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A Comparative Analysis of Student Performance in an Online vs. Face-to-Face Environmental Science Course From 2009 to 2016

A growing number of students are now opting for online classes. They find the traditional classroom modality restrictive, inflexible, and impractical. In this age of technological advancement, schools can now provide effective classroom teaching via the Web. This shift in pedagogical medium is forcing academic institutions to rethink how they want to deliver their course content. The overarching purpose of this research was to determine which teaching method proved more effective over the 8-year period. The scores of 548 students, 401 traditional students and 147 online students, in an environmental science class were used to determine which instructional modality generated better student performance. In addition to the overarching objective, we also examined score variabilities between genders and classifications to determine if teaching modality had a greater impact on specific groups. No significant difference in student performance between online and face-to-face (F2F) learners overall, with respect to gender, or with respect to class rank were found. These data demonstrate the ability to similarly translate environmental science concepts for non-STEM majors in both traditional and online platforms irrespective of gender or class rank. A potential exists for increasing the number of non-STEM majors engaged in citizen science using the flexibility of online learning to teach environmental science core concepts.

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The advent of online education has made it possible for students with busy lives and limited flexibility to obtain a quality education. As opposed to traditional classroom teaching, Web-based instruction has made it possible to offer classes worldwide through a single Internet connection. Although it boasts several advantages over traditional education, online instruction still has its drawbacks, including limited communal synergies. Still, online education seems to be the path many students are taking to secure a degree.

This study compared the effectiveness of online vs. traditional instruction in an environmental studies class. Using a single indicator, we attempted to see if student performance was effected by instructional medium. This study sought to compare online and F2F teaching on three levels—pure modality, gender, and class rank. Through these comparisons, we investigated whether one teaching modality was significantly more effective than the other. Although there were limitations to the study, this examination was conducted to provide us with additional measures to determine if students performed better in one environment over another (Mozes-Carmel and Gold, 2009).

The methods, procedures, and operationalization tools used in this assessment can be expanded upon in future quantitative, qualitative, and mixed method designs to further analyze this topic. Moreover, the results of this study serve as a backbone for future meta-analytical studies.

Origins of Online Education
Computer-assisted instruction is changing the pedagogical landscape as an increasing number of students are seeking online education. Colleges and universities are now touting the efficiencies of Web-based education and are rapidly implementing online classes to meet student needs worldwide. One study reported “increases in the number of online courses given by universities have been quite dramatic over the last couple of years” (Lundberg et al., 2008). Think tanks are also disseminating statistics on Web-based instruction. “In 2010, the Sloan Consortium found a 17% increase in online students from the years before, beating the 12% increase from the previous year” (Keramidas, 2012).

Contrary to popular belief, online education is not a new phenomenon. The first correspondence and distance learning educational programs were initiated in the mid-1800s by the University of London. This model of educational learning was dependent on the postal service and therefore wasn’t seen in American until the later Nineteenth century. It was in 1873 when what is considered the first official correspondence educational program was established in Boston, Massachusetts known as the “Society to Encourage Home Studies.” Since then, non-traditional study has grown into what it is today considered a more viable online instructional modality. Technological advancement indubitably helped improve the speed and accessibility of distance learning courses; now students worldwide could attend classes from the comfort of their own homes.

Qualities of Online and Traditional Face to Face (F2F) Classroom Education
Online and traditional education share many qualities. Students are still required to attend class, learn the material, submit assignments, and complete group projects. While teachers, still have to design curriculums, maximize instructional quality, answer class questions, motivate students to learn, and grade assignments. Despite these basic similarities, there are many differences between the two modalities. Traditionally, classroom instruction is known to be teacher-centered and requires passive learning by the student, while online instruction is often student-centered and requires active learning.

In teacher-centered, or passive learning, the instructor usually controls classroom dynamics. The teacher lectures and comments, while students listen, take notes, and ask questions. In student-centered, or active learning, the students usually determine classroom dynamics as they independently analyze the information, construct questions, and ask the instructor for clarification. In this scenario, the teacher, not the student, is listening, formulating, and responding (Salcedo, 2010).

In education, change comes with questions. Despite all current reports championing online education, researchers are still questioning its efficacy. Research is still being conducted on the effectiveness of computer-assisted teaching. Cost-benefit analysis, student experience, and student performance are now being carefully considered when determining whether online education is a viable substitute for classroom teaching. This decision process will most probably carry into the future as technology improves and as students demand better learning experiences.

Thus far, “literature on the efficacy of online courses is expansive and divided” (Driscoll et al., 2012). Some studies favor traditional classroom instruction, stating “online learners will quit more easily” and “online learning can lack feedback for both students and instructors” (Atchley et al., 2013). Because of these shortcomings, student retention, satisfaction, and performance can be compromised. Like traditional teaching, distance learning also has its apologists who aver online education produces students who perform as well or better than their traditional classroom counterparts (Westhuis et al., 2006).

The advantages and disadvantages of both instructional modalities need to be fully fleshed out and examined to truly determine which medium generates better student performance. Both modalities have been proven to be relatively effective, but, as mentioned earlier, the question to be asked is if one is truly better than the other.

Student Need for Online Education
With technological advancement, learners now want quality programs they can access from anywhere and at any time. Because of these demands, online education has become a viable, alluring option to business professionals, stay-at home-parents, and other similar populations. In addition to flexibility and access, multiple other face value benefits, including program choice and time efficiency, have increased the attractiveness of distance learning (Wladis et al., 2015).

First, prospective students want to be able to receive a quality education without having to sacrifice work time, family time, and travel expense. Instead of having to be at a specific location at a specific time, online educational students have the freedom to communicate with instructors, address classmates, study materials, and complete assignments from any Internet-accessible point (Richardson and Swan, 2003). This type of flexibility grants students much-needed mobility and, in turn, helps make the educational process more enticing. According to Lundberg et al. (2008) “the student may prefer to take an online course or a complete online-based degree program as online courses offer more flexible study hours; for example, a student who has a job could attend the virtual class watching instructional film and streaming videos of lectures after working hours.”

Moreover, more study time can lead to better class performance—more chapters read, better quality papers, and more group project time. Studies on the relationship between study time and performance are limited; however, it is often assumed the online student will use any surplus time to improve grades (Bigelow, 2009). It is crucial to mention the link between flexibility and student performance as grades are the lone performance indicator of this research.

Second, online education also offers more program choices. With traditional classroom study, students are forced to take courses only at universities within feasible driving distance or move. Web-based instruction, on the other hand, grants students electronic access to multiple universities and course offerings (Salcedo, 2010). Therefore, students who were once limited to a few colleges within their immediate area can now access several colleges worldwide from a single convenient location.

Third, with online teaching, students who usually don’t participate in class may now voice their opinions and concerns. As they are not in a classroom setting, quieter students may feel more comfortable partaking in class dialogue without being recognized or judged. This, in turn, may increase average class scores (Driscoll et al., 2012).

Benefits of Face-to-Face (F2F) Education via Traditional Classroom Instruction
The other modality, classroom teaching, is a well-established instructional medium in which teaching style and structure have been refined over several centuries. Face-to-face instruction has numerous benefits not found in its online counterpart (Xu and Jaggars, 2016).

First and, perhaps most importantly, classroom instruction is extremely dynamic. Traditional classroom teaching provides real-time face-to-face instruction and sparks innovative questions. It also allows for immediate teacher response and more flexible content delivery. Online instruction dampens the learning process because students must limit their questions to blurbs, then grant the teacher and fellow classmates time to respond (Salcedo, 2010). Over time, however, online teaching will probably improve, enhancing classroom dynamics and bringing students face-to face with their peers/instructors. However, for now, face-to-face instruction provides dynamic learning attributes not found in Web-based teaching (Kemp and Grieve, 2014).

Second, traditional classroom learning is a well-established modality. Some students are opposed to change and view online instruction negatively. These students may be technophobes, more comfortable with sitting in a classroom taking notes than sitting at a computer absorbing data. Other students may value face-to-face interaction, pre and post-class discussions, communal learning, and organic student-teacher bonding (Roval and Jordan, 2004). They may see the Internet as an impediment to learning. If not comfortable with the instructional medium, some students may shun classroom activities; their grades might slip and their educational interest might vanish. Students, however, may eventually adapt to online education. With more universities employing computer-based training, students may be forced to take only Web-based courses. Albeit true, this doesn’t eliminate the fact some students prefer classroom intimacy.

Third, face-to-face instruction doesn’t rely upon networked systems. In online learning, the student is dependent upon access to an unimpeded Internet connection. If technical problems occur, online students may not be able to communicate, submit assignments, or access study material. This problem, in turn, may frustrate the student, hinder performance, and discourage learning.

Fourth, campus education provides students with both accredited staff and research libraries. Students can rely upon administrators to aid in course selection and provide professorial recommendations. Library technicians can help learners edit their papers, locate valuable study material, and improve study habits. Research libraries may provide materials not accessible by computer. In all, the traditional classroom experience gives students important auxiliary tools to maximize classroom performance.

Fifth, traditional classroom degrees trump online educational degrees in terms of hiring preferences. Many academic and professional organizations do not consider online degrees on par with campus-based degrees (Columbaro and Monaghan, 2009). Often, prospective hiring bodies think Web-based education is a watered-down, simpler means of attaining a degree, often citing poor curriculums, unsupervised exams, and lenient homework assignments as detriments to the learning process.

Finally, research shows online students are more likely to quit class if they do not like the instructor, the format, or the feedback. Because they work independently, relying almost wholly upon self-motivation and self-direction, online learners may be more inclined to withdraw from class if they do not get immediate results.

The classroom setting provides more motivation, encouragement, and direction. Even if a student wanted to quit during the first few weeks of class, he/she may be deterred by the instructor and fellow students. F2F instructors may be able to adjust the structure and teaching style of the class to improve student retention (Kemp and Grieve, 2014). With online teaching, instructors are limited to electronic correspondence and may not pick-up on verbal and non-verbal cues.

Both F2F and online teaching have their pros and cons. More studies comparing the two modalities to achieve specific learning outcomes in participating learner populations are required before well-informed decisions can be made. This study examined the two modalities over eight (8) years on three different levels. Based on the aforementioned information, the following research questions resulted.

RQ1: Are there significant differences in academic performance between online and F2F students enrolled in an environmental science course?

RQ2: Are there gender differences between online and F2F student performance in an environmental science course?

RQ3: Are there significant differences between the performance of online and F2F students in an environmental science course with respect to class rank?

The results of this study are intended to edify teachers, administrators, and policymakers on which medium may work best.

The study sample consisted of 548 FVSU students who completed the Environmental Science class between 2009 and 2016. The final course grades of the participants served as the primary comparative factor in assessing performance differences between online and F2F instruction. Of the 548 total participants, 147 were online students while 401 were traditional students. This disparity was considered a limitation of the study. Of the 548 total students, 246 were male, while 302 were female. The study also used students from all four class ranks. There were 187 freshmen, 184 sophomores, 76 juniors, and 101 seniors. This was a convenience, non-probability sample so the composition of the study set was left to the discretion of the instructor. No special preferences or weights were given to students based upon gender or rank. Each student was considered a single, discrete entity or statistic.

All sections of the course were taught by a full-time biology professor at FVSU. The professor had over 10 years teaching experience in both classroom and F2F modalities. The professor was considered an outstanding tenured instructor with strong communication and management skills.

The F2F class met twice weekly in an on-campus classroom. Each class lasted 1 h and 15 min. The online class covered the same material as the F2F class, but was done wholly on-line using the Desire to Learn (D2L) e-learning system. Online students were expected to spend as much time studying as their F2F counterparts; however, no tracking measure was implemented to gauge e-learning study time. The professor combined textbook learning, lecture and class discussion, collaborative projects, and assessment tasks to engage students in the learning process.

This study did not differentiate between part-time and full-time students. Therefore, many part-time students may have been included in this study. This study also did not differentiate between students registered primarily at FVSU or at another institution. Therefore, many students included in this study may have used FVSU as an auxiliary institution to complete their environmental science class requirement.

Test Instruments
In this study, student performance was operationalized by final course grades. The final course grade was derived from test, homework, class participation, and research project scores. The four aforementioned assessments were valid and relevant; they were useful in gauging student ability and generating objective performance measurements. The final grades were converted from numerical scores to traditional GPA letters.

Data Collection Procedures
The sample 548 student grades were obtained from FVSU’s Office of Institutional Research Planning and Effectiveness (OIRPE). The OIRPE released the grades to the instructor with the expectation the instructor would maintain confidentiality and not disclose said information to third parties. After the data was obtained, the instructor analyzed and processed the data though SPSS software to calculate specific values. These converted values were subsequently used to draw conclusions and validate the hypothesis.



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