An SRI collaboration aims to improve online education for college students

The Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative aims to strengthen teaching and learning, improve student outcomes, and reduce societal gaps.

Many colleges and universities have expanded virtual learning since COVID-19, but studies show that online learning doesn’t work equally well across a diverse group of students. In fact, it can result in lower pass rates, increase feelings of isolation, and exacerbate existing inequities.

“Research has shown that students generally experience reduced success rates in online courses, and suggests that disparities between different groups sometimes get wider,” said Rebecca Griffiths, a senior principal researcher and co-director of the Digital Learning and Technology Policy program at SRI. “Given the extreme change in the future of education, it is becoming more critical to figure out how to improve and innovate in virtual education environments.”

To investigate how to help college students thrive in online environments, researchers at SRI are part of the Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative (Postsec Collab) —a collaboration between SRI, the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, Achieving the Dream, and nine broad-access colleges and universities.

Working alongside educators and students, they have been analyzing existing policies and practices, conducting experiments, and developing an instructional model to strengthen teaching and learning, improve student outcomes, and reduce race and economic status-based gaps.

The Postsec Collab is focusing on STEM courses specifically because they tend to have relatively high failure rates and they are foundational for degrees such as nursing, engineering, and information technology, which can help lower-income students move into higher-paying careers.

Many online courses are taught asynchronously, meaning that they do not have scheduled class times and students have few, if any, opportunities to meet face-to-face with the instructor. The research team is looking for evidence-backed ways to instill the skills that help students take a more active role in managing their learning process and succeed in these classes.

Developing new ways to teach and learn

Over the past three years, the team has been conducting a series of studies to test methods that help students develop concrete skills such as goal setting and effective time management. Further, the team is testing ways that instructors can help students adjust learning strategies, encourage a growth mindset and build a sense of belonging.

One of the initial hypotheses is that students from historically marginalized groups might be more likely to question whether they belong in college STEM. The research shows that effective strategies include setting up peer support, sharing stories from successful upper-level students, asking students to reflect on past performance and set goals, and providing lessons on success strategies and helping apply them.

“It is becoming critical to figure out how to improve and innovate in virtual education environments.”

“There can be an assumption among college faculty that by the time students get to college, they should know how to manage their learning independently, but the reality is that these institutions serve students from a very wide range of backgrounds,” Griffiths said. “Some are adults returning to college, some are parents, some have full-time jobs, some are international, some are first generation, some may still be questioning whether they even belong in college. Online learning can exacerbate some of the challenges.”

Helping students navigate college life

Griffiths points out that while many universities have systems in place to help students adjust to college and online learning, such as orientation, these are generally separate from academic coursework. It can be challenging for students to connect and apply what they learned when they find themselves struggling, for example, in an introduction to biology course.

To help students succeed, online courses need stronger instructor presence and opportunities for students to connect with each other, Griffiths said. Schools need to give students tools that help them take charge of their own learning, as well as create an environment that fosters growth to help students navigate setbacks. The Postsec Collab is working on an instructional model that will help faculty incorporate these ideas into their coursework, without overwhelming the instructors or the students with additional work.

“There’s a need for a shift in the way instructors think about their work for this shift,” Griffiths said. “There is more to virtual teaching than just delivering the lesson.”

Read more from SRI