The COVID pandemic forced institutions that had never before engaged in online education to go online in order to serve their students. The unanticipated and rapid transition to online education left some doubting the quality of the online modality.
At Indiana University, we were already investigating students' expectations for, and perceptions of quality in, online coursework. Prior to the pandemic, the Office of Online Education (OOE) collaborated with IU's Center for Evaluation, Policy, and Research (CEPR) to conduct a research study whose primary objectives were to:
- Increase knowledge and understanding of how students define value and quality in online courses.
- Develop a valid and meaningful process for systematically measuring students' expectations and experiences in online courses.
The project began with a literature review and interviews with undergraduate students in fully online programs. The review and interviews enabled CEPR to identify key indicators that students thought contributed to, or subtracted from, online quality.
CEPR incorporated these indicators into a pilot survey that probed and measured online students' perceptions. Survey items were organized into the following areas:
- Level of experience with online learning
- Reasons for taking IU Online courses
- Factors contributing to satisfaction/dissatisfaction
- Communication within IU Online courses
- Overall satisfaction/perceptions of program quality
The survey was distributed in November 2020 to 500 students enrolled in fully online undergraduate programs. The survey received a 25 percent response rate.
The demographic profile of survey respondents can be summarized as follows:
- Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) were between the ages of 18 and 34.
- Twenty-nine percent identified as non-white or preferred not to answer.
- Seventy percent identified as female.
- Sixty-one percent were employed full-time.
- Fifty-eight percent were enrolled at IU East.
- Fifty-seven percent had previously taken online courses through another institution.
These respondents cited career advancement as the most important reason for enrolling in IU Online programs, but convenience and flexibility also played an important role.
When asked to rank several factors contributing to their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with online courses, the students said that the most important factors contributing to their satisfaction with online courses (in general) were:
- Applicable or practical content
- Instructor quality
- Interesting content
- Effective course organization
- Easy-to-complete requirements
Interestingly, communication was central to students' perception of instructor quality. Nearly 96 percent of the respondents were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their communications with faculty. Their reasons for satisfaction included:
- Frequency and ease
- Quality of response
Respondents most frequently cited the following reasons for dissatisfaction with their online courses:
- Unmanageable course workload
- Instructor issues
- Poor course organization
- Unclear course requirements
- Technology or platform issues
For the most part, there weren't significant differences in responses from students across demographics. The primary difference came from respondents who had previously taken online courses through another college or university. These students reported higher levels of satisfaction and were more likely to recommend IU Online. Overall, 95 percent of the respondents said they would recommend IU Online to others.
In addition to informing course design, the results of this pilot study will inform the revision and subsequent implementation of the survey instrument. The CEPR research team and OOE will continue to collaborate to gather information about how online students perceive value and quality in their courses, increasing sample sizes and conducting surveys on a regular basis.
For more information about how to provide a strong online course experience, check out these five tips for basic course design.