Instructors that have honed their teaching skills in the classroom quickly learn that their time-tested methods do not necessarily translate into an online environment. They discover that students enrolled in their web-based classes are often in college for different reasons than those students in the classroom. An instructor may understand that students learn in a variety of ways, but likely did not explore the impact it had in the classroom. The online environment provides new and exciting ways to meet the needs of students, and it ensures that an online course can meet a student’s individual style of learning in ways not possible in the classroom.

LITERATURE REVIEW

There is a great deal of literature available that compares the effectiveness of online instruction versus instruction in a classroom. However, the demands placed on colleges by students interested in web-based classes has transcended the need to compare the two since the students themselves are likely not choosing between the two. The distinction between distance and classroom learning has nearly vanished (Dunn, 2000), and the concept of ‘distance’ has gone, too, since physical distance is often not the main reasons students take online classes. Most students do not consider online classes a replacement for the classroom (Cooper, 2001) Today’s students are impacted by factors such as convenience of college classes and perceived ease of use of those classes (Grandon, et al, 2005). Students are looking for higher education that meets their schedules and circumstances, such as full-time jobs and family (PSU, 1998). A profile of online students has suggested they are generally older, and have more life and academic experiences than their traditional classroom counterparts. These are attributes that make a student well suited to the self-directed and independent study associated with online learning (Diaz, 2002). The sheer pervasiveness of the Internet for most adults has created a dramatic demand for online learning opportunities. A 2002 study by the Alsanian Group, a non-profit consulting company that serves colleges and universities, found that 80 percent of adults preferred a traditional classroom for learning. Five years later, a follow up study revealed that the percentage had dropped to 40%, with 30% of adults preferring an exclusive online learning experience, a dramatic shift in only five years (Forsythe, 2007). A study from the U.S. Department of Labor predicted that by early 2008, one in ten postsecondary students will likely be learning in an online environment (USDOL, 2007).

Learning is a very complex process, and individuals learn in a variety of ways. Numerous models for determining an individual’s learning style have been developed, with each focusing on different dimensions of the learner. However, it is generally agreed that each student learns differently, and that they will be more satisfied and have a higher level of learning outcomes when there is a fit between how a course is taught and how the student learns (Eom, et al, 2006) In their research, Diaz and Cartnal found that students in an online environment likely have different styles of learning than their equivalent students in the classroom (Diaz & Cartnal, 1999) They concluded that online students were more independent, and appeared to be driven by intrinsic motives and not by the reward structure of the class.

The VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic) typology focuses on the psychological aspects of learning. It is easy to derive the clear differences between the traditional classroom and a web-based class when using this technique. Online environments may not have aural components of the physical classroom, and the Aural learner may not be as effective in an online class, yet Visual and Read/Write learners may fair better in an online class as those classes tend to have a higher level of reading and writing components.

The influence of the intrinsic motivation of students on their learning has also been studied, and has shown that there is a link between self-efficacy and the cognitive engagement of the student. Students finding their school work interesting and important also led to them to be cognitively engaged with it. While the self-regulation of a student may not lead to higher grades, is may lead to greater engagement in the class (Pintrick & De Groot, 1990). The Motivational and Self-Regulated Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) introduced by Paul Pintrick and Elizabeth De Groot was originally used to evaluate the motivational beliefs and self-regulated learning strategies of junior high school students. They found self-efficacy to be positively related to student performance in a class, and that self-regulation was a strong predictor of academic performance (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990)

Unlike taking a course in a classroom, taking an online course demands the use of a computer which ties the two inextricably to gether. Davis’ Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) identified ease of use and usefulness as general determinants of user acceptance of a new technology (Davis, 1986). It has been determined that perceived usefulness is a major determinant of a persons intention to use a computer (Davis, et al, 1989), thus is can be extrapolated that the perceived usefulness of an online class is a major determinant to use a computer as well. Davis, et al, also found that perceived ease of use is a secondary determinant of an individual’s intention to use a computer. Applying these findings to taking an online course using a computer implies that even a course considered not easy to use could still be considered useful to the student.

RESEARCH MODEL

Based on previous literature research, this study attempts to relate a number of previous theories to develop a more complex analysis of students taking online classes. Constructs were adapted from several previous models to investigate the relationship between the factors that influenced a student taking an online class, and their ultimate satisfaction with learning in an online environment. The current model is a conceptual model presented here that will need to be empirically tested further.

Personal Influences

This study sought to identify what personal factors most influenced a student’s choice of taking an online class. Factors presented, among others, included convenience for the student, the flexibility possible due to the nature of an online class, and the lack of a commute to campus. Based on the items survey, the following is proposed:

Proposition 1: Convenience will have a positive influence on student’s intention to take online classes.

Learning Style

There are numerous instruments available to determine the learning style of a student. This study chose the VARK method to determine the visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic preferences of the students. A brief description of each style follows:

* Visual: Visual learners want the whole picture and are probably holistic rather than reductionist in their approach to the class. They are often swayed by the look of an object, and are interested in color, layout and design. They will likely draw a picture when they need to demonstrate something. Visual learners like lecturers who use picturesque language. They like diagrams, videos, and flowcharts.

* Aural: Aural learners prefer to listen and have topics explained to them. They like to discuss topics with others and explain their ideas to them. They remember interesting jokes, stories, and examples.

* Read/Write: These learners prefer written words. They like reading books and handouts, and prefer lecturers who use words well and have a great deal of information in sentences and notes.

* Kinesthetic: Kinesthetic learners learn by doing. They use all of their senses – sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Clearly, all senses will not translate into an online environment, but sight and hearing certainly can. They like lecturers who give real-life examples. To them, the ideas presented are only valuable if they sound practical, real, and relevant.

* Multimodal: these learners often have more than one dominant style of learning. Learners who are truly balanced in their styles can adapt to the mode of instruction being used. (Fleming, 2007) Based on this information, the following hypotheses are proposed:

Proposition 1: Learning styles will positively influence the perceived ease of use of online classes.

Proposition 2: Learning styles will positively influence perceived usefulness of online classes.

Self-Efficacy and Self-Regulation

Learning in an online environment can be a very isolating experience for a student. They do not have the physical interaction and support of their classmates and instructor. Instead, they rely in large part on their confidence in their abilities and their regulation of their activities. A component of Pintrich and De Groot’s Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990) was used in this study to determine the impact of self-efficacy and self-regulation on current online students.

Based on this research, the following propositions are presented:

Proposition 3: Self-efficacy will be positively related to perceived ease of use of online classes.

Proposition 4: Self-efficacy will be positively related to perceived usefulness of online classes.

Proposition 5: Self-regulation will be positively related to perceived ease of use of online classes.

Proposition 6: Self-regulation will be positively related to perceived usefulness of online classes.

Perceived Usefulness and ease of Use

Since online classes demand the use of a computer and other technology, a students’ comfort level with these components it critical to their success. The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) (Davis, 1989) is a well-established model to study the adoption and use of technology. In it, Davis measures how useful a respondent feels the technology will be to them, and how easy it is to use. Based on this research, the following hypotheses are proposed:

Proposition 7: Perceived ease of use will be positively related to the intention to take online classes

Proposition 8: Perceived usefulness will be positively related to the intention to take online classes

Proposition 9: Usefulness will be more influential than ease of use in driving intention to take online classes

Expectations

Identifying the expectations of an online student can provide the instructor and university with valuable feedback on how to present the material. Based on a model for measuring student perceptions in web-based courses (Jurczyk, et al, 2004), the following proposition is proposed:

Proposition 10: Expectations of online classes will influence the intention to take online classes.

Satisfaction

A student’s attitude toward an experience has been found to be a highly accurate predictor of their intention to submit to that experience again (Ajzen & Fishbein,1980). In the case of online classes, students who are satisfied with learning in an online environment are likely to take another online class in the future. In response, the following hypothesis is proposed:

Proposition 11: Satisfaction will be positively related to intention to take an online class.

PROPOSED RESEARCH MODEL

Figure 1 is a proposed research model that will be tested during this study.

METHODOLOGY

Students responded voluntarily to a self-report web-based survey that included 53 questions. For demographics, possible answers were given in single and multiple-answer formats. For example, a student could only select from a list when asked for their Degree Program, yet could have multiple answers when asked “Why did you choose to take an online class?” Questions regarding learning style could also have multiple answers, but questions regarding their agreement or disagreement with statements such as their feelings about ease of use of online classes, or their own study habits, were ranked on a one (1) to five (5) scale.

Survey Instrument

A list of questions based on the model was derived from a variety of literature. Initial questions regarded basic demographic information such as age range, gender, degree program, and number of online courses the student had participated in. The 16 questions regarding learning style from VARK was duplicated in its entirety with permission from the author. The remaining 30 questions related to self-efficacy, self-regulation, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, expectations, and satisfaction of the student with online classes. These questions were presented with a scale ranging from Strongly Agree (1) to Strongly Disagree (5).

The anonymous web-based survey was presented to 13 online courses at a southeastern university with a total of 490 students enrolled in the classes and 121 students responding. Students were given approximately 14 days to complete the survey. All questions required a response.

RESULTS

Demographics

The vast majority, 82%, of those surveyed indicated they were female, with 18% being male. This could be explained by the dominance of women in the courses surveyed, or possibly a preference of women to participate in online surveys. Over half, 56.2%, were “over 30” years old. Of those surveyed, 61.2% were seeking an undergraduate degree, and 38% were pursuing a graduate level degree. Only one respondent indicate they were not pursuing a degree.

Students were asked “Why did you choose to take an online class?” and convenience was the top response, cited by over 80% of the respondents. A close second was flexibility as indicated by 77% of those responding. Since just over 11% indicated they were taking an online class because that was the only platform on which it was offered implies that the remainder of the students chose the course because it was available online, not because they were forced to take it in that environment.

All students indicated that they used the Internet for tasks other than taking a course online. Checking email, doing research, shopping, and getting news topped the reasons for using the Internet. For all questions, see Appendix A.

Learning Style

The VARK survey consisted of 16 questions, and a student could mark more that one answer for a question. Of those surveyed, nearly 54% indicated they had a read/write preference for learning. This represented all, or part, of their individual style of learning using the VARK questionnaire. Following are the percentages of learning styles based on the results of the survey related to the VARK styles. Since a respondent could have multiple styles of learning for a single question, these answers will be skewed toward the Read/Write style such that a respondent had that style plus zero to three more styles. Since these percentages include multi-modal learners, they do not reflect an overall learning style of those surveyed, but they do reveal that Read/Write is a preferred style, of those surveyed, by a very large margin. For all questions, see Appendix B.

Learning Style Surveyed

Visual 15%
Aural 17%
Read/Write 54%
Kinesthetic 15%

Behaviors and Expectations

Students in an online environment do not have the same level of interaction with their classmates and instructor as they do in a physical classroom. Instead, they rely on other personal characteristics. When asked about their behavior characteristics and expectations of online classes on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “Strongly Agree”, students reported with an overall ranking of 1.96 to the questions about self-efficacy, and 2.73 in the category of self-regulation. This generally indicated that their confidence in their ability to be successful in an online class was quite strong, but their regulation of their study habits was not quite as strong. Their expectations regarding the responsiveness of instructors, the organization of online classes, and the resolution of technical problems was very high at 1.69. This nearly equaled their overall satisfaction with learning in an online environment and intention to take more online classes in the future which was ranked at 1.70.

Over 80% of respondents indicated they expected future online instructors to be responsive and the course to be organized and structured. The same level of expectation was given for technical problems experienced by student to be resolved. Of those surveyed, 83% gave the statement “I intend to take more online courses in the future.” a ranking of 1 or 2. 78% also ranked the statement “Overall, I am satisfied with my learning experience via an online platform.” with a 1 or 2. Thus, it can be inferred that these students are very satisfied with online learning and plan to take more online classes in the future. For all questions, see Appendix C.

In this third section, the overall reliability of all the items using Cronbach’s alpha ([alpha]) was .91.

Construct Reliability

EU (4 items) 0.70
PU (4 items) 0.67
SE (9 items) 0.83
SR (8 items) 0.28
SAT (2 items) 0.44
EX (3 items) 0.58


CONCLUSION

Based on the analysis of the data thus far, a solid profile has been made regarding current online students at this university. They are predominantly female and over 30 years old. While some have a multi-modal learning style, the population surveyed predominantly included a read/write learning style. Convenience was the top reason for choosing online classes. Overall, the students surveyed were very satisfied with their learning experience and intend to take more courses online in the future. The information gathered can provide insight for faculty and administrators for developing online courses to meet the needs and learning styles of online students. This survey has developed a foundation instrument that could be considered a pilot for expanding the survey to a larger body of online students.