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Engaging Online Learners

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Engaging Online Learners: A Quantitative Study of Postsecondary Student Engagement in the Online Learning Environment Pu-Shih Daniel Chen University of North Texas Kevin R. Guidry Indiana University Bloomington Amber D. Lambert Indiana University Bloomington Please address all correspondence to: Pu-Shih Daniel Chen University of North Texas Department of Counseling and Higher Education 1155 Union Circle #310829 Denton, TX 76203 (940) 369-8062 [email protected] Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association San Diego, April 13 – 17, 20092 Engaging Online Learners: A Quantitative Study of Postsecondary Student Engagement in the Online Learning Environment Pu-Shih Daniel Chen University of North Texas Kevin R. Guidry Indiana University Bloomington Amber D. Lambert Indiana University Bloomington Widespread use of the Web and other Internet technologies in postsecondary education has exploded in the last 10 years. Although a significant amount of literature exists on student engagement in traditional face-to-face environments, there is relatively little research into student engagement in the online learning environment. In 2008, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) developed a set of experimental questions to investigate the nature of student engagement in the online environment. Approximately 17,000 randomly selected first-year and senior college students at 45 baccalaureate degree-granting institutions responded to this set of questions. The researchers discuss the definition of student engagement for the online learning environment, the development of the NSSE online learning questions, findings, and implications for postsecondary education. The Internet and other digital technologies have become thoroughly integrated in the lives of today’s college student. A recent study by EDUCAUSE (2007) suggests that the vast majority of students at baccalaureate degree-granting institutions own and use their own computers. Online course management systems such as Blackboard, D2L, or Sakai are nearly ubiquitous on American colleges and universities and wireless Internet access permeates most college classrooms (Green, 2007). Outside the classroom, Internet connections are available in virtually all on-campus residence halls and online social networking websites like Facebook.com and MySpace.com are used by an estimated 79-95% of all American college students (Ellison, 2007). Most college freshmen now arrive on campus with their own personal computer, digital music player, cell phone, and other digital devices. As technology becomes a natural part of modern life, more and more college students opt to take online or hybrid courses using readily-available communication technologies. Moreover, many students expect instructors of traditional face-to-face classes to utilize the latest Internet technologies such as online course management systems and collaborative Internet technologies to enhance learning experience. The widespread adoption of digital technologies and online courses has caused many researchers to question the impact of online learning environment on student learning and engagement. The concept of student engagement is not new to educators. Research has shown that what students do during college counts more in terms of learning outcomes than who they are or even where they go to college (Kuh, 2004). In the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Chickering and Gamson (1987) argued that good college education should promote student-faculty interaction, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt3 feedback, time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning. Although Chickering and Gamson’s propositions were well received and later became the foundation of the current engagement movement in higher education, it is still largely unclear of how to operationalize these principles and measure their impacts in an online learning environment. Recent research suggests that there is a positive correlation between students’ use of computers and the Internet and self-reported gains in general education and personal and intellectual development (Nelson Laird & Kuh, 2004; Hu & Kuh, 2001; Kuh & Hu, 2001; Kuh & Vesper, 2001). Echoing Jenkins’s “participation gap” idea (2006), other research has suggested that characteristics such as socioeconomic status (Gladieux & Swail, 1999) and institutional resources (Hu & Kuh, 2001) play a significant role in students’ use of and the impact of computers and the Internet. Although the online learning environment is believed to have enhanced student learning, little empirical research exist to connect the dots between learning technologies and traditional notions of student engagement. This study investigates the nature of student engagement in the online learning environment to find out if the use of the Internet technology has an effect on student engagement. Specifically, the following research questions guide this study: 1. How often do college students in different types of courses use the Internet technologies for course-related tasks? 2. Do individual and institutional characteristics affect the likelihood of taking online courses? 3. Does the relative amount of technology employed in a course have a relationship with student engagement, learning approaches, and student self-reported learning outcomes? Methods The data for this study come from the 2008 administration of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Since the inception of the NSSE in 2000, more than a million first-year students and seniors at more than 1,100 baccalaureate degree-granting colleges and universities have reported the time and energy that they devote to the educationally purposeful activities measured by the annual survey. Participating institutions use their student engagement results to identify areas where teaching and learning can be improved. NSSE results are positively correlated with such desired outcomes as critical thinking and grades (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006; Kuh, 2004; Ouimet et al., 2004; Pike, 2006). The conceptual framework and psychometric properties of the NSSE and the development of NSSE scales have been amply documented (Kuh, 2004; Nelson Laird, Shoup, & Kuh, 2005). In 2008, researchers at NSSE developed a set of 13 experimental questions to investigate the nature of student


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