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A comparison of student perceptions in traditional and online classes.


This study compared the experiences of students in online and traditional classes through the use of quantitative and qualitative data collection. Specific quantitative comparisons were made based on perceptions of class workload, overall satisfaction, overall comfort, perceived amount of learning, anticipated grade, and the likelihood of taking an online class in the future. Online students reported a higher workload, similar satisfaction, lower comfort, similar learning, and lower anticipated grades. Qualitative comparisons revealed similar importance placed on quality instruction, but differences in the areas of class logistics, workload/difficulty, required reading, social interaction, public speaking, and required self-discipline. Future research should examine the factors underlying the perceived higher workload and possible advantages of blended classroom formats.


While one adult student rushes from work to her evening class, another student goes home, eats dinner with her family, and then "goes to class" by sitting down at her Internet-connected home computer. The first student discusses the subject matter with her instructor and classmates face-to-face, during a set time period and in a classroom reserved for that purpose. The second student checks her email and responds to class discussions or instructor questions by typing her email responses, doing so when it is convenient to her, not at the same time or even day as the other students.

The second scenario sounds so convenient and flexible, yet not all students are interested in taking an online class. And those who do sign up drop out in higher numbers than in a traditional face-to-face course. Distance education classes, whether online, audio conferenced, or telecourses, have notoriously high attrition rates (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994; Merisotis, 1999). Nonetheless, there are countless predictions that online educational programs will continue to grow, and some predictions even point to a revolutionary reconstruction of higher education as we currently know it (Marchese, 1998; and Peinovich, 1997).

Importance of the Study

The social nature of teaching and learning is influenced not only by the curriculum but also by the pedagogical context, including student-teacher interactions and peer relations (Newson, 1999). The experience of many faculty, combined with the high dropout rates reported in many studies (Merisotis, 1999) raises the question of how well students are thriving in these online environments, as it seems apparent that some are interacting and enjoying the online format while others are dropping out in high numbers.

Almost one half of college courses use email or Internet sources as part of the class activities (Merisotis, 1999). Many students are already experiencing what is envisioned as the future of education, namely virtual learning, where learning can take place anywhere there is an Internet connected computer, with anyone who has access to such a computer, at anytime, 24 hours a day. There appear to be no limits to the applicability of virtual learning; however, are there limits due to the experiences of students in these classes of which we are currently unaware? How are students dealing with an environment where face-to-face human interaction is replaced by online teaching? The online environment is essentially a space for written interaction far from the actual experience of human proximity (Feenberg, 1999).

Studies of student attitudes towards earlier forms of distance education classes typically found that students preferred the traditional classrooms (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994). Savard, Mitchell, Abrami, and Corso (1995) examined the effects of cooperative and individualistic structures on students in a simulated distance education setting using computer mediated communication (CMC). Their review of literature led to the conclusion that there is rarely any significant difference between the attitudes towards learning and the achievement of learners in distance and traditional settings. They reviewed several studies that showed a problem with attrition from distance education classes, sometimes attributed to the sense of social and intellectual isolation.

Eastmond (1995) concluded that distance learning via computer conferencing could be isolating or highly interactive. Some students report that they are more likely to participate in an online discussion than they would in a regular classroom (Maloney, 1999). Some students miss the face-to-face interaction and become isolated. A case study by Powers (1997) described a community of learners that emerged as students interacted electronically with each other. Wegerif's case study (1998) found that there was an important threshold that students had to cross in an online class in order to feel like an insider instead of an outsider. Those that crossed the threshold into full participation in the collaborative learning of the asynchronous learning network being used became pan of a community of learners; those not crossing this social threshold remained outsiders looking in.

According to Merisotis (1999) in an extensive review of literature, there is a strong need for research concerning the new distance education formats, concluding that the innovations in distance education are advancing more rapidly than the research necessary to understand them. Hanson et al. (1997), in a review of distance education literature, called for future research that examines the "psychological and social attributes of the learner" (Hanson, et al., 1997, p. 31), in distance education formats.


Given the inadequacy of information about the experiences of students in online classrooms as compared to students in traditional classrooms, the following questions were addressed by this study:
 1. How do the online and traditional students' ratings of class workload,
 overall satisfaction, overall comfort, perceived amount of learning,
 anticipated grade, and likeliness of taking an online classes in the future

 2. How do the students' experiences in online classes compare to the
 students' experiences in traditional classes?

This comparison of student experiences of students in online and traditional classes was a mixed design with quantitative and qualitative elements. The numerical and verbal data were collected from a survey completed by the participating students.


The subjects for this study were 158 students in a total of 10 classes, five of which are online, and five of which are traditional, face-to-face classes. All ten classes were offered through a small, private college in a mid-western state during the 1999-2000 academic year. The students in these classes were all predominantly older, "adult" students because all classes were offered through the continuing education division of the cooperating college. By the end of the semester the number of students still participating was reduced to 58 (online) and 70 (traditional). Of these students, 106 (46 online and 60 traditional) completed the survey, (participation rate of 79.3% online and 85.7% traditional; 82.8% overall).

The five online classes were matched with traditional classes within the same discipline that were at or near the same level of difficulty based on the course prefix, namely, whether the class was a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior level course. As much as was feasible, online classes were matched with traditional classes taught by the same instructor. A limitation of this study is the inclusion of classes taught by various instructors; however, the students in the online and traditional classes were compared as entire groups, rather than as individual classes. The types of courses included in the study were in the disciplines of sociology, literature, and political science.

The type of online class examined in this study was closely parallel to the interactive nature of a traditional classroom. The class sizes at the cooperating college are kept small, averaging around 15-18 students, thereby allowing more interaction among instructors and students. The interactions in the online classes in this study occurred electronically, via email and listserv arrangements. The nature of the electronic interactions was asynchronous, with students participating in the online classes according to their own available time. The only time the students were together was at the beginning of the semester for an orientation session and at the end of the semester for a final exam.

Data Collection

All participating subjects completed the Classroom Experiences Survey (CES) developed by the researcher in conjunction with the cooperating university. The CES was administered at one of the last two class meetings for the students in the courses selected for this study. The 25 CES items assessed aspects of the class experience, including work load, overall satisfaction, overall comfort, perceived amount of learning, and likeliness of taking an online class in the future. The students were also asked to report what grade they expected to receive in the course. A four-part open-ended item invited the students to write about positive, negative, expected, and unexpected experiences in the course. The survey took 5 to 15 minutes to complete.

Data Analysis

Quantitative responses on the CES were compared using independent t-tests (alpha = .05) to allow comparisons of student responses in the traditional and online classes. Verbal responses were reviewed and coded to identify common themes for the two groups of students.


Demographics and GPA

The average age of the somewhat older online students was 34 years, with the students in the traditional classes averaging 27.93 years (N = 106; t = 2.960, p < .01). Most students reported grade point averages in the 3.00-4.00 range, with no significant differences between the two groups (N = 106; t = -.337; p = .737).

Student Experiences from Quantitative Items

Four of the six quantitative variables generated significantly different responses for students in the online classes as compared to those in the traditional classes. Significant differences were found in the items addressing workload in the class, overall comfort in the class, anticipated grade, and likelihood of taking an online class in the future. The satisfaction in the class (N = 106; t = 1.173; p = .243) and amount of learning (N = 106; t = .692; p = .491) variables did not generate significant differences between the groups.

The average rating of workload in the online class was "rigorous," with the traditional class rated closer to "just right" (N = 106; t = 5.671; p < .01). A significantly higher rating of comfort in the class was reported for students in the traditional setting, typically giving a rating between "somewhat comfortable" and "very comfortable," with the online students' average rating being "somewhat comfortable" (N = 106; t = -2.720; p < .01). Anticipated grades were significantly higher for the students in the traditional setting, with traditional students expecting an average grade of "A-," and the online students expecting grades closer to a "B+" (N = 106; t = -2.429; p < .05). Despite this reported higher level of work, less comfort in the class, and lower anticipated grades, the online students were significantly more likely than traditional students to indicate that "yes" they would take an online course in the future (N = 106; t = 4.241; p < .01).

Qualitative Insights

The open-ended items generated large numbers of comments, both positive and negative. These comments covered issues related to the quality of instruction, class logistics, social interaction, public speaking, self-discipline, workload/difficulty, amount of learning, and required reading.

The most common responses in both the online and traditional classes centered around the quality of instruction. Both groups made comments about the knowledge level, preparedness, support, and availability of their instructors. These common themes in both groups are summarized by the comment "the instructor is the key."

The two class formats generated very different responses in the area of class logistics. Online students made numerous comments about the convenience of taking a class online and technical difficulties, while traditional students commented on the timeframe of class, location of the class, temperature of the room, and difficulties finding childcare. The convenience of the online class included "not having to drive long distances to attend class" and "highly flexible hours - could work on assignments any time convenient." The technical problems of the online students included "not being able to do assignments because of web malfunction" and "my home PC got fried and trying to keep up with the work was stressful." The online students also made positive comments about the ability to "print out the lecture for notes" and "being able to read the lecture and reflect on it."

Social interaction was a topic of many responses, though the content of these responses varied widely between the two formats. Several online students made comments such as "I missed the social interaction of a face-to-face class" and "I miss the give and take in the classroom discussions." Although a few students felt a greater freedom of expression such as "I had an easier time expressing my views because we weren't face-to-face," at least one student "did not like posting all of our work where all classmates could read every answer." Many students in the traditional classes gave positive comments regarding their "discussions with peers" and that "discussions ... were helpful in applying what we learned." In addition, students in both formats were annoyed (e.g., "some classmates were rude") or impressed by other students (e.g., "intelligent classmates").

A group of negative responses given by traditional students but lacking in the online students was in the area of public speaking. These students commented on everything from the way public speaking "exercised our speaking ability" to "presentations given by other students were boring." The online students were not required to do oral presentations, hence the lack of comments in this area.

An area of comments given by online students, but lacking in the traditional student responses was in the area of self-discipline. The structure of the online classes and the required participation resulted in students being "forced to stay current with all reading and to participate every week online in order for the instructor to have a good idea of your involvement with the material - you cannot simply show up to class unprepared and listen to others - as a result you get a lot out of the course, including a dose of self-discipline."

Students in both formats complained about the workload or difficulty of the classes, however such comments were more typical and more strongly worded in the online student responses. The traditional students made comments such as "challenging yet fun" or "it has been a difficult class, but the learning has made it worthwhile." In contrast the online student comments included concerns such as "the amount of work is too great - no consideration given to how much time it takes to master the work on your own versus classroom discussion" and that the class "required much more time than a normal class."

Both groups made comments about the amount of learning they had experienced in the classes with the traditional students making these comments much more frequently. A few online students made comments such as "I learned a lot" but these types of comments were more typical of the traditional student responses including "I learned more than I thought I would."

Students in both formats made many comments about the amount of required reading. Both groups made comments that there was "a lot of reading" with the online students indicating that the reading was "too much." The online students made stronger comments about the amount of reading including using terms such as "enormous" and complaining about "too much lecture readings" and "the expectation that we have the time or energy to read every thought and response of every other student in the class."


The online students rated their classes as more rigorous, but gave similar ratings of amount of learning, as compared to students in traditional classroom settings. Satisfaction levels were similar, but levels of comfort and anticipated grades were lower for the online students. Despite the lower anticipated grades, higher workload, and lower level of comfort, the online students were more likely to want to take an online course in the future than the students in the traditional classes. The workload issue was also highlighted in Westbrook (1999) where online students reported that the online class was more time-consuming than a traditional class. The qualitative responses of online students in the current study regarding workload/difficulty indicate high levels of required reading and the challenge of learning on one's own, without face-to-face interaction. Future research should examine more closely what leads to the perception of higher workload in online classes.

From the qualitative analysis a better understanding of the experiences of students in online, as compared to traditional classes, has been achieved. Students in both formats indicate the importance of quality instruction; however, most of their responses in other areas are qualitatively different. The logistical problems of online classes center on technical difficulties, while such problems in traditional classes center around the challenges of the classroom itself, the scheduled class time, and the necessary commute to class. Missing from the online experience are the demand and opportunity for students to develop public speaking abilities; however, the demand for self-discipline is increased. While some students enjoyed the freedom of online interaction, many others missed the social interaction of face-to-face discussions.

Students are learning in both formats; therefore, the issue is not whether or not learning can occur in online classrooms. Additional research should examine the perceived workload of students in online classes, as well as what helps students feel more comfortable in this classroom format. Research could also investigate the blended classes, which propose to incorporate the `best of both worlds' by providing the benefits of online classes and the benefits of face-to-face traditional classes, while minimizing the disadvantages of each format.


Eastmond, D. V. (1995). Alone but together: Adult distance study through computer conferencing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Feenberg, A. (1999). No frills in the virtual classroom. Academe, 85(2), 26-31.

Hanson, D., Maushak, N. J., Schlosser, C. A., Anderson, M. L., Sorenson, C., & Simonson, M. (1997). Distance education: Review of the literature, (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications and Technology and Research Institute for Studies in Education.

Maloney, W. A. (1999). Mortar campuses go Online. Academe, 85(5), 19-24.

Marchese, T. (1998). Not-so-distant competitors: How new providers are remaking the postsecondary marketplace. AAHE Bulletin, May 1998. Available 9/11/1998:

Merisotis, J. P. (1999). The "What's-the-difference?" debate. Academe, 85(5), 47-51.

Newson, J. (1999). Techno-pedagogy and disappearing context. Academe, 85(5), 52-55.

Peinovich, P. E. (1997). Changing the rules: Access and accessibility in an information age. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 45(1), 34-37.

Powers, S. M., & Mitchell, J. (1997). Student perceptions and performance in a virtual classroom environment. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL, March, 1997, 25 pages. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 409 005)

Savard, M., Mitchell, S. N.; Abrami, P. C., & Corso, M. (1995). Learning together at a distance. Canadian Journal of Educational Communication, 24(2), 117-131.

Schlosser, C. A., & Anderson, M. L. (1994). Distance education: Review of the literature. Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

Wegerif, R. (1998). The social dimension of asynchronous learning networks. JALN, 2(1), 17 pages. Available 10/1/1998

Westbrook, T. S. (1999). Changes in student attitudes toward graduate instruction via Web-based delivery. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 47(2), 32-38.

Cynthia MacGregor, assistant professor of Educational Administration, was awarded the doctor of education degree in educational leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia, having previously earned a masters degree in psychology. Her research interests include the psychological experiences of students in online classes.
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Author:MacGregor, Cynthia J.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Previous Article:A computer by any other name.
Next Article:Evaluating the use of instructional technology in higher education.

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