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Course Conundrum: How Do Students Choose Between Online & In-Person Learning

September 28, 2021
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Full article via SFU Research

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to move their coursework online, SFU Education professor Kevin O’Neill wondered about the factors that made undergraduate students choose online versus in-person learning.

He noticed that prior to the pandemic, even though several courses were offered online, many students still preferred to take in-person courses. He thought the reasons for this might be more complex than university administrators and instructors realize.

Between September 2017 and April 2018, O’Neill and fellow SFU Education professor John Nesbit, and their colleagues undertook one of most comprehensive studies of its kind. They surveyed 650 undergraduate students to learn what course modalities they preferred and why, and recently published Modeling undergraduates' selection of course modality: A large sample, multi-discipline study.

O’Neill, Nesbit and colleagues collected data via a 54-question online survey administered to students across several disciplines in the arts, social sciences, sciences, education and business. Only students enrolled in courses with both online and in-person options in the same semester were recruited for participation in the study. This helped gather relevant insights into students’ choice of modality, and consider a wide range of variables that went into their decision making.

Students were asked about their age, gender, and whether they had a disability that made commuting to campus more challenging. They answered questions about personal circumstances and logistics – did they work, or care for a family member, and how many minutes was their commute to the campus where the in-person course was held. They were asked about their specific course goals, level of interest in the subject, whether it was a prerequisite or breadth requirement, and if they preferred learning with other students. They were also asked about their language proficiency. The researchers used a statistical technique called logistic regression to evaluate the strength of these different influences on a student’s preference for online versus in-person learning.

“The findings from the survey made clear that students took online courses selectively and strategically,” says O’Neill. “Often, students could not get into their preferred course offering. If their preference was in-person, their choice was not so much between taking a particular course online or in-person, but between taking the online course as their non-preferred choice, or waiting and trying to get into the in-person course later. Students also told us that they often felt forced into taking online courses to fill their schedules, since in-person courses so often conflicted.”