Study Suggests Many Professors Use Interactive Tools Ineffectively in Online Courses

Philadelphia—Professors can choose from a growing palette of Web-based tools to make their online courses more interactive. But a new study suggests that many community-college instructors aren’t taking advantage of those options. Instead, the professors are relying on static course materials that aren’t likely to motivate students or encourage them to interact with each other.

The study, presented here at the annual technology conference of the League for Innovation in the Community College, observed 26 high-enrollment online courses at two community colleges in Virginia last spring. It found that most professors relied on text-based assignments and materials. In the instances when professors did decide to use interactive tools like online video, many of those technologies were not connected to learning objectives, the study found. The findings could help explain how community colleges can structure the selection of technology to improve student-retention rates.

Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, called the apparent mismatch between technologies and learning objectives an “optimization” problem. When professors did choose to put elements like YouTube videos into their courses, the student experience felt “like faculty were compelled to use more, instead of asking why,” Ms. Edgecombe said.

Institutions should focus on training instructors to use tools that best fit the objectives of their specific courses, Ms. Edgecombe said. Many professors teaching the courses studied were willing to use new technologies, Ms. Edgecombe added, but they felt too bogged down by heavy course loads to learn on their own.

“You don’t want everybody to feel like they just have to turn the volume up to 10 and that’s going to solve the problem, because in all likelihood, it’s not,” she said. She cautioned that professors’ technology choices can’t necessarily predict how students will perform, but added that those choices can influence students’ motivation and their willingness to complete a course.

The findings are part of a larger group of studies that will be published this summer.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Tim Morgan]

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