Educational Technology, Modality, Multi-discipline

Modeling Undergraduates’ Selection of Course Modality: A Large Sample, Multi-discipline Study by Kevin O’Neill and His Research Team

December 11, 2020

By Shaila Shams

No other time would have been as fitting as now to read the article Modeling Undergraduates’ Selection of Course Modality: A Large Sample, Multi-discipline Study by Kevin O’Neill, Nat´alia Lopes, John Nesbit, Suzanne Reinhardt and Kanthi Jayasundera in the journal The Internet and Higher Educationone of the top academic journals in online education. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to adapt to digitally mediated teaching and learning without exception. One major concern of distance mode of education is to ensure an inclusive and engaging learning experience for students. In this research, Dr. O’Neill and team surveyed 650 undergraduates from a public university in Canada to find answers to the pertinent question:  what shapes students’ preferences for online or face to face courses?

In Canada, 76% postsecondary institutions offered online learning in 2019, with an overall rise in online enrollment from previous years. Despite the rise in registration numbers, not enough research data is available to support scholarly understanding of how students choose course modality. Dr. O’Neill and his research team addressed this knowledge gap in their latest publication. In previous research, Dr. O’Neill (O’Neill & Sai, 2014) found that students’ choice regarding course modality is a complex issue, with numerous variables at play that deserve scholarly inquiry. For their recent research, Dr. O’Neill and team conducted the most extensive survey study to date, and “gauged a wide array of personal, psychological and contextual variables so as to evaluate their relative influence on students’ actual choice of course modality” (O’Neill et al, 2020, p.3).

Responses were collected from students attending only those courses that were offered both online and face to face in the same term. Undergraduate students from various disciplines such as Computing Science, Archaeology, English, Criminology, Education, Statistics, Economics and Kinesiology participated in the 54-item online survey. The survey questions were formulated with the aim to explore the influences of the circumstantial, logistical as well as psychological variables on students’ choices of course modality. Some examples of the areas addressed in the survey include sex, age, commute time to campus, responsibility to care for others at home, number of hours per week of paid work, and satisfaction with current grades. The survey also examined the role the specific course played in the student’s degree program, their interest in it, and sense of its importance. Finally, students completed questions reflecting psychological variables such as their tendency to seek help when struggling in a course, and their tendency to self-regulate their time and study environment. This comprehensive approach in selecting the areas and forming questions indicates the potential of understanding the needs of a vast student body and addressing them when designing and offering courses.

Statistical modeling suggested that though asynchronous online courses may seem be to an ideal option for many students due to their flexibility, students’ preferences for course modality are substantially influenced by the importance they place on a particular course, as well as their tendency to self-regulate their time and study environment, and tendency to seek help when they are struggling. Unfortunately, students may not gain access to their preferred course modality. When the researchers modeled which courses students actually registered in, psychological variables were found to have less influence than logistical ones. Respondents were also invited to share their thoughts in the open-ended comment section of the survey. These data are being analyzed separately and will be reported in a future article, which the researchers hope will improve the design of other research surveys in the future.

This study sheds light on the very relevant issue of students’ choice of course modality. The findings from the research has significant implications for educators, administration and above all, for students. It suggests that students should have the freedom to make their choice of course modality, and at the same time, their decisions must be well-informed. This was an informative reading for me with many ideas to take away and I invite all concerned to read the article. I am confident you will have much food for thought! 


O’Neill, K., Lopes, N., Nesbit, J., Reinhardt, S., & Jayasundera, K. (2021). Modeling Undergraduates’ Selection of  Course Modality: A Large Sample, Multi-discipline Study. The Internet and Higher Education, 8, 1-11.

O’Neill, D. K., & Sai, T. H. (2014). Why not? Examining college students’ reasons for avoiding an online course. Higher Education, 68(1), 1–14.