More people are using e-learning than ever before, with nearly a third of all college students taking an online class in 2010. Convenience surely plays a part—but there’s more to it than that. Online learning also gives culturally- and geographically-diverse populations access to more educational and professional opportunities.
Enter Dr. Graham Shaw, professor of biochemistry at Barry University’s School of Podiatric Medicine.
Shaw’s goal? To graduate more doctors to help combat a physician shortage experts project to hit the United States by 2015. He believes that improving the way students acquire, retain, and apply knowledge will give them a better shot at passing board exams down the road. “Even though students generally do well in my class, I wanted to help them do better—to know and relate to the material more effectively.” So he teamed up with a colleague, educational statistics specialist Dr. David Molnar, to investigate whether e-learning could help students better understand and retain material.
Shaw feels students need more than just a downloadable slide deck of each lecture. He admits, “I always want to give students the best lecture I can, and believe that learning happens both inside and outside the classroom.” He envisions an e-learning module with enhanced audio and visual elements to augment classroom material and elaborate on key concepts.
He experimented with Articulate Presenter software and loved that he could easily build on his existing PowerPoint slides to create online courses. “I taught myself Articulate Presenter and just added narration to my slides for the first lecture,” he recalls. “Then I started experimenting with animations, building slides with arrows, fading things in and out. After doing 70 lectures, I got pretty good at it.”
Shaw notes that Articulate Presenter made it easy to draw students’ attention to specific details on his slides. “It’s a big advantage to be able to emphasize particular parts of a slide with animations.”
Shaw made the online course available to his students, and found that many embraced the blended learning approach. They also appreciated the keyword search feature that let them easily find material. Shaw recalls, “We found that students viewed the course quite extensively, accessing it multiple times, particularly around exam time.”
The positive response to a blended approach isn’t unique to Shaw’s students at Barry. George Otte, university director of academic technology at CUNY-Central, observed that students at his institution favor the blended approach, estimating that interaction between students increased 30 to 50 percent over that found in a traditional classroom-only setting.1
For Shaw, the moment of truth came when he compared a full year of test scores for students who had access to e-learning with the test scores of the previous year’s students, who only experienced in-classroom teaching. The results confirmed his hunch—and unearthed a valuable insight. While student performance overall improved by 6 percent, scores of non-native English-speaking students rose by 10 percent. “Non-native English speakers improved their performance by almost a full letter grade,” he notes. Thanks to this blended model, a whole group of under-represented minority (URM) students improved their mastery of material—and their shot at passing national board exams.
Shaw and Molnar’s results aren’t unique. A Kuwait-based study on cultural dimensions affecting blended e-learning indicates that an integrated learning approach is effective because learners can control how they consume content, which is critical to “improving their interaction with the environment.”2 If you’re not learning in your native language, being able to review and interact with material in a self-paced way helps. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 study on e-learning echoed a similar finding: blended instruction models have shown to be more effective than traditional learning.3
Judging from the success of his students, Shaw muses that e-learning has many uses beyond Barry’s School of Podiatric Medicine, such as for board exam prep and licensure courses. “We’ve shown that blended learning works in this kind of environment and in this kind of class,” he says. “But I believe that e-learning has so much more potential that we have yet to tap.”
If you’d like to view Shaw and Molnar’s study, please email a request to Dr. Shaw at GShaw@mail.barry.edu.
1Otte, George. Using Blended Learning to Drive Faculty Development (And Vice-Versa). Elements of Quality Online Education. Needham, MA: Sloan-C, 2005.
2Al-Huwail, N., Al-Sharhan, S., Al-Hunaiyyan, A. Learning Design for a Successful Blended E-Learning Environment: Cultural Dimensions. 2007.
3U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. September 2010.