Sink or Swim?


Higher Education Online: How Do We Know What Works — And What D'esn’t?

Let’s suppose for a moment that it’s the 1930s. You’re the captain of the luxury liner, the Queen Mary, steaming across the Atlantic to New York. Suddenly, you hear a low drone. You look up and see a Pan Am Clipper, winging its way from London to New York. As you stand on the bridge, gazing up at this remarkable sight, would you realize that the age of steamships is about to end? Would your steamship company understand that its business actually is transportation, not ships? And would the passengers guess that seats at the captain’s table, strolls on the deck, steamship trunks and days at sea are about to become nostalgic memories, replaced by a six-hour flight in row 17?


The Pan Am Clipper did more than herald a historic shift in the way goods and people were transported. Indeed, it forced new ways of thinking about how we work and live. The expansion of inexpensive air travel brought about a societal transformation.

We appear today to be at a similar turning point in the history of education. Learning — not teaching — is the business at hand. The classroom, as we know it today, is our Queen Mary, and computer and information technology may well be our Clipper. Colleges and universities everywhere are moving to exploit the power of the new technologies in education. But in the heady rush into virtual education, we must make sure we know which new approaches actually work. Learning, after all, is not the same as downloading. It’s easy to be dazzled by techno-glitz. It’s time for creative and careful research to ensure that we’re making the most of education in the digital age.

Last spring, the chairman of the House of Representatives science subcommittee on basic research expressed concern about the quality of online college courses. He suggested that students who take courses online may not interact as much as their peers in traditional courses, and that they may walk away with knowledge but not with an understanding of how to think for themselves.

At a hearing designed to gauge how the federal government should respond to this trend, the former president of the University of Michigan, a distinguished MIT professor, and other experts touted several online advantages. Among their assertions were claims that student participation is higher in online courses, and that students have easier access to professors through e-mail.

The committee chairman remained skeptical and said he believed the National Science Foundation should help assess the quality of online education by improving the understanding of how the brain works and by figuring out how humans learn. Well, learning how the brain works is no simple proposition. While we wait for that day to come, there are a lot of insightful educational experiments that can be done to sort out the reality from the sizzle of online education. At Lehigh, we are spending a great deal of time these days doing just that. While arguments can be made both for and against online classes, few are backed by empirical research focused on actual teaching and learning behaviors. We agree strongly with the chairman’s call for high quality educational research.

Millions of dollars are spent each year on the development and delivery of online courses. Much of this funding comes from federal agencies like the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, and a majority of the supported programs are indeed creating interesting, engaging courses. But how do we know they really work?

At best, one may find anecdotal accounts of successful online classes. Professors claim, “I did it in my class and it worked great!” or “the students noted on the end-of-course survey that they enjoyed the course; therefore it is good.” Occasionally, one may find reports that draw upon commonly shared theories, such as “having control over more of one’s own learning should produce better learners,” as proof of effectiveness. Such insights are valuable, but they don’t provide the kind of understanding needed to make truly informed decisions about the value of online education.

Jim DiPerna (co-director of The Clipper Project) and Rob Volpe conducted a review of research that produced nearly 250 potential articles concerning the evaluation of Web-based instruction over the past 10 years. However, after eliminating duplicate citations and irrelevant articles (i.e., articles merely describing a Web-based course, articles offering guidelines for designing a Web-based course, or articles explaining a particular Web-based technology), only a dozen articles existed. Of the 12, 11 were based solely on students’ self-reported attitudes or perceptions regarding Web-based instruction. Amazingly, only one directly assessed the impact of Web-based technology on student learning (as measured by randomly selected essay performance and letter grades) across subjects. DiPerna and Volpe presented a thorough review of their research at APA last August.

As more learning becomes digitized, we must analyze how socialization factors like communication skills and interaction with other students are best fostered. We must know which factors influence success. We must find out how technology affects the way faculty members teach and the way students learn, as well as how much it’s really going to cost to create and deliver this new form of education. The only way we can truly know these things is through observing the behaviors of students participating in digital learning.

At our university, we have just begun a multi-year initiative to investigate the short- and long-term effects of online classes. Aptly titled “The Clipper Project,” the initiative will provide a baseline for future research into the impact of Web-based courses on students and faculty.

We are focusing on pre-college students, a population of students who typically have not been considered in thinking about technology-based learning in higher education. We hope to enhance the collegiate experience of Lehigh freshmen by accelerating their entry into advanced studies in their specialties and in complementary fields. So, beginning in the spring of 2001, we are offering Web-based instruction in selected first year courses to high school seniors who are accepted for early admission to Lehigh.

The idea of offering for-credit college courses prior to college enrollment is not new. Motivated students have always had the option of taking AP courses in high school, and even attending a college class or two in the summer prior to enrollment. And colleges have always tried to connect as early as possible with newly admitted students through phone calls, letters, or subscriptions to student newspapers.

But we are using the Web to take this sort of connection to the next level, helping students to feel connected to the Lehigh community by taking classes. And while summer classes were always possible, the idea of earning college credit via the Web during the final semester of high school is, we believe, quite unique.

Before we started planning this study in earnest, we surveyed current freshmen to find out whether they would have been interested in such Web-based courses as high school seniors. Through this survey, we discovered that many students would indeed be interested, and that they would have adequate equipment and sufficient Web access to participate.

The students involved in the study will take introductory Web-based courses in chemistry, calculus, economics, engineering and English. The courses will be taught by Lehigh faculty, follow a semester schedule, and carry with them all of the responsibilities and activities one would find in a face-to-face course.

We will track the development of no fewer than 900 students’ learning and social adjustment behaviors throughout their academic careers at Lehigh. In so doing, we hope to provide baseline data to inform future developers and providers of online education, and guide them toward the provision of informed, responsible learning experiences for students.

Each of the Web-based freshman courses is designed as an online version of the on-campus course offered at Lehigh. The same professor who designs the course is also responsible for interacting with students enrolled in the Web-based version. This interaction is an imperative component of these courses, and is facilitated via a combination of discussion groups, chat rooms, e-mail, videoconferencing (if applicable) and other media.

Each of the five courses will be delivered three times throughout the term of the project. The sections, which will run concurrently, will include a “traditional” course with on-campus students in a classroom, yet using some multimedia elements; a Web-based course for high school students only; and a Web-based course for a combination of high school students and current first-year students on-campus. This combination allows the project staff to investigate the effectiveness of the courses, the materials, and the process with a high degree of control.

Faculty from each of Lehigh’s four colleges are developing the courses. The challenge is to offer as interactive an online course as is currently available. For example, arts and humanities, sciences, business, and engineering freshmen take two semesters of first-year writing. What would be the impact of taking these writing courses entirely online? Can information technology replicate the “in your face” and “in your mind” experiences that foster critical thinking and sensitivity to the audience that we provide, person-to-person, in the walled classroom?

The English faculty member involved in the project investigated commercially available course delivery materials, each offering an array of generic tools for interaction: a discussion board, a chat program, a white board, student project space, and so forth. But they were found to be inadequate in addressing the need for a high level of personal interaction.

The professor is developing ways for teachers of writing to incorporate audio and visual interaction. He is asking questions like, “Can online students hear my comments on their papers as they might in personal conference? Can online students talk to and/or see each other? Can I ‘see’ my online students during virtual office hours? What further steps could we take to enhance this virtual community?” According to the professor, faculty ultimately would like to assign students not simply papers, but creative projects that include writing, video, audio, and images that are shared readily online.

When completed, the Clipper Project should shed light on the subject of online learning and its impact and costs. But Clipper is only one project. More are needed. We share in the hope that the National Science Foundation will fund initiatives that advance our understanding of the interaction between online education and actual teaching and learning behaviors. We must remember that online education is still very much in the novelty stage. Most who are using technology to teach and learn are still relying heavily on the use of technology within the context of existing methods. The real challenge and opportunity is not to duplicate existing instructional methods online, but to use the power of the new information tools to design even more effective methods of learning. Our goal is not a “horseless carriage” but a real automobile that makes no reference to four hooves.

Winston Churchill once noted that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The same can be said of technology. It is likely that information technology will shape the way we experience education from this time forward. If online education is our future, we had better grapple now with how to exploit its power.




Gregory Farrington is president and Stephen Bronack is assistant professor of education at Lehigh University. President Farrington used the “Clipper” metaphor in his April 1999 inaugural address. Bronack is co-director of the Clipper Project.




DiPerna, J. C. & Volpe, R. J. 2000. Evaluating Web-Based Instruction in Psychology. Poster to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.