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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.”

Students who were registered online during the study had taken on average 1.4 times more online courses in the past and reported greater enjoyment of online courses in general. They reported a stronger belief that they were good at online courses, and that the in-person class would have been more difficult. On the other hand, students who were registered in-person reported a greater tendency to seek help when they were struggling, were more interested in learning together with peers, and expected higher grades in their chosen modality. They were also more committed to social goals such as working with other students or helping other students.

The findings contradict an assumption sometimes seen in academic research that the limiting factor to the expansion of online classes is that professors are reluctant. Turns out, students have a variety of reasons why they choose certain course modalities. Now that universities are returning to in-person coursework, university administrators will have to consider the ongoing student demand for online or hybrid learning options. What will those options will look like, and what resources will be allocated to them?

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Students have a variety of reasons why they choose between in-person and online learning. As universities return to in-person coursework, administrators will have to consider the ongoing student demand for online or hybrid learning options. [photo credit: Unsplash]

A follow-up study of 100 students conducted in summer 2021 reiterated the 2018 findings. The pandemic had not really changed what was important to students when they decided whether to take a course online or in-person. Furthermore, as instructors quickly adapted their in-person courses to virtual ones, often the teaching format remained similar – a lengthy lecture, followed by Zoom tutorials. “During the pandemic we saw a rapid transition to emergency remote learning,” comments O’Neill. “There simply wasn’t time to adapt in-person courses to more flexible online models immediately.”

However, over the past year universities provided instructors support from online teaching experts. Some instructors who had taught their whole careers in the classroom put a lot of effort into pre-recording lectures and mixing up their classroom activities to provide more flexibility. Some worked hard to maximize the benefits of a technology-mediated experience and to minimize its problems. “This kind of flexibility and creativity should continue,” suggests O’Neill.

He notes that the transition to remote learning brought a combination of positive and negative effects for students. Remote learning has no doubt been a gift for some, such as those with chronic illness who face difficulty attending in-person classes. Remote learning also works well for students who don’t want to move in order to complete their studies.

Yet there were also losses, especially for students who relied on the in-person experience to help them keep their studies on track, and those accessing the university’s quiet spaces and technologies to support their studies. Importantly, not going to campus meant the loss of community and the spontaneous connections that are essential to many students’ learning.

“We did hear from students this past summer, that lengthy Zoom lectures with few breaks left them feeling exhausted,” O’Neill notes. “They also missed out on student-instructor and peer-to-peer interaction when it was not built into the class schedule.”

Many remote teaching innovations seemed to enhance students’ learning experiences. These include regular meetings with instructors and peers to help students organize their study time, and easy access to knowledgeable help and support, for example through virtual office hours.

“As an educator, I hope our research provides some insight into what undergraduate students will be hoping for in their courses, and what types of experiences might be prioritized as we return to campus,” says O’Neill.

“Over the past year and a half, university instructors and their students have shared an unprecedented and disruptive time for higher education. They co-created innovative ways to enhance the learning experience in the midst of a global emergency. These innovations should continue.”