Despite an average passing rate of less than 62%, universities and colleges continue to add online courses to their curriculum, and students increasingly opt to take them. This reality has left researchers, like assistant professor Ilana Stonebraker, wondering what can be done to bring improvements to the online learning experience. In her recently published paper, she and her co-authors explored the effects that interactive online learning opportunities have on students.

"We already had screencasts teaching students how to use resources like financial databases," said Dr. Stonebraker, "and we had the opportunity to develop a more active version. However, we wanted to know, before adapting all of our tutorials into this new system, whether it would be advantageous to do this. So we set up this experiment to see what would happen."

Her team took two random samples of students from the same course and gave them two different online tutorials, one dynamic and interactive, and the second simply with video instructions. In her observations, she found that students who were part of the group with the interactive learning system scored much higher on the quizzes than those that just watched the video tutorial, a discovery that would not surprise many teachers or researchers. So what stops educators from creating these dynamic platforms?

"One thing that is kind of hard for people to do is change their classroom environment once it's built. So much of course evaluations are focused on consistency from the instructor. Whenever you try a new innovative system you run the risk of having a dip in your students’ perception because everything is more dynamic," said Dr. Stonebraker, referencing her own reluctance to redesign her online tutorials without solid evidence of the interactive tutorials’ effectiveness.

The limitations that Dr. Stonebraker cites point to important skill gaps in the preparation of educators for online teaching, gaps that if not addressed could limit the potential of online learning.

Stonebraker, I., Robertshaw, M. B. & Moss, J. D. (2016). Students see vs. students do: A comparative study of two online tutorials. Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 60(2), 176–182.

Image: Computer Class Lateral by Federico Feroldi via Flickr