New research center aims to address inequities in online learning in college

This news update was written and published in partnership with SRI International.

SRI Education and the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College are launching a new research center, thanks to a new $10 million award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

SRI and CCRC are partnering with Achieving the Dream, a national leader in championing evidence-based institutional improvement with a network of more than 300 colleges, and nine broad-access colleges to conduct research on how educational technology and instructional strategies can bolster students’ skills for managing their own learning.

“ATD is thrilled to strengthen our partnership with SRI and CCRC through this new IES center … supporting faculty in the redesign of instruction that is student-centered, inclusive, and adaptive.”
– Dr. Karen A. Stout

The partners’ research findings will form the basis of a national engagement and professional learning program to help higher education leaders and instructors adopt teaching strategies and effectively use online course tools to help students develop these self-directed learning skills.

“Faculty and student input will help shape the center’s research and guide us in sharing findings in ways that strengthen teaching and learning,” said Deborah Jonas, director of SRI Education’s Center for Education Research & Innovation and principal investigator of the new center. “When we involve faculty and students from the beginning, we better understand how we can help make effective practices easier for instructors to adopt.”

The new center’s focus brings together two key trends in higher education. Colleges and universities increasingly recognize that explicitly teaching planning and study skills can help more students successfully complete courses and stay in college. At the same time, experts predict that schools will be offering far more online courses as campuses emerge from the pandemic.

Online courses can be a welcome option for students who need to schedule coursework around work or family caregiving obligations. But online courses typically place more responsibility on students to manage their own learning, making planning and study skills even more critical to students’ success.

Accelerated growth in postsecondary online learning

Experts predict that schools’ being forced into remote learning in the pandemic will accelerate the expansion of online college courses. Already more than a third (37 percent) of postsecondary students were enrolled in online courses in fall 2019, an 11-point jump since 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A similar jump could occur in just the next two or three years, experts expect. “Student and instructor attitudes are changing very quickly, and administrators are paying attention,” said SRI researcher Rebecca Griffiths.

Exploring how to foster self-directed learning skills in online course environments

Virginia State University, in Petersburg, Virginia, is among the schools planning to increase its online course offerings. The historically Black college had already intended to do so before the pandemic to give students more options.

Dr. Omar Faison, associate vice president for research and a biology professor at Virginia State, is excited and also cautious about the additional online course options.

Again and again over the sixteen years Faison has welcomed new students into his introductory biology courses, he has seen bright students who readily grasp new concepts, but who may lack the planning or study skills to perform well on assignments and exams.

These promising students could become discouraged, lose motivation, and withdraw from courses. Faison has seen students who had hoped to major in a STEM field change majors after receiving poor grades in introductory courses.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Faison and his team added peer-mentored study groups and other supports to biology courses with the aim of helping students develop the skills to manage their own learning — including goal-setting, planning, and practice reflecting on and improving learning strategies.

The results did not surprise him. Students who had support developing these skills got better grades not only in their biology courses, but in all other courses they took that term.

Now, as Virginia State adds more online courses to offer students more options and flexibility, Faison is partnering with the new research center to help ensure students can see similar achievement gains in the new learning environments.

“Faculty at Virginia State have been very interested in the roles of self-regulation and meta-cognition in student success” said Faison. “We are eager to explore how technology-based tools can complement instructional strategies to support positive outcomes, including lower DFW (drop-fail-withdraw) rates in the targeted classes, as well as better grades overall.”

“The features to help students develop these skills are often already there,” in adaptive courseware, online learning management systems, and apps instructors use to help students manage their work, added Griffiths. “But not much is known about how to use them effectively. What little research we have so far has focused on isolated features, or single instructional strategies. We’re missing the big picture of how instructional approaches and technology together can improve student outcomes.”

“Historically, the challenge with online learning has been that the students who can benefit most from the flexibility online courses offer — because they’re going to school on top of working full-time or parenting — are not achieving the levels of success we know are possible,” said Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, DC.

The new center’s work can help colleges and universities address the diversity of students’ needs to ensure that all students are equally prepared to succeed in online courses, McNair said. But schools need help figuring out how to do that.

Engagement and professional learning for higher-ed instructors and administrators

Faculty attitudes about online learning are improving. Nearly half considered online courses an “effective method of teaching,” in an October 2020 survey by Every Learner Everywhere and Tyton Partners, 10 points higher than at the start of the pandemic.

Still, half of faculty remain more skeptical — or are less experienced making effective use of instructional technologies — so all instructors can benefit from evidence-based guidance, Griffiths said.

To meet this need, the new center will develop and offer professional learning events and resources for college and university faculty based on the center’s research findings.

“Our goal is to enable knowledge-sharing across the different professional communities involved in online learning, the educators, the developers, and the researchers” said Nikki Edgecombe, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center and research professor of education policy and social analysis at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“People across these sectors have long been concerned about achievement differences in online learning. And more and more, they understand that a new kind of collaboration is needed to address these issues,” Edgecombe said.

“ATD is thrilled to strengthen our partnership with SRI and CCRC through this new IES center including the opportunity to deepen our teaching and learning work supporting faculty in the redesign of instruction that is student-centered, inclusive, and adaptive,” said ATD's president and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout. “This includes support in the development of open educational resources and partnering with Centers of Teaching and Learning Excellence to ensure the continuation of professional learning for part-time and full-time faculty.”

Eight colleges in addition to Virginia State have partnered with SRI, CCRC, and Achieving the Dream in the center: Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts, Calbright College in California, Macomb Community College in Michigan, Odessa College in Texas, Palm Beach State College in Florida, Portland State University in Oregon, Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma, and Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.


The center is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305C210003 to SRI International. IES provided $10 million (100%) of funding for the center.

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