Tiny Tips #2: COVID-19 and Online Learning

Today’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment, argues that researchers should use the natural experiment afforded to them by COVID-19 to examine comparative outcomes between online and in-person courses.

This is bad advice, for the following reasons:

  • A large body of literature has already examined outcome differences between in-person and online courses, and the findings have typically been “no significant differences.” In the cases that researchers found differences, those are typically the result of factors other than the mode of teaching (e.g., extra time to study, better design in one of the two modes, etc). I cover this in the very first chapter in my book Learning Online: The Student Experience which arrives next month.
  • The online classes produced under emergency situations aren’t going to be comparative to the in-person courses. I wish I was optimistic enough to imagine a course designed under stressful conditions within the span of a week to be be as good as the courses which one had months – even years – to create and iterate.

There’s nothing “natural” about the state that we are in. This is not a “natural” experiment of the kind of research that we need. The kind of research that we need asks:

  • What made some faculty, students, and institutions successful in achieving the outcomes they defined?
  • What institutional supports proved to be helpful to students and faculty in times of crises, and in what ways?
  • What roles did instructional designers play in this transition, and what made some more successful than others?
  • What vulnerabilities did this shock reveal and how may we address them?
  • What are the positive and negative externalities of using emergency online teaching/learning?
  • In what ways is this crisis being exploited, to what means, and by whom?

The kind of research that we need also inquires into the stories of people (students, faculty, administrators) to reveal our humanity: How did we come together during this time of crisis? How did we support and care and love one another to do what we could for education at a time of urgent and pressing need?


2020 Horizon Report – implications for Canadian Higher Education


Tiny Tips #3: COVID-19 and Online Learning


  1. Georges Detiveaux

    Thanks for this reaction. I share it with you!

  2. Junhong Xiao

    George, it seems that many people, including many of our peers naively take it for an opportunity to be in the spotlight and are eager to seize it in whatever desperate attemtps they can make. Indeed, just as you observe, ‘There’s nothing “natural” about the state that we are in’!

    The last two questions are far more important than any attempt to take advantage of ‘the natural experiment’ ‘to examine comparative outcomes between online and in-person courses’, I believe.

  3. Great post. Thank you. Your questions for research are the important ones.
    Stay safe.

  4. John Thompson

    Spot on post. Trying to turn lemons into lemonade in this situation will most likely end up with squash instead. Focus on the task at hand in getting F2F classes ported over to online/remote. That’s enough stress w/o trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. :-)

  5. Have just read your article and this gives me hope George thank you – I have DM’d you :) Hope that is ok !

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