Look Before You Leap

The Internet-Based Education Bandwagon:


nline education is the latest technique in the long history of distance education. There is a considerable body of literature discussing the performance of students undertaking distance education courses as compared to traditional classroom courses [1, 9]. In general these studies suggest there is no significant difference in achievement and satisfaction between students in distance education classes and traditional modes of delivery. But what happens when distance education embraces Internet delivery? Do the findings change? Recent studies of student perceptions of online education (1–4, 6–8] point to a number of benefits: convenience and flexibility, greater motivation to work, better understanding of the course material, more and better learning, higher quality of education, better access to and communication with the professor, more student communication, more active participation in discussion, and immediate and extensive

Online students may perform as well as those in traditional classrooms, but what about the quality of their learning experience?
feedback. But the same studies also note numerous disadvantages: high frustration levels, lower levels of satisfaction and interest, technical and logistical problems, lack of instructor interaction, difficulty developing student friendships, more attendance lapses, lack of feedback, confusion about class requirements, and the overwhelming volume of email and online discussion. There are other issues as well. Academics [1, 2, 5, 10] question the suitability of certain courses being online; the time taken to prepare and maintain such

By Rudy Hirschheim
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM July 2005/Vol. 48, No. 7


courses; the difficulty in motivating students; the greater student demands associated with online classes; intellectual property concerns; and the potential conflict inherent in administrations insisting that such courses be inexpensive, while of high quality. n apparent belief exists that any distance education delivery mode, including the Internet, will have little impact on the performance of students as measured by their grades. But even if student performance is unaffected, does that mean the quality of the learning experience is also unaffected? The fact is, most studies that surveyed student opinion on the effects of Internet courses have only used closed question, written questionnaires. Few studies have sought in-depth information from students, regarding not only their opinions on different aspects of online learning, but why they hold those views. This research collected such in-depth views of students on the impact of Internet delivery on their learning experience. It also compared student grades with those in a similar class given by the same professor. The particular course analyzed was the core MIS class taken by all MBA students. A questionnaire survey was administered at the end of the semester when the students had completed all class requirements, assignments, and exams. Students from both the Internet and traditional class were included in the survey. In order to obtain detailed, indepth responses to the survey questions, a telephone interview consisting of numerous follow-up questions was the primary survey tool. If students noted liking or disliking various elements of the course, for example, they were always asked to elaborate on why they felt this way. An attempt was made to contact all 77 students of the combined classes. Telephone interviews, ranging from 30 to 45 minutes, were held with 33 students within a month of the end of the semester. An email version of the survey was sent to all students who did not respond to the telephone survey. The email survey was issued two months after the semester, and a further attempt was made three months later to include those students who still had not responded. The students were asked 26 questions. In addition to the 33 telephone interviews, 18 email questionnaires were completed and returned. Overall, this comprised a total of 51 student responses out of a combined class number of 77: a response rate of 66%. The results include 28 interviews from the Internet class of 40 students (70% response rate) and 23 interviews from the traditional class of 37 students (62% response
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rate). The survey data from both the traditional and Internet classes (telephone and email versions) was combined and compared on a question-by-question basis for all 26 questions.
RESULTS Convenience and communication. The key advantage of the Internet to students in the Internet class was convenience and flexibility. These reasons comprised 76% of all the advantages listed by the students. The reasons given related to saving time (by not having to attend or travel to class) and schedule flexibility (being able to fit their study program into their busy work, home, or study schedule). The Internet is essentially a means of communication and hence it comes as no surprise that the Internet is very popular among the students as a means of receiving and providing information. It is an ideal tool for professors to distribute information and for students to submit questions and assignments. Students are increasingly expecting to receive information in this manner for their classes. Loss of educational value. A critical survey finding was that 74% of students in the Internet class believed they “missed out” educationally because they took an Internet class. Clearly the Internet delivers convenience and flexibility, but the students believe they are receiving a lower level of education. What is most interesting is that the grades the students received do not reflect these views. In fact the results from the two classes are virtually the same. The average final grade in both classes was 74%. So the key question arising from this study is: what is the educational value students perceive they have missed out on by taking an Internet class? Whatever this value is, it is not reflected in their grades. The answer to this question appears to lie in the changed learning experience. Students miss the lectures, discussion, questions, assignments, group work, and the professor’s views and perspectives—all part of traditional classes. Professor’s input. Traditionally, the professor in a classroom provides a considerable amount of information based on his perspective of a topic. This allows a student to quickly understand which issues the professor considers important. Students use this understanding in their reading and assignments to cull key information quickly. Students in both classes noted they received significantly more information on the professor’s perspective in traditional classes than in Internet classes. Spontaneity is also an element of a lecture situation that is lost in the online format. The perception that Internet learning is self-learn-


ing raises the interesting issue of pricing of Internet courses. If students do not have the same level of access to a professor, if they are not using a physical building or the library or other university resources, they may expect to pay less for these courses although in reality, offering Internet courses is not necessarily less costly for the university. No doubt students learn from doing the readings and assignments without external influence but they may sense no added value in solitary study, as the online education model necessitates.

If it is important to a company to hire new graduates who are capable and have experience working in groups,


he lecturing skill of the professor is a strong influencing factor in this discussion. If students judge a particular professor as interesting and entertaining, with a good understanding of the field and much real-world experience to convey, they may interpret an Internet course as more of a loss. On the other hand, if a professor does not come across well in lectures, an Internet delivery format may be preferred. Of course this presupposes that a student (or a faculty administrator) knows in advance whether a professor possesses good teaching and communication skills. One could imagine the unpleasant scenario where professors who were assigned Internet courses felt that this intimated they were not good teachers. Class questions and discussion. Most professors teaching traditional courses encourage questions and discussion. Internet course professors also attempt to encourage questions and discussion using Internet technology. Nevertheless, a majority of students said they were more likely to ask questions in a classroom than on the Internet. When one analyzes the types of questions/discussion enabled via the Internet, it is clear that many questions were typically about assignment requirements and deadlines rather than topics under discussion. So the reality is that students are more likely to ask questions in class. The two main reasons given were that the lecture leads them to think of questions, and that they prefer receiving an immediate response. The lecture and the interaction inspire questions. It is difficult for students reading at home to maintain the same level of interest. Questions in a classroom often arise because a student does not understand a particular section of the material. The professor is then given the opportunity to present the material using an example, a story, or just more detail. This leads to the same material being presented in different ways, which is important as people learn in different ways. Likewise, the flow of questions in a class allows a professor to adapt content and pace to the rate at which the students understand the material.

companies are advised to examine the percentage of Internet courses that potential hires have completed.
The group experience. Several students expressed surprise that they had to do group work given that this was an Internet class. They perceived an Internet class as one they completed at home within their own timeframe and schedule. This view came as a surprise. Only the lecture component of the course varied between the Internet and traditional classes. However, this variation created a wider cultural gap among the students. Internet classes imply convenience and working from home. It is not just the replacement of one component, it is a whole new means of study. Its students are independent and solitary. The implication is that Internet delivery will lead students to focus on individual effort. Is it okay to let group work disappear as Internet students may expect? A key result is the recognition that the Internet is a tool and in some senses it has the potential to isolate students as much as it potentially brings them together. If it is important to a company to hire new graduates who are capable and have experience working in groups, then companies are advised to examine the percentage of Internet courses that potential hires have completed.
DISCUSSION Cost. Internet delivery offers the promise of providing large cost saving to employers in delivering company-based training. However, there may be some limits. Trainers and educators can only handle a limited amount of class information and interaction. With email access, students now expect a professor to be available 24 hours a day. Students are seeing Internet classes as an individualistic enterprise, and their attitude extends to their relationship with the professor. Many students said they did not read Internet postings prior to sending email. As a consequence, professors receive the same question from many stuCOMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM July 2005/Vol. 48, No. 7


The Internet is lauded for its open access and infinite variety, but when combined with education, will the result be

• Expectation that all reading materials be online; • Higher level of self-sufficient learning; and • Changes in student motivation.

more choice or less choice?


dents requiring multiple responses, whereas in class there would be one reply to the whole class. Students in Internet classes now expect to receive individual attention in this manner to replace the class relationship. The volume of student-to-professor interaction may become much higher than in a traditional class and difficult for a professor to handle. It cannot be assumed that Internet teaching will allow unlimited enrollment expansion, in fact the capacity of a professor to deal with certain volumes of students will likely be the limiting factor. A related consequence is that a professors’ productivity may in fact fall. Also, in contrast to the expectations of some administrators, costs associated with Internet delivery may increase. Restructuring courses. Clearly, courses must be restructured to take advantage of the new mode of delivery. There must be a significant change in how courses are presented and course materials selected. What works in the traditional class is not always as effective online as evidenced by several findings from this survey. The elements of traditional university instruction affected in some way by online delivery, as identified by the study participants, were: • Loss of lectures; • Loss of information delivered in visual and verbal formats; • Loss of a professor’s views and perspectives; • Loss of classroom discussion; • Different type of access and relationship to the professor; • Loss of questions on course content; • Easier access to administrative information; • Increased level of group problems; • An expectation that course work should be individual in nature, not group based;
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an these elements be changed or replaced by others that are more suited to the Internet and achieve the same purpose or educational outcome? But first and more importantly, it is necessary to ask: Are each of these elements important to the educational quality, experience, or outcome? For example, how important are student questions regarding the course material? Does it matter if students are not inspired to ask questions? Is group work important? Once the importance of the various instructional elements is decided, it is time to attempt to adapt courses to take advantage of Internet delivery. Choice versus standardization. Having redesigned courses to suit Internet delivery, what will the new courses look like? Certain traditional elements appear to be difficult to create in an online environment. If courses are redesigned around what works on the Internet, will the long-term effect be a movement toward more choice or a standardized product? The world is increasingly using one word processing package and one version of English grammar as defined by Microsoft, so will we be moving to one standard format for an MBA course? The Internet is lauded for its open access and infinite variety, but when combined with education, will the result be more choice or less choice? Students will have access to a greater choice of subject offerings from a greater variety of universities. The medium could provide opportunities to tailor courses based on competencies of individuals or particular groups of students (and/or professors). But an alternative scenario is that open-structured courses— ones where students must access a range of resources or leave their computer to analyze real-world situations—may no longer exist. If universities follow student demand, courses may be focused on individual work rather than group projects, online resources, and tightly structured around textbooks and limited materials. The result would be a more standard product suitable for delivery to a mass market. If these trends become reality, it would appear the medium, not educational goals, may be determining the content and format of education. Is this what we really want? Grades and the Internet. Students come to a university to learn new skills. A university provides a formal process of education: it is a vehicle by which skills and knowledge are transferred to students. Students

undertake courses, which are an academic and administrative division of skills and knowledge. The grades obtained by students are supposedly an indicator of how well a student is progressing in obtaining specific skills and knowledge. The end goal for the student is a degree that indicates completion of the transfer of knowledge. Courses and grades are the means to that end. However, it can be argued that the focus on grades has become an end in itself. Concentration on grades has resulted in a loss of focus on skills and the learning process. So what is the impact of Internet delivery on the issue of grades? The best Internet courses, as judged by the students, are those that are tightly structured around one textbook and have no group work. Students choose Internet classes for convenience and likely see it as a means of obtaining their grades more easily. More worrisome is the expectation among many students that they should be able to earn a top grade almost irrespective of effort and ability. If the Internet leads to a more standardized, minimalist product targeted for a mass market, this will further “box in” and “dumb down” education, resulting in a system that does not support the endeavors of superior scholars and thinkers.

develop innovative online courses, and external staff may be paid to do the specialized or tedious aspects of the process. It is likely that courses and programs will become more and more modularized to handle these different needs. Courses themselves will likely evolve to include a judicious mixture of Internet and lecture content. Thus, not all professors need to lecture; not all professors need to be online; and not all courses need to have a group project. Perhaps the Internet age will usher in a new era of mass customization, a portfolio of educational opportunities and experiences for students, increased specialization, and new opportunities for professors. Such alternatives will pose challenges for universities, but at the same time, offer opportunities that universities can ill afford to ignore. c
Rudy Hirschheim (rudy@lsu.edu) is the Ourso Family
Distinguished Professor of Information Systems, in the E.J.Ourso College of Business, Louisiana State University.
Contributing to this article were Kim White and Geoffrey Dick.

1. Hara, N. and Kling, R. Students' frustrations with a Web-based distance education course: A taboo topic in the discourse. First Monday 4, 12 (Dec. 1999). 2. Hiltz, S.R. Impacts of college-level courses via asynchronous learning networks: Some preliminary results. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (1997). 3. Hornby, P. and Anderson, M. Putting the student in the driver's seat: A learner centered, self-paced, computer managed, introductory psychology course. Journal of Educational Technology Systems 24, 2 (1995), 173–179. 4. Pear, J. and Novak, M. Computer-aided personalized system of instruction: A program evaluation. Computers in Teaching 23, 2 (1996), 119–123. 5. Piccoli, G., Ahmad, R. and Ives, B. Web-based virtual learning environments: A research framework and a preliminary assessment of effectiveness in basic it skills training. MIS Quarterly 25, 4 (2001), 293–313. 6. Sloane, A. Learning with the Web: Experience of using the World Wide Web in a learning environment. Computers and Education 28, 4 (1997), 207–212. 7. Smith, G., Ferguson, D., and Carts, M. Teaching college courses online vs. Face-to-face. The Journal Online (2002). 8. Spooner, F., Jordaon, L., Algozzine, B., and Spooner, M. Student ratings of instruction in distance learning and on-campus learning. The Journal of Educational Research 92, 3 (1999), 132–140. 9. Storck, J. and Sproull, L. Though a glass darkly, what do people learn in videoconferences. Human Communication Research 22, 2 (1995), 197–219. 10. Ward, M. and Newlands, D. Use of the Web in undergraduate teaching. Computers and Education 31 (1998), 171–184.

Loss of educational quality as a result of Internet delivery is the major concern identified in this survey. The Internet is leading to a fundamental change in the manner in which students are learning and retaining knowledge. The new delivery mode is pushing change, and universities must consider if they are happy with the direction being taken. A total Internet solution will lead to the loss of certain educational experiences and the importance of these experiences and learning methods must be judged, trade-offs made, and new directions undertaken in course delivery. While students taking Internet courses get the same degree and grades similar to those taking the course in a classroom, they also want a more interesting mix of Internet and traditional elements within the same course; their educational issues addressed; group work reevaluated, mostly individual tasks; more tightly structured courses, with all teaching materials delivered online; and a new relationship with the professor. There are also opportunities for developing new and interesting products. In some courses, students may have a mixture of lecture and online work, while others are totally group-oriented—depending on the educational objective. A professor who wishes to lecture may complete the lecturing component of several courses and a professor who enjoys online work may

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