Higher Education

Online Engineering Courses Are Perfect For Massive Introductory Lectures, Right? A New Study Comes to Different Conclusions

By Henry Kronk
May 17, 2019

As more research emerges about the efficacy of online learning, it becomes increasingly clear that course design must conform to context. A recent study by Devayan Debashis Bir of Iowa State University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering investigated the outcomes of an introductory online engineering course versus a face-to-face equivalent. “Comparison of academic performance of students in online vs traditional engineering course” appeared in EURODL this month.

The study investigated a Mechanics of Materials summer cohort. The course was run simultaneously with a face-to-face and online version to provide a means to compare the two modes of delivery.

What’s at Stake

Introductory undergraduate courses across fields of study are consistently challenging for faculty departments. They typically draw in large volumes of students. Offering a large lecture course is one way to reduce costs since the format enables universities to reach the highest number of students with the lowest staffing cost. 

It is unfortunately well-established that this format, if pushed far enough, leads to poor academic achievement. Bir defines a ‘large class’ as anything that exceeds 40 students and cites previous research showing that increased introductory class sizes lead to numerous negative outcomes. These include lower academic performance, lower levels of creativity, less engagement between instructor and students, lower quality instruction, and lower overall student satisfaction.

In engineering programs, introductory classes pose a specific challenge since engineering undergraduate enrollments has risen steadily since 2005. Even if institutions have managed to maintain the number of engineering courses over this period, these courses have grown steadily larger.

It’s not uncommon for an introductory class to be so big that a single lecture hall cannot accommodate it. In that case, students often sit in a separate lecture hall where a livestream of the lecture is projected.

All of these qualities are obviously less than ideal. Online engineering courses pose a potential solution to possibly every one of them.

What’s more, some respected research supports this conclusion. The U.S. Department of Education conducted a wide-ranging meta-analysis of research on online learning between 1996 and 2008, which included studies on online engineering courses. According to Bir, the study found, “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction,” and “The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. Online learning appeared to be an effective option for both undergraduates and for graduate students and professionals in a wide range of academic and professional studies.”

But none of the courses examined involved introductory online engineering courses.

a packed lecture hall of students
Miguel Henriques, Unsplash.

The Efficacy of an Introductory Online Engineering Course

In the summer of 2016, Bir began his study on a 10-week Mechanics of Materials course. His sample consisted of 80 students. Forty-two students took the online course, and 38 learned face-to-face. In terms of gender, the class was 12.5% women, 87.5% male. Twenty-six learners (32.5%) were international students, 67.5% were from the United States. The in-person course was based on the lecture model, while the online engineering course consisted of a mix between lecture videos (on average 12 minutes long) and problem-solving explanation videos (also voiced by the instructor and roughly 10 minutes long).

Another quality sets this study aside. Bir had a good idea of what academic achievement was supposed to look like on a student-by-student basis. Iowa State University requires a few other introductory engineering courses, one of which is Statics of Engineering . Previous research has shown Statics grades to strongly correlate with those in Mechanics of Materials. Bir, therefore, didn’t just have a test group to match to his control; he had grounds to match them against their previous performance as well.

Before beginning, Bir posed the following questions:

  1. How do engineering students’ grades compare between students enrolled in an online mechanics of materials course and students enrolled in the traditional lecture format course?
  2. How do the different group (demographics and academic performance) grades compare between students enrolled in an online Mechanics of Materials course and students enrolled in the traditional lecture format course?

The Results

Bir found “a statistically significant difference between the grades of the two classes.” In terms of mean GPA, face-to-face students scored virtually an entire grade point better. Online students averaged a 2.00, while face-to-face collectively logged 2.96. This is especially significant because, according to their previous Statics of Engineering grades, “There was no difference between the academic standing of students who enrolled in the traditional class and online class.”

Bir notes that, “International, full-time, high [academic performing], and low [academic performing] groups enrolled in the online class had no difference in MM course scores than their traditional counterparts in MM. All other groups academically performed lower in their MM course than the corresponding traditional groups.”

That’s not the news that advocates of online engineering courses would hope for. But there’s also a notable point Bir makes: “The discussion raises an interesting question regarding high-scoring students: How are these high-scoring students better equipped for online courses than their lower scoring counterparts? Intuitively it could be said that high scoring students have a better grasp of the subject. It could also be that high scoring students have better self-regulation, which helped them achieve a high score in [Statics] also. [The] online course may have helped these students change their learning behavior which lead them to perform better.”

The results of the study should be taken with a grain of salt proportional to its study size. Bir acknowledges this, and also writes, “since the course was offered during the summer semester, most participants were either working or on an internship. This could have hindered the students in being able to manage their time or devote enough time to the course. Also the traditional class and the online class had different exams and could have caused biased results.”

It’s obviously difficult to create a class that successfully promotes earned student achievement in the first place. Recreating that with an online engineering course is still a hit-or-miss process in many cases. Much more work needs to be done before the modality is used with confidence, at least in the context of undergrad online engineering courses. Bir concludes by writing that a positive next step would be to look into the qualitative student study habits, in addition to quantitative performance indicators.

Featured Image: Vlad Sherbakov, Unsplash.