In an era run by technology, we have become more and more accustomed to communicating with others via text, email, or Skype. Technology has also been steadily creeping into classrooms and in many ways improving education. Many higher education institutions now not only offer online courses, but entire online degree programs.
George Mason University's School of Management recently modified their traditional Executive MBA program to combine classroom time and online courses. This increasingly popular program format has many wondering—what is the impact of hybrid distance education?
School of Management marketing professors, James Harvey, Kevin McCrohan, Frank Philpot, and Jeffrey Kulick, examined this question in a study that focused on the perceptions of nearly 400 School of Management students from sections of the Marketing 301: Principles of Marketing course over three semesters who were assigned online exercises professionally developed by McGraw-Hill. The research also looked at the impact of these online assignments on student performance.
"The interesting thing our study found is that the online experience seems to have a positive impact on student interest in the course," explains Harvey. "Many felt that the online assignments were relevant to the real world, making them more realistic. We also found that these assignments made a significant positive impact on their test scores; there is about a 20% increase in test scores of people who did well on the online activities."
These findings correlate with an analysis of research literature on distance learning by the U.S. Department of Education. Their analysis found that classes with an online learning component (either completely online or a hybrid format) had students who generally performed better than those in classes that used only face-to-face instruction.
Intrigued by this and their initial results, the same team of School of Management professors conducted another study that shed further light on the topic. The second study found that students who collaborated with others outside of the classroom for the online components of the course reported enjoying the course more. They also reported that they found more interest, engagement and understanding in the course than students who did not work collaboratively, regardless of their major, GPA or gender.
After making these findings, professors James Harvey and Kevin McCrohan submitted a grant proposal to the Office of Distance Education at George Mason University, using their studies as evidence that distance learning benefits students. They were awarded a grant to pilot distance education for the Marketing 301: Principles of Marketing course. The students in the course alternate between meeting in a classroom on campus and meeting offline through a variety of platforms every other class session.
"One of the dilemmas of distance education is providing a rich environment, creating two-way communication, and avoiding becoming the 'talking head,' within a reasonable budget," says Harvey. "The grant allowed us the opportunity to make the course more interactive and tailored to students' needs."
"I work full-time and commute to school from home," says Christina Chao, a marketing major who is currently enrolled in Professor Harvey's Marketing 301 hybrid course. "Online classes allow me to work a full schedule and learn at my own pace."
For Chao, distance learning proves to be a perfect fit due to her busy schedule, but Harvey insists that the deciding factor for using hybrid distance education is not convenience but the positive effect it has on learning.
"I think there are various benefits to the distance education approach both for professors and students, but the bottom line is that it's very important to make sure that student performance is as good, if not better, than a strictly in-class approach," says Harvey.
"The online component substitutes in-class lectures in a more interactive and efficient way," says Chao. "One may understand the material when it is being told to them, but what really matters is if they can put it into action. The homework makes you do that by giving scenarios and requiring you to answer questions based on those scenarios."