Mixed-Course Students Are the Norm, Not the Exception

One of the reactions people are having to the new Blackboard report on design findings is that it “doesn’t represent online” because many of the students and the findings show students are taking a mix of online and face-to-face courses, and this, people claim, is not your average online experience. Why are we pretending that students taking an occassional course in a face-to-face experience are representative of online students?

Blackboard is right here. People are wrong.

This idea people have of the “online student” might have been true ten years ago in the U.S. I don’t know, because I can’t find older data that asks the right questions. But as of 2016, the idea that your median online student only takes online courses is wrong. Most students who take online courses do it as part of a portfolio of online and face-to-face experiences, and at the undergraduate level it’s not even that close. In 2013, about two million undergraduates took purely online courses, whereas 2.6 million took an online course together with courses from other modalities (blended, face-to-face, etc).

The head of that project at Blackboard tells me (via Twitter) that they actually had a variety of students, including some pure online, but the report from Blackboard actually fills out my prediction from 2014: that people will finally take the experience of these mixed-course students seriously.

In fact, the most stunning thing about the Blackboard report might not be its implied admission of current design failure, but the fact that it wrestles with the local online student’s experience as a whole, something that I don’t see near enough. Here are the the findings:

  • When students take a class online, they make a tacit agreement to a poorer
    experience which undermines their educational self worth.
  • Students perceive online classes as a loophole they can exploit that also
    shortcuts the “real” college experience.
  • Online classes don’t have the familiar reference points of in-person classes
    which can make the courses feel like a minefield of unexpected difficulties.
  • Online students don’t experience social recognition or mutual accountability, so
    online classes end up low priority by default.
  • Students take more pride in the skills they develop to cope with an online class
    than what they learn from it.
  • Online classes neglect the aspects of college that create a lasting perception of

What shocks some people reading this, I think, is that online students would have face-to-face courses as a comparison or option, or that they would be consciously choosing between online and face-to-face in the course of a semester. But this is the norm now at state universities and community colleges; it’s only a secret to people not in those sorts of environments.

In any case, everyone update your prototypes please, the mixed-course student (hmmm… should I have gone with “mixed-course” many years ago?) is here to stay. Time to better understand what she is looking for. In the U.S., at least, this is the median experience: time to stop treating it as an anomaly.

15 thoughts on “Mixed-Course Students Are the Norm, Not the Exception

  1. D’oh!! Why would Blackboard want to be so wrong about this? In my tutoring lab I work with students who are taking one online course for whatever reason… and then there’s blended…

    • To be clear it is Blackboard who has the nuanced view here, and people criticizing it getting it wrong. I have clarified.

      • Thanks! I hadn’t clicked through to read everything, and it wasn’t clear (to my pre-caffeinated self, anyway) who thought what. Now it’s “the people” who have this image of “online student.” (I’m not enjoying the possible stereotypes that are coming to mind…)
        Several sessions at Tuesday’s Faculty Summer INstitute here in Champaign-Urbana explored ways to create real community and interaction through online courses. It didn’t seem to be such a yawning void in graduate level courses, but was a challenge for introductory ones. The “Community of Inquiry” model was fascinating to learn about. (I work with students who are wrestling with the Stuff Already Designed, but I still like to know what’s happening in the design phases).

      • Actually, thank you for the misread. I made the hasty update, I hate saying “people” but I don’t want to point fingers here, different people have different experiences. No need to pick fights. But it is a response to specific comments I received when I tweeted out the report as well as a general lack of understanding I’ve found at particular conferences and in the press.

  2. This is (I think) especially true in community colleges, where “distance” ed has always been about flexibility for local students. At my college well over 5000 students take a distance education class each year; of those maybe around 200 are taking distance education classes exclusively.

  3. Mike

    This report is interesting. I think there are issues in how methods are portrayed and in the language used in generalizing findings. We know for example that the methods are qualitative and therefore are not intended to be generalizable in any statistical sense. But what we don’t know is the rigor of the qualitative methods themselves. How many subjects were observed/interviewed? What ages, where, which institutions, which courses, which programs…is there a more detailed report? What kind of triangulation was conducted, how were data analyzed, any member checking? It is difficult to assess these claims and questionable to even mention the millions of students implicated in findings based on a qualitative assessment of what must be a relatively small number of students in a report by a vendor…I’d be very happy to see a larger published report and would welcome the opportunity to have it go through a peer review process among other qualified, qualitative researchers to assess the kinds of claims that are warranted based on the type and rigor of methods employed in the research…until then my thinking is that we might best avoid making broad claims based on this single brief summary of a study of unknown quality…

    Peter Shea
    Editor, Online Learning (OLJ)
    Official Journal of the Online Learning Consortium (OLC)
    Associate Provost, Online Learning
    University at Albany, State University of New York

    • Peter — This report was the result of design research which has a somewhat different function. As you probably know, in design research you’re not looking for statistical surety or methodological rigor as much as market insights you can build a product around, and that leads to a different focus and technique. The person who ran the research is an expert in this sort of research, having written some very influential articles and books on it. See Amazon or search for his Harvard Business Review article on it.

      That said, since we’d all like to benefit from these findings in ways that might help *us* and not just Blackboard, it would be nice to get a bit more information here. It might also help us understand whether Blackboard has the right conception of their market — LMS design tends to eat designers from other industries whole, since it involves so many intersecting institutional and historically determined needs. Others are working on that and you should see a bit more information in the coming days.

      • Mike – thanks for the reply here. I agree that there are different goals with different approaches to research. That said, in the absence of methodological rigor all claims need to be looked at with a skeptical eye. (Not saying there is necessarily an absence of rigor, but we just don’t really know from this report). My concern is that there are few qualifiers around the findings and many reading the report may feel that these results are meant to be generalized to larger audiences than the subjects of the study. It is certainly implied that this finding apply to more than just the subjects of the study. That is problematic…and there are many issues raised here…will write more later, but thanks for sharing this – I think its important that we have these kinds of discussions and that we get a chance to temper our responses on a careful consideration of warrantable claims based on data and methods…

      • I think it might make sense in the future for Blackboard to put a bit more explanation of what the report is not — I think they do explain (halfway) clearly what the statements are meant to be, but for people coming from different backgrounds it is still confusing.

        At the same time, I like this idea of an open design process that they are playing with here, so I think it would be a net loss if they didn’t show results from their work because they didn’t meet academic expectations.

  4. I would be interested to be guided to peer review articles that either support or contradict these findings. Many of my students complain that my online courses are “too demanding” that they require too much work. I personally feel learning is work and I use the Carnegie units to judge the amount of work assigned.

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