Online Learning – Quality Confirmed

Digitally-Connected Applied Education & Training

Algonquin College has been a leader in the integration of technology into the learning environment for many years.  As an institution Algonquin-College-ACCE-shrunkdedicated to applied, hands-on learning, it is interesting that Algonquin’s fastest growing area of programming is our online offerings.  Our Centre for Continuing and Online Learning reports 2012/13 year-over-year enrolment growth of 50 percent. 

To meet this increased program demand, our recent budget investments confirm we have the resources to continue to invest in new online programming.  This financial commitment to online learning ensures Algonquin will continue to meet the needs of students who desire an alternative path to a post secondary education.  It also ensures that our online programming remains both relevant and current in the years ahead.

Algonquin’s growth in online learning has been preceded by our growth in hybrid learning (often referred to as blended learning).  Hybrid courses have been in place at Algonquin for over a decade.  Each fulltime academic program commits 20% of its course material to be delivered in a hybrid format. This practice has allowed the College to better achieve its access mission and today we have 3000 more students at the College than what our space footprint should allow (Note: Algonquin operates with the lowest square foot/student ratio among colleges in Ontario and is over 200% more efficient than the average Ontario university).

Algonquin’s commitment to online and hybrid learning has helped our College to widen access while avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in new facilities and lifecycle costs.  This effort is a testament to the innovativeness of our staff and faculty and it reflects our ongoing commitment to being good stewards of increasingly limited public funds.

The Elephant in the Room – The Quality Question

Although there have been hundreds of studies related to hybrid learning, there has also been lingering doubts as to its quality.  Certainly there has been much research that suggests hybrid learning is equal to and at times even more effective than courses without an online component.  Algonquin’s own research over the years confirms this perspective.  However the doubters and laggards remain.

Some in the Academy have continued to maintain that research related to hybrid learning has been weak and therefore not reliable.  To address this perceived deficiency, there has been a desire to see William G. Bowen some form of empirical study that could reinforce other research reports.  Fortunately, this perceived quality gap appears to have been addressed by iconic American higher education leader, William G. Bowen and his colleagues at ITHAKA.  Note: One of my favourite higher education books was authored by Bowen el al in 2005 and I encourage students of higher education to take the time to review this award-winning text.

In his upcoming book “Higher Education in the Digital Age” (to be released in April, 2013), Dr. Bowen reveals that ITHAKA conducted an empirical study of a Carnegie Mellon statistical course that wasWilliam G. Bowen delivered in a hybrid (blended format).   Bowen reports, “In our study, we used a randomized trials approach, involving more than six hundred participants across six public university campuses, to compare the learning outcomes of students who took a hybrid-online version of this highly interactive course with the outcomes of students who took face-to-face counterpart courses”.  ITHAKA’s research findings confirm:

1.   There is no statistically significant difference in standard measures of learning outcomes (pass or completion rates, scores on common final exam questions, and results of a national test of statistical literacy) between students in the traditional classes and students in the hybrid-online format classes.  Note: Bowen makes the point that ITHAKA’s research results are not different from many studies, but he also notes that the relevant effect coefficients in this study had very small standard errors.

2.   The results of the ITHAKA study are consistent across campuses as well as across very diverse student subgroups.  Note: Bowen reports that half of the students in the study were from families that had annual incomes of less than $50,000.  In addition, half of the students in the study were first generation college students (parents who never participated in higher education).  This ITHAKA finding disproves the suggestion that only well-prepared, high-achieving students succeed in an online learning environment.

Algonquin’s Vision Validated

To the faculty and staff at Algonquin College, the ITHAKA research results may not appear to be that enlightening.  The results are consistent with what our own researchers have confirmed on many occasions.  However for those who remain skeptical about the efficacy of hybrid delivery, this study should put any quality questions to rest.

This research confirms the decision that we made at Algonquin some time ago to invest in hybrid learning.  Further, Algonquin’s long track record in this area and this particular research should convince other colleges and universities that hybrid learning, complemented by applied, hands on learning is the most effective approach to education and training in the 21st Century.  We must stop ignoring what we know to be true.

Personally, what Bowen et al. have confirmed for me is that Algonquin made the right choice in our decision to supplement applied learning with hybrid learning. Fundamentally, it reaffirms the Algonquin College Vision: “To be a global leader in digitally-connected applied education and training”.




About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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1 Response to Online Learning – Quality Confirmed

  1. Peter MacKie says:

    Important information especially in these days when we hear so much about the validity of MOOCs and their low completion rates. Many readers do not understand the differences between Online and Hybrid learning. The evidence supports Algonquin College has chosen the right path and has both the needs of students and the public purse in balance.

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