdam.

Klein said the growing availability of online courses is an educational movement that warrants further study. “The continued proliferation of online courses means we must continue to do research in this area. What we know is that interaction increases learning. How do we get people to be actively involved online when we require students to collaborate?”

Klein, Tutty and Alarcon’s work revealed that people who worked face to face had higher positive attitudes than those who worked online, though online students learned as much as the students in a classroom.  When comparing collaborative learning to individual study, students preferred working together, but they didn’t necessarily learn better than those who studied alone. However, the team also discovered that forced online interaction led to lower student motivation.

“We do know that interaction increases learning. Not only interaction with people but interaction with materials,” Klein said. “The key is to get folks actively involved. There is a growing body of literature on the development of online learning that lends itself to that.”

Because of the potential impact of online courses in higher education, Klein said it is important to develop well-designed tools, strategies and interaction because effective instruction is as important online as it is in the classroom.

Klein said ASU is one of many public and private sector organizations that have identified innovations in online instruction as a top-level goal.  He said he currently is working on a project with the U.S. Army to design effective military instruction, and indicated that private sector companies, such as Intel, are using online tools for business training and development at higher rates than ever before.