Online Learning

Online STEM Courses Need More Real-World Interactivity

group of college students studying

What do students want in the learning activities for their online STEM courses? They'd prefer more real-life problems to solve and instructional resources such as simulations, case studies, videos and demonstrations. They'd also like the chance to meet and collaborate with other students as well as teaching assistants online. Finally, they'd appreciate clear and consistent information from instructors about instructions, assignments, assessments, due dates, course pages and office hours.

What do students currently get? The most common course activities are the completion of major projects or assignments, reading, visiting websites, taking quizzes or exams, and viewing slideshows. The most interaction they report experiencing comes from reading course news and announcements and receiving e-mails from the instructor.

That's what a research project found when it queried 537 students from 15 online STEM courses within a large, four-year public university in the southeast during spring 2016. A third of the students (36 percent) came from the college of engineering and computer science; other large groups included science majors (14 percent) and those pursuing degrees in the college of health and public affairs (11 percent). The study was done by three researchers from the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida.

Among those activities classified as "active learning" by the researchers, students most commonly reported that they used dedicated applications relevant to the course, solved real-world problems, and analyzed scenarios or case studies. They reported "better understanding" and higher satisfaction when the instructor could relate the course content to real-life situations.

Overall, the students were positive about their online courses, finding them enjoyable and easy to access. However, they weren't shy in open-ended questions about what they'd like to see more of. Large numbers of respondents said a STEM program should invest resources to:

  • Create online videos;
  • Offer face-to-face opportunities for them "to meet their online instructors, TAs and tutors"; and
  • Provide "face-to-face lab activities."

A recommendation offered by the researchers was for course designers to apply universal design for learning (UDL) as part of addressing many of the practices suggested by students. For instance, faculty should use a "variety of communication methods," the survey found, which supports the principle of "action and expression." Likewise, students pushed for the use of course-related videos to help them understand course content better than just having a text representation of a concept. That ties directly into UDL's principle of representation. As the report noted, "The goal is to provide all learners with equal access to learning with the intention of decreasing barriers for differently-abled students currently built into instructional techniques."

The research was supported by a grant from the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements, which operates out of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

The report is openly available in Online Learning, the journal of the Online Learning Consortium.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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