Troy University students are satisfied with their online learning programs
Online learning has emerged as a new force in American higher education as evidenced by the Sloan Consortium’s reporting of approximately 5.6 million students enrolled in at least one online course in the 2009 fall term. With the proliferation of advanced technology and enhanced education delivery platforms, online courses are also becoming increasingly popular from a global perspective. Many institutions are now realizing that the online learning environment is becoming a significant alternative to the traditional on-campus teaching environment. The continuing examination of the perceptions, attitudes, and experiences both students and faculty have of online learning is critical, in order to better understand the dynamics related to effective teaching and successful learning. Research studies have shown that not only do students “vote with their feet,” meaning they only enroll in courses they believe to have value and if they perceive they will be satisfied, but also students who are satisfied with their learning experiences are typically successful.
In one of the largest studies to date, Dr. Jim Bookout, Senior Vice Chancellor for Finance and Business Affairs conducted a pre-course and post-course examination of the relationships between six psychosocial satisfaction scales in an online student learning environment. This study included surveying over 11,800 Troy University students enrolled in at least one online class during the spring 2010 term. The scope of Dr. Bookout’s study also included analyzing demographic variables including, age, gender and ethnicity as well as other variables including computer efficacy and effort. His study was based on the analysis of the responses of 3,278 students participating in the survey from the following colleges: 43% from the College of Arts and Sciences, 31% from the Sorrell College of Business, 11% in General Studies, 8% from the College of Education, 6% from the College of Health and Human Services, and 1% from the College of Communications and Fine Arts. The students also had different levels of educational experience ranging from 1,338 students who were first-time college students to 4 students who held a doctorate degree.
Dr. Bookout’s research utilized the research-validated constructs of student satisfaction developed by Scott Walker consisting of 1) instructor support (the extent to which the instructor is approachable and provides feedback), 2) student interaction (sense of being involved and feeling like a member of the class), 3) personal relevance (the connection between students out-of-school experiences), 4) authentic learning, (the extent to which students have the opportunity to solve real-world problems), 5) active learning (the extent to which students have the opportunity to take an active role in learning), 6) student autonomy (students have the opportunity to initiate ideas, make their own learning decisions), and satisfaction (a scale of enjoyment of distance learning). In addition to analyzing the six psychosocial constructs and satisfaction constructs, Dr. Bookout also examined the degree of student satisfaction for each construct based on demographic variables including age, gender and ethnicity and the variables of computer efficacy and effort.
Dr. Bookout with the assistance of Dr. Toni Taylor, Senior Director for Human Resources used descriptive and inferential statistics as the general method of data analysis for his study. A factorial analysis of variance (ANOVA), a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) and a repeated-measures MANOVA was used to measure the differences in the degree of satisfaction of Troy University students taking online courses based on demographic variables and the variables of computer efficacy and effort. To ensure the validity of the survey instrument with Troy student populations, the relationships between Walkers six psychosocial constructs and the satisfaction construct were examined using factor analysis and multiple regressions.
According to researchers, the most significant growth in higher education is comprised of student learners age 25 and older representing an age classification that is typically older than students who take on-campus courses. Prior research suggests that older students typically have higher motivations supporting their desire to learn and are not as dependent on the institution for encouragement. The study at Troy University supports current research regarding the age of online learners. The data analysis for age showed that out of 3,278 students, 13% of the students were between the ages of 19 and 25, 42% of the students were between the ages of 26 and 35, 30% of the students were between the ages of 36 and 45, 13% of the students were between the ages of 46 and 55, and 2% of the students were over the age of 55. The analysis related to age was performed with dichotomized data consisting of students between the ages of 19 and 25 representing 13% of the students and students age 26 and older representing 87%. The age group that represented the most satisfied students were age 26 years and older. While the 26 years and older group were more satisfied, both age groups ranked the satisfaction construct of student autonomy as the highest influence on satisfaction and active learning as the second highest.
Gender as a Demographic Variable
Gender difference effects students’ perceptions of their social presence and learning within their online environment, according to some researchers. One research study showed that female students reported higher levels of satisfaction than males with online learning at community colleges and four-year institutions. The report showed at four-year public and private schools 57% and 58% of female students reported being satisfied with their online education. Another study of 68,760 students attending 87 institutions examined student satisfaction over a 3-year period which showed that the majority of online learners were female (68%) and were over age 25 (80%). This study showed that online learners reported high satisfaction scores, suggesting that online programs at most institutions are meeting student expectations.
For the study at Troy University, 65% of the 3,278 student participants 65% were female and 35% were male. According to Dr. Bookout, contrary to prior research, male students reported being more satisfied with their online programs than female students. Both male and female student groups ranked the psychosocial satisfaction construct of student autonomy as the highest and active learning as the second highest, followed closely by instructor support.
Ethnicity as a Demographic Variable
African American students are enrolling in distance education courses at an accelerating pace. However, Dr. Bookout noted that one research report showed a lower satisfaction percentage (19%) among African American students at four-year institutions than Caucasian students. He found limited research on the impact of utilizing the distance learning platform and the satisfaction of minority student learners. This is an important issue when you consider that the goals and objectives of many institutions are to recruit minority students.
In Dr. Bookout’s study, 56% of the 3,278 student participants at Troy University were Caucasian students, 39% were African American students, and 5% were Hispanic students. For the purposes of the study, the ethnicity variable was dichotomized into Caucasian students and all other ethnic minority groups. The results showed that Caucasian students (1,683) were slightly more satisfied with their online learning environment than all other minority students (1, 595). Both student groups ranked student autonomy and active learning as the top two psychosocial constructs followed by instructor support.
Computer Efficacy and Effort Variables
Many researchers utilize computer efficacy as an indicator of students’ perceptions of their success and satisfaction in using computer-mediated technology within the online learning environment. The attitudes students have toward online courses show that previous computer experience is a significant gauge in determining their participation level and satisfaction. Studies show that students are less likely to engage in essential written communication and interaction in online courses if they are not familiar with the required technology. Increasing familiarity with computers not only leads to higher satisfaction levels with the online experience, but has been shown to be correlated to increased initiative, responsibility, and improved learning. Dr. Bookout examined several categories of computer technology in his study including basic applications such as word-processing, printing, downloading information, entering a URL for Web searches to more advanced applications such as complex Internet navigation and accessing library resources.
Further analysis of computer efficacy included the number of online courses students’ reported taking prior to the Term being examined. The analysis showed that 16% of the students had previously taken between 0 and 2 online courses, 18% of had previously taken between 3 and 5 online courses, 18% had previously taken between 6 and 8 online courses, and 48% of the students had previously taken between 8 and 10 online courses. This data showed that 66% of the students had previously taken at least three online courses prior to the current course, suggesting that the majority of the students had significant computer experience related to online learning. For the purposes of this study, computer efficacy was dichotomized into beginner and competent/expert groups. The results showed that students who reported themselves as competent/expert were more satisfied with their online programs than students who consider their computer experience at the beginner level. Both groups ranked the psychosocial satisfaction construct of student autonomy as the highest and active learning as the second highest, followed closely by instructor support.
While the level of comfort with technology, including online-related computer courses has been used by researchers as a variable that impacts the degree of student satisfaction with their online learning experience, researchers also posited that in order for students to master the requirements for online course content, extra effort which enhances a higher level of comfort in learning technical skills would be essential. In several studies, students reported that online courses required greater effort because they could not rely on personal contact with the instructor. Greater effort called for compensating resources to be used in order to receive comparable levels of support as received in traditional on-campus courses.
The amount of effort used preparing for the online course was determined by analyzing the average amount of time students spent each week preparing for the online class and the average amount of time students spent each week “logged-on” to the online course website. Due to some students not reporting on these items, the sample included 3,257 students relating to time spent preparing for their online course(s) and 3,243 students relating to the degree of effort. The analysis for the average time students spent each week preparing for the online course(s) showed that 34% of the students spent an average of 6 to 10 hours and 34% spent 3 to 5 hours preparing for class each week. The remaining categories showed that 8% spent less than 3 hours preparing for class, 14% spent between 11 to 15 hours, and 10% of the students spent more than15 hours preparing for class. The average amount of time spent each week by students logged-on to the online course shows that 42% spent between 3 to 5 hours logged-on. The remaining students varied from less than 3 hours to more than 15 hours as follows: 14% spent less than 3 hours, 27% spent between 6 to 10 hours, 10% spent between 11 to 15 hours, and 7% spent more than 15 hours, on average, each week logged on to their online course(s). For the purposes of this study, the effort variable was dichotomized into students preparing and being logged-on to their course(s) either more or less than 8 hours. The results showed that students who spent more than 8 hours preparing and logging-on to their online course(s) each week were more satisfied with their online programs than students who prepared and logged-on for less than 8 hours. Both groups ranked the psychosocial satisfaction construct of student autonomy as the highest and active learning as the second highest, followed closely by instructor support.
Research suggests there are a number of variables that influence student satisfaction and that students taking online classes are in some cases more satisfied than students taking traditional in-class courses. Dr. Bookout’s study concluded that the psychosocial satisfaction constructs of student autonomy and active learning were rated by students as the highest constructs related to satisfaction with instructor support closely following. This result was supported by students across the demographic variables of age, gender and ethnicity as well as the other variables of computer efficacy and effort. The result of the remaining psychosocial satisfaction scales showed that for age, students 25 and younger ranked student interaction and authentic learning higher than students age 25 and older. For the gender scale, female students ranked authentic learning, personal relevance and student interaction higher than male students. For the ethnicity scale, minority students ranked authentic learning, personal relevance and student interaction higher than Caucasian students. For the computer efficacy scale, competent/expert students ranked authentic learning, personal relevance and student interaction higher than beginner students. The effort ranking was similar, students preparing and logged-on to their online course(s) for more than 8 hours ranked authentic learning, personal relevance and student interaction higher than students who prepared and logged-on to their courses for less than 8 hours.
In summary, Dr. Bookout’s study concluded that Troy University online students were very satisfied with the institution’s online learning environment. When asked the simple question “are you satisfied with your online class”, the analysis showed that 2,618 (89%) students agreed or strongly agreed. Over 85% of the students stated that they preferred online courses to traditional in-class courses. In general, students believed that programs delivered online were stimulating, students’ found that online education was exciting and was worth the time and effort put into their online courses, and students looked forward to learning by distance.