A random musing about online learning

I recently read an article about online learning. It was based on work done by psychologists Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA. Between them, they conducted three studies to test whether taking notes by hand or on a laptop affected learning.

All subjects (students) got the same lectures. Some interesting differences in learning came out of the studies, however. The concepts were better learned by those who took notes by hand. For immediate simple fact retrieval there was no difference between the two groups. But, when allowed to then look at their notes, those taking notes by hand did better.

The conclusion was that longhand note-taking was better.

So why am I talking about this in a blog about bicycling? I’ve taught a number of students the League of American Bicyclists’ course Traffic Skills 101. There are two ways one can take that course: the full course can be taken in the classroom/on the bike, or students can go to a website that has the classroom portion online, and follow up with just the on-bike portion in person.

My interest was piqued by the article, since I had experienced a difference in learning, albeit not the same difference studied by these researchers, among TS101 students.

In 2012, I had exactly one student who elected to take the classroom portion online. When he arrived for the on-bike portion, I had the distinct impression that he had not internalized many of the concepts that had been presented in the classroom section. Principles of traffic law, in particular, were not as well understood, and during the on-bike portion of the course, I noticed this rider taking more chances/riding in less-than-optimal positions during the ride. At the time, given my sample of exactly one, I just filed it away as an interesting and possibly wildly inaccurate conclusion.

More recently, though, I’ve had more students who have done the online/on-bike version of the class. More experience corroborates my initial feeling that taking the course online led to a shallower experience, and left students less-well prepared and educated.

What really made it hit home was a class of students who were interested in becoming instructors. There is an assessment given before the start of the class to make sure students are operating from the same knowledge base. Students are given a second chance to pass the test if they score poorly the first time. Here’s where it got interesting: All of the students in this class had taken the online version of TS101. When they sent in their first pass at the assessment, scores were lower than usual for many of those enrolled. A greater proportion of students than in other classes scored poorly; I had to ask most participants to re-take the test to reach the minimum passing score required for attendance.

They all did fine on the retest, so there was no problem in the long run – but it took more work on their part to wrap their minds around the material. The “convenience” and “time-saving” of online learning was offset by insufficient absorption of the material.

I realize that I’ve extrapolated (probably inappropriately) from the original research. I think it’s an area that we don’t know enough about right now, and that it needs more work. Based on my (relatively small) sample size, though, I will recommend to any potential students that they take the class in-person rather than online.

Your thoughts?

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