The existence, if any, performance difference between students in online and traditional learning environments has yet to be conclusively determined; though several studies have found no significant difference in performance, the existence of different motivational factors and learning styles as well as the increased engagement of students in online environments seems to suggest that a performance enhancement is available in online educational settings (Daymont & Blau 2008; Liu 2007; Wighting et al. 2008).
In this descriptive — or observational — study, five traditional students and five online students who are taking similar courses will be observed. The observations will focus on what is being learned and how it is being taught. By observing the ten students (5 traditional and 5 online), the goal will be to describe the different ways that the students get information about the courses topic (lecture, readings — online or traditional books, through study groups, chat forums/sessions, etc.). More specifically, what is being taught will be looked at. If the topic is the same, how is the information given to the students and how do they learn the material. By focusing on the what and how, the hope is to discover if there is more learning occurring in traditional or online. This will be observed through coursework assessment and observing in the classroom and while the students are participating in the online course. There will not be any intervention whatsoever with the students — that is to say that the research will be done purely through observation.
In regards to the students performance, the observational study hopes to discover how students participate, and to what extent, by looking at their motivation and dedication to the subject. What are some of the different motivating factors? What are the different learning styles? Do some appear to have a positive effect on learning?
The context in which the participants will be studied/observed will be different for the non-traditional learners. The five traditional learners will be observed in the classroom as well as in other areas they allow for observation — library, home, etc. The most important place will, of course, be the classroom. The online learners, because they will not be learning together, will be observed in a place of their choosing — whether it is home, library, or other.
With these different designs, the goal is to find ways in which to improve online learning so that it can be as beneficial as traditional learning. By finding the flaws in online learning through action research, quantitative, and qualitative design methods, there is a lot of promise that flaws can be dealt with and the quality of online learning can improve.
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