Online learning is gaining steam in universities, but how does working in a virtual world impact creativity? In this study, the researchers were especially concerned with fostering innovation in nanotechnology engineering students, since nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary field that is guided by open-ended problems and relies on creative, collaborative thinking. Innovations are novel ideas that lead to implementable solutions, and it is precisely this combination of creativity and practicality that nanotechnology engineers need to practice on the job.

To test whether face-to-face or online learning leads to greater innovation, the researchers conducted a study with 320 engineering students enrolled in a nanotechnology course. The students were divided into three groups: face-to-face university learners, online university learners, and online world learners. The online world learners were individuals enrolled in the course who were not pursuing a university degree. For the final project, teams of three to four students were tasked with designing an innovative nanosensor to help humans in their daily lives and to contribute to the good of society. The researchers first interviewed the six course instructors to determine how they evaluate innovation when grading team projects. Based on the interviews and previous research, they outlined four key elements of innovative projects: product necessity, STEM interdisciplinarity, market readiness, and innovation type. The final category measured the level of the product’s innovation and ranged from incremental to radical. The class instructors graded each category on a scale of one to four.

The face-to-face project groups received higher innovation scores across all categories, and the range of innovation type among groups was particularly interesting. Online world learners created the most projects that were labelled as offering incremental innovation, the lowest possible level. Online university learners created the most mid-level modular innovations, and face-to-face groups produced the most architectural or radical changes to existing market products. The researchers found the disparity in innovation between the two groups of university students particularly surprising, since these groups displayed similar demographic and academic backgrounds. Their results indicate that face-to-face learning plays a key role in fostering creativity and innovation. The researchers hypothesize that the face-to-face students might have benefited from the opportunity to ask in-person questions to their instructors and to build trust and brainstorm ideas with their teammates in their shared classroom experiences. While further study is needed to examine why the face-to-face students outperformed the online learners in innovation, this study suggests that collaborating in-person is key to creativity.

Barak, M. & Usher, M. (2019). The innovation profile of nanotechnology team projects of face-to-face and online learners. Computers & Education, 137, 1-11.

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