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Three Essays about Online Learning Programs and Practices to Support Student Success in Higher Education

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The accelerated expansion of online learning in higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with persistently undesirable learning outcomes prompts questions about improving online teaching and learning. Theoretical discussions have highlighted two critical challenges to online learning: the need for stronger self-regulated learning skills and greater difficulties in enabling interpersonal interactions. An increasing number of higher education institutions have made efforts in response to the challenges of online learning and ultimately support student success. Some of the most notable efforts include implementing professional training programs for online teaching, improving online course quality, and identifying effective online peer learning strategies. However, few empirical studies test the causal impacts of training programs and peer learning strategies on students’ outcomes, and there is a lack of evaluation of current online courses’ teaching practices and design features. Through a partnership with a large community college and a four-year selective public university, my dissertation is motivated by the need to better understand the outcomes of university efforts to improve online learning.

In Chapter One, I evaluated the impact of a professional training program for online teaching on student academic outcomes and explored the factors that explained the program’s effects. Based on a large administrative data set from a community college, I found robust nonsignificant estimates for the impact of a training program on students’ course grades. I also reported several possible reasons for the null effects of the program according to an in-depth course evaluation of randomly selected online courses. In Chapter Two, my coauthors and I systematically examined the design of college online courses against three widely cited quality concepts, namely “Scaffolding,” “Student Agency,” and “Presence & Interactivity.” Drawing on 100 randomly selected online courses from a large community college, we found that about two-thirds of the online courses demonstrated some incorporation of design features that can enhance the overall score of three concepts. We also identified noticeable variations across the three concepts, and we described the heterogeneity of the online courses’ design and practices according to the field of study. In Chapter Three, I conducted a randomized control trial to examine the effects of offering a non-project-based virtual study group on students’ academic performance and non-cognitive outcomes in a for-credit online course at a public four-year college. The results suggested that students who were offered a study group reported a higher sense of belonging than those who were not. In addition, students with lower prior academic performance and lower baseline motivation benefited from this intervention in terms of their course performance; students who preferred passive interpersonal interaction benefited from this intervention in terms of their motivation. However, the intervention harmed students’ time management skills for those with higher baseline motivation and preferred active interpersonal interaction.

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This item is under embargo until October 19, 2024.