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The effects of online education on academic success: A meta-analysis study

  • Published: 06 September 2021
  • Volume 27 , pages 429–450, ( 2022 )

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dissertations on online education

  • Hakan Ulum   ORCID: 1  

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The purpose of this study is to analyze the effect of online education, which has been extensively used on student achievement since the beginning of the pandemic. In line with this purpose, a meta-analysis of the related studies focusing on the effect of online education on students’ academic achievement in several countries between the years 2010 and 2021 was carried out. Furthermore, this study will provide a source to assist future studies with comparing the effect of online education on academic achievement before and after the pandemic. This meta-analysis study consists of 27 studies in total. The meta-analysis involves the studies conducted in the USA, Taiwan, Turkey, China, Philippines, Ireland, and Georgia. The studies included in the meta-analysis are experimental studies, and the total sample size is 1772. In the study, the funnel plot, Duval and Tweedie’s Trip and Fill Analysis, Orwin’s Safe N Analysis, and Egger’s Regression Test were utilized to determine the publication bias, which has been found to be quite low. Besides, Hedge’s g statistic was employed to measure the effect size for the difference between the means performed in accordance with the random effects model. The results of the study show that the effect size of online education on academic achievement is on a medium level. The heterogeneity test results of the meta-analysis study display that the effect size does not differ in terms of class level, country, online education approaches, and lecture moderators.

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.

1 Introduction

Information and communication technologies have become a powerful force in transforming the educational settings around the world. The pandemic has been an important factor in transferring traditional physical classrooms settings through adopting information and communication technologies and has also accelerated the transformation. The literature supports that learning environments connected to information and communication technologies highly satisfy students. Therefore, we need to keep interest in technology-based learning environments. Clearly, technology has had a huge impact on young people's online lives. This digital revolution can synergize the educational ambitions and interests of digitally addicted students. In essence, COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to embrace online learning as education systems have to keep up with the rapid emergence of new technologies.

Information and communication technologies that have an effect on all spheres of life are also actively included in the education field. With the recent developments, using technology in education has become inevitable due to personal and social reasons (Usta, 2011a ). Online education may be given as an example of using information and communication technologies as a consequence of the technological developments. Also, it is crystal clear that online learning is a popular way of obtaining instruction (Demiralay et al., 2016 ; Pillay et al., 2007 ), which is defined by Horton ( 2000 ) as a way of education that is performed through a web browser or an online application without requiring an extra software or a learning source. Furthermore, online learning is described as a way of utilizing the internet to obtain the related learning sources during the learning process, to interact with the content, the teacher, and other learners, as well as to get support throughout the learning process (Ally, 2004 ). Online learning has such benefits as learning independently at any time and place (Vrasidas & MsIsaac, 2000 ), granting facility (Poole, 2000 ), flexibility (Chizmar & Walbert, 1999 ), self-regulation skills (Usta, 2011b ), learning with collaboration, and opportunity to plan self-learning process.

Even though online education practices have not been comprehensive as it is now, internet and computers have been used in education as alternative learning tools in correlation with the advances in technology. The first distance education attempt in the world was initiated by the ‘Steno Courses’ announcement published in Boston newspaper in 1728. Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, Sweden University started the “Correspondence Composition Courses” for women, and University Correspondence College was afterwards founded for the correspondence courses in 1843 (Arat & Bakan, 2011 ). Recently, distance education has been performed through computers, assisted by the facilities of the internet technologies, and soon, it has evolved into a mobile education practice that is emanating from progress in the speed of internet connection, and the development of mobile devices.

With the emergence of pandemic (Covid-19), face to face education has almost been put to a halt, and online education has gained significant importance. The Microsoft management team declared to have 750 users involved in the online education activities on the 10 th March, just before the pandemic; however, on March 24, they informed that the number of users increased significantly, reaching the number of 138,698 users (OECD, 2020 ). This event supports the view that it is better to commonly use online education rather than using it as a traditional alternative educational tool when students do not have the opportunity to have a face to face education (Geostat, 2019 ). The period of Covid-19 pandemic has emerged as a sudden state of having limited opportunities. Face to face education has stopped in this period for a long time. The global spread of Covid-19 affected more than 850 million students all around the world, and it caused the suspension of face to face education. Different countries have proposed several solutions in order to maintain the education process during the pandemic. Schools have had to change their curriculum, and many countries supported the online education practices soon after the pandemic. In other words, traditional education gave its way to online education practices. At least 96 countries have been motivated to access online libraries, TV broadcasts, instructions, sources, video lectures, and online channels (UNESCO, 2020 ). In such a painful period, educational institutions went through online education practices by the help of huge companies such as Microsoft, Google, Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Slack. Thus, online education has been discussed in the education agenda more intensively than ever before.

Although online education approaches were not used as comprehensively as it has been used recently, it was utilized as an alternative learning approach in education for a long time in parallel with the development of technology, internet and computers. The academic achievement of the students is often aimed to be promoted by employing online education approaches. In this regard, academicians in various countries have conducted many studies on the evaluation of online education approaches and published the related results. However, the accumulation of scientific data on online education approaches creates difficulties in keeping, organizing and synthesizing the findings. In this research area, studies are being conducted at an increasing rate making it difficult for scientists to be aware of all the research outside of their ​​expertise. Another problem encountered in the related study area is that online education studies are repetitive. Studies often utilize slightly different methods, measures, and/or examples to avoid duplication. This erroneous approach makes it difficult to distinguish between significant differences in the related results. In other words, if there are significant differences in the results of the studies, it may be difficult to express what variety explains the differences in these results. One obvious solution to these problems is to systematically review the results of various studies and uncover the sources. One method of performing such systematic syntheses is the application of meta-analysis which is a methodological and statistical approach to draw conclusions from the literature. At this point, how effective online education applications are in increasing the academic success is an important detail. Has online education, which is likely to be encountered frequently in the continuing pandemic period, been successful in the last ten years? If successful, how much was the impact? Did different variables have an impact on this effect? Academics across the globe have carried out studies on the evaluation of online education platforms and publishing the related results (Chiao et al., 2018 ). It is quite important to evaluate the results of the studies that have been published up until now, and that will be published in the future. Has the online education been successful? If it has been, how big is the impact? Do the different variables affect this impact? What should we consider in the next coming online education practices? These questions have all motivated us to carry out this study. We have conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis study that tries to provide a discussion platform on how to develop efficient online programs for educators and policy makers by reviewing the related studies on online education, presenting the effect size, and revealing the effect of diverse variables on the general impact.

There have been many critical discussions and comprehensive studies on the differences between online and face to face learning; however, the focus of this paper is different in the sense that it clarifies the magnitude of the effect of online education and teaching process, and it represents what factors should be controlled to help increase the effect size. Indeed, the purpose here is to provide conscious decisions in the implementation of the online education process.

The general impact of online education on the academic achievement will be discovered in the study. Therefore, this will provide an opportunity to get a general overview of the online education which has been practiced and discussed intensively in the pandemic period. Moreover, the general impact of online education on academic achievement will be analyzed, considering different variables. In other words, the current study will allow to totally evaluate the study results from the related literature, and to analyze the results considering several cultures, lectures, and class levels. Considering all the related points, this study seeks to answer the following research questions:

What is the effect size of online education on academic achievement?

How do the effect sizes of online education on academic achievement change according to the moderator variable of the country?

How do the effect sizes of online education on academic achievement change according to the moderator variable of the class level?

How do the effect sizes of online education on academic achievement change according to the moderator variable of the lecture?

How do the effect sizes of online education on academic achievement change according to the moderator variable of the online education approaches?

This study aims at determining the effect size of online education, which has been highly used since the beginning of the pandemic, on students’ academic achievement in different courses by using a meta-analysis method. Meta-analysis is a synthesis method that enables gathering of several study results accurately and efficiently, and getting the total results in the end (Tsagris & Fragkos, 2018 ).

2.1 Selecting and coding the data (studies)

The required literature for the meta-analysis study was reviewed in July, 2020, and the follow-up review was conducted in September, 2020. The purpose of the follow-up review was to include the studies which were published in the conduction period of this study, and which met the related inclusion criteria. However, no study was encountered to be included in the follow-up review.

In order to access the studies in the meta-analysis, the databases of Web of Science, ERIC, and SCOPUS were reviewed by utilizing the keywords ‘online learning and online education’. Not every database has a search engine that grants access to the studies by writing the keywords, and this obstacle was considered to be an important problem to be overcome. Therefore, a platform that has a special design was utilized by the researcher. With this purpose, through the open access system of Cukurova University Library, detailed reviews were practiced using EBSCO Information Services (EBSCO) that allow reviewing the whole collection of research through a sole searching box. Since the fundamental variables of this study are online education and online learning, the literature was systematically reviewed in the related databases (Web of Science, ERIC, and SCOPUS) by referring to the keywords. Within this scope, 225 articles were accessed, and the studies were included in the coding key list formed by the researcher. The name of the researchers, the year, the database (Web of Science, ERIC, and SCOPUS), the sample group and size, the lectures that the academic achievement was tested in, the country that the study was conducted in, and the class levels were all included in this coding key.

The following criteria were identified to include 225 research studies which were coded based on the theoretical basis of the meta-analysis study: (1) The studies should be published in the refereed journals between the years 2020 and 2021, (2) The studies should be experimental studies that try to determine the effect of online education and online learning on academic achievement, (3) The values of the stated variables or the required statistics to calculate these values should be stated in the results of the studies, and (4) The sample group of the study should be at a primary education level. These criteria were also used as the exclusion criteria in the sense that the studies that do not meet the required criteria were not included in the present study.

After the inclusion criteria were determined, a systematic review process was conducted, following the year criterion of the study by means of EBSCO. Within this scope, 290,365 studies that analyze the effect of online education and online learning on academic achievement were accordingly accessed. The database (Web of Science, ERIC, and SCOPUS) was also used as a filter by analyzing the inclusion criteria. Hence, the number of the studies that were analyzed was 58,616. Afterwards, the keyword ‘primary education’ was used as the filter and the number of studies included in the study decreased to 3152. Lastly, the literature was reviewed by using the keyword ‘academic achievement’ and 225 studies were accessed. All the information of 225 articles was included in the coding key.

It is necessary for the coders to review the related studies accurately and control the validity, safety, and accuracy of the studies (Stewart & Kamins, 2001 ). Within this scope, the studies that were determined based on the variables used in this study were first reviewed by three researchers from primary education field, then the accessed studies were combined and processed in the coding key by the researcher. All these studies that were processed in the coding key were analyzed in accordance with the inclusion criteria by all the researchers in the meetings, and it was decided that 27 studies met the inclusion criteria (Atici & Polat, 2010 ; Carreon, 2018 ; Ceylan & Elitok Kesici, 2017 ; Chae & Shin, 2016 ; Chiang et al. 2014 ; Ercan, 2014 ; Ercan et al., 2016 ; Gwo-Jen et al., 2018 ; Hayes & Stewart, 2016 ; Hwang et al., 2012 ; Kert et al., 2017 ; Lai & Chen, 2010 ; Lai et al., 2015 ; Meyers et al., 2015 ; Ravenel et al., 2014 ; Sung et al., 2016 ; Wang & Chen, 2013 ; Yu, 2019 ; Yu & Chen, 2014 ; Yu & Pan, 2014 ; Yu et al., 2010 ; Zhong et al., 2017 ). The data from the studies meeting the inclusion criteria were independently processed in the second coding key by three researchers, and consensus meetings were arranged for further discussion. After the meetings, researchers came to an agreement that the data were coded accurately and precisely. Having identified the effect sizes and heterogeneity of the study, moderator variables that will show the differences between the effect sizes were determined. The data related to the determined moderator variables were added to the coding key by three researchers, and a new consensus meeting was arranged. After the meeting, researchers came to an agreement that moderator variables were coded accurately and precisely.

2.2 Study group

27 studies are included in the meta-analysis. The total sample size of the studies that are included in the analysis is 1772. The characteristics of the studies included are given in Table 1 .

2.3 Publication bias

Publication bias is the low capability of published studies on a research subject to represent all completed studies on the same subject (Card, 2011 ; Littell et al., 2008 ). Similarly, publication bias is the state of having a relationship between the probability of the publication of a study on a subject, and the effect size and significance that it produces. Within this scope, publication bias may occur when the researchers do not want to publish the study as a result of failing to obtain the expected results, or not being approved by the scientific journals, and consequently not being included in the study synthesis (Makowski et al., 2019 ). The high possibility of publication bias in a meta-analysis study negatively affects (Pecoraro, 2018 ) the accuracy of the combined effect size, causing the average effect size to be reported differently than it should be (Borenstein et al., 2009 ). For this reason, the possibility of publication bias in the included studies was tested before determining the effect sizes of the relationships between the stated variables. The possibility of publication bias of this meta-analysis study was analyzed by using the funnel plot, Orwin’s Safe N Analysis, Duval and Tweedie’s Trip and Fill Analysis, and Egger’s Regression Test.

2.4 Selecting the model

After determining the probability of publication bias of this meta-analysis study, the statistical model used to calculate the effect sizes was selected. The main approaches used in the effect size calculations according to the differentiation level of inter-study variance are fixed and random effects models (Pigott, 2012 ). Fixed effects model refers to the homogeneity of the characteristics of combined studies apart from the sample sizes, while random effects model refers to the parameter diversity between the studies (Cumming, 2012 ). While calculating the average effect size in the random effects model (Deeks et al., 2008 ) that is based on the assumption that effect predictions of different studies are only the result of a similar distribution, it is necessary to consider several situations such as the effect size apart from the sample error of combined studies, characteristics of the participants, duration, scope, and pattern of the study (Littell et al., 2008 ). While deciding the model in the meta-analysis study, the assumptions on the sample characteristics of the studies included in the analysis and the inferences that the researcher aims to make should be taken into consideration. The fact that the sample characteristics of the studies conducted in the field of social sciences are affected by various parameters shows that using random effects model is more appropriate in this sense. Besides, it is stated that the inferences made with the random effects model are beyond the studies included in the meta-analysis (Field, 2003 ; Field & Gillett, 2010 ). Therefore, using random effects model also contributes to the generalization of research data. The specified criteria for the statistical model selection show that according to the nature of the meta-analysis study, the model should be selected just before the analysis (Borenstein et al., 2007 ; Littell et al., 2008 ). Within this framework, it was decided to make use of the random effects model, considering that the students who are the samples of the studies included in the meta-analysis are from different countries and cultures, the sample characteristics of the studies differ, and the patterns and scopes of the studies vary as well.

2.5 Heterogeneity

Meta-analysis facilitates analyzing the research subject with different parameters by showing the level of diversity between the included studies. Within this frame, whether there is a heterogeneous distribution between the studies included in the study or not has been evaluated in the present study. The heterogeneity of the studies combined in this meta-analysis study has been determined through Q and I 2 tests. Q test evaluates the random distribution probability of the differences between the observed results (Deeks et al., 2008 ). Q value exceeding 2 value calculated according to the degree of freedom and significance, indicates the heterogeneity of the combined effect sizes (Card, 2011 ). I 2 test, which is the complementary of the Q test, shows the heterogeneity amount of the effect sizes (Cleophas & Zwinderman, 2017 ). I 2 value being higher than 75% is explained as high level of heterogeneity.

In case of encountering heterogeneity in the studies included in the meta-analysis, the reasons of heterogeneity can be analyzed by referring to the study characteristics. The study characteristics which may be related to the heterogeneity between the included studies can be interpreted through subgroup analysis or meta-regression analysis (Deeks et al., 2008 ). While determining the moderator variables, the sufficiency of the number of variables, the relationship between the moderators, and the condition to explain the differences between the results of the studies have all been considered in the present study. Within this scope, it was predicted in this meta-analysis study that the heterogeneity can be explained with the country, class level, and lecture moderator variables of the study in terms of the effect of online education, which has been highly used since the beginning of the pandemic, and it has an impact on the students’ academic achievement in different lectures. Some subgroups were evaluated and categorized together, considering that the number of effect sizes of the sub-dimensions of the specified variables is not sufficient to perform moderator analysis (e.g. the countries where the studies were conducted).

2.6 Interpreting the effect sizes

Effect size is a factor that shows how much the independent variable affects the dependent variable positively or negatively in each included study in the meta-analysis (Dinçer, 2014 ). While interpreting the effect sizes obtained from the meta-analysis, the classifications of Cohen et al. ( 2007 ) have been utilized. The case of differentiating the specified relationships of the situation of the country, class level, and school subject variables of the study has been identified through the Q test, degree of freedom, and p significance value Fig.  1 and 2 .

3 Findings and results

The purpose of this study is to determine the effect size of online education on academic achievement. Before determining the effect sizes in the study, the probability of publication bias of this meta-analysis study was analyzed by using the funnel plot, Orwin’s Safe N Analysis, Duval and Tweedie’s Trip and Fill Analysis, and Egger’s Regression Test.

When the funnel plots are examined, it is seen that the studies included in the analysis are distributed symmetrically on both sides of the combined effect size axis, and they are generally collected in the middle and lower sections. The probability of publication bias is low according to the plots. However, since the results of the funnel scatter plots may cause subjective interpretations, they have been supported by additional analyses (Littell et al., 2008 ). Therefore, in order to provide an extra proof for the probability of publication bias, it has been analyzed through Orwin’s Safe N Analysis, Duval and Tweedie’s Trip and Fill Analysis, and Egger’s Regression Test (Table 2 ).

Table 2 consists of the results of the rates of publication bias probability before counting the effect size of online education on academic achievement. According to the table, Orwin Safe N analysis results show that it is not necessary to add new studies to the meta-analysis in order for Hedges g to reach a value outside the range of ± 0.01. The Duval and Tweedie test shows that excluding the studies that negatively affect the symmetry of the funnel scatter plots for each meta-analysis or adding their exact symmetrical equivalents does not significantly differentiate the calculated effect size. The insignificance of the Egger tests results reveals that there is no publication bias in the meta-analysis study. The results of the analysis indicate the high internal validity of the effect sizes and the adequacy of representing the studies conducted on the relevant subject.

In this study, it was aimed to determine the effect size of online education on academic achievement after testing the publication bias. In line with the first purpose of the study, the forest graph regarding the effect size of online education on academic achievement is shown in Fig.  3 , and the statistics regarding the effect size are given in Table 3 .

figure 1

The flow chart of the scanning and selection process of the studies

figure 2

Funnel plot graphics representing the effect size of the effects of online education on academic success

figure 3

Forest graph related to the effect size of online education on academic success

The square symbols in the forest graph in Fig.  3 represent the effect sizes, while the horizontal lines show the intervals in 95% confidence of the effect sizes, and the diamond symbol shows the overall effect size. When the forest graph is analyzed, it is seen that the lower and upper limits of the combined effect sizes are generally close to each other, and the study loads are similar. This similarity in terms of study loads indicates the similarity of the contribution of the combined studies to the overall effect size.

Figure  3 clearly represents that the study of Liu and others (Liu et al., 2018 ) has the lowest, and the study of Ercan and Bilen ( 2014 ) has the highest effect sizes. The forest graph shows that all the combined studies and the overall effect are positive. Furthermore, it is simply understood from the forest graph in Fig.  3 and the effect size statistics in Table 3 that the results of the meta-analysis study conducted with 27 studies and analyzing the effect of online education on academic achievement illustrate that this relationship is on average level (= 0.409).

After the analysis of the effect size in the study, whether the studies included in the analysis are distributed heterogeneously or not has also been analyzed. The heterogeneity of the combined studies was determined through the Q and I 2 tests. As a result of the heterogeneity test, Q statistical value was calculated as 29.576. With 26 degrees of freedom at 95% significance level in the chi-square table, the critical value is accepted as 38.885. The Q statistical value (29.576) counted in this study is lower than the critical value of 38.885. The I 2 value, which is the complementary of the Q statistics, is 12.100%. This value indicates that the accurate heterogeneity or the total variability that can be attributed to variability between the studies is 12%. Besides, p value is higher than (0.285) p = 0.05. All these values [Q (26) = 29.579, p = 0.285; I2 = 12.100] indicate that there is a homogeneous distribution between the effect sizes, and fixed effects model should be used to interpret these effect sizes. However, some researchers argue that even if the heterogeneity is low, it should be evaluated based on the random effects model (Borenstein et al., 2007 ). Therefore, this study gives information about both models. The heterogeneity of the combined studies has been attempted to be explained with the characteristics of the studies included in the analysis. In this context, the final purpose of the study is to determine the effect of the country, academic level, and year variables on the findings. Accordingly, the statistics regarding the comparison of the stated relations according to the countries where the studies were conducted are given in Table 4 .

As seen in Table 4 , the effect of online education on academic achievement does not differ significantly according to the countries where the studies were conducted in. Q test results indicate the heterogeneity of the relationships between the variables in terms of countries where the studies were conducted in. According to the table, the effect of online education on academic achievement was reported as the highest in other countries, and the lowest in the US. The statistics regarding the comparison of the stated relations according to the class levels are given in Table 5 .

As seen in Table 5 , the effect of online education on academic achievement does not differ according to the class level. However, the effect of online education on academic achievement is the highest in the 4 th class. The statistics regarding the comparison of the stated relations according to the class levels are given in Table 6 .

As seen in Table 6 , the effect of online education on academic achievement does not differ according to the school subjects included in the studies. However, the effect of online education on academic achievement is the highest in ICT subject.

The obtained effect size in the study was formed as a result of the findings attained from primary studies conducted in 7 different countries. In addition, these studies are the ones on different approaches to online education (online learning environments, social networks, blended learning, etc.). In this respect, the results may raise some questions about the validity and generalizability of the results of the study. However, the moderator analyzes, whether for the country variable or for the approaches covered by online education, did not create significant differences in terms of the effect sizes. If significant differences were to occur in terms of effect sizes, we could say that the comparisons we will make by comparing countries under the umbrella of online education would raise doubts in terms of generalizability. Moreover, no study has been found in the literature that is not based on a special approach or does not contain a specific technique conducted under the name of online education alone. For instance, one of the commonly used definitions is blended education which is defined as an educational model in which online education is combined with traditional education method (Colis & Moonen, 2001 ). Similarly, Rasmussen ( 2003 ) defines blended learning as “a distance education method that combines technology (high technology such as television, internet, or low technology such as voice e-mail, conferences) with traditional education and training.” Further, Kerres and Witt (2003) define blended learning as “combining face-to-face learning with technology-assisted learning.” As it is clearly observed, online education, which has a wider scope, includes many approaches.

As seen in Table 7 , the effect of online education on academic achievement does not differ according to online education approaches included in the studies. However, the effect of online education on academic achievement is the highest in Web Based Problem Solving Approach.

4 Conclusions and discussion

Considering the developments during the pandemics, it is thought that the diversity in online education applications as an interdisciplinary pragmatist field will increase, and the learning content and processes will be enriched with the integration of new technologies into online education processes. Another prediction is that more flexible and accessible learning opportunities will be created in online education processes, and in this way, lifelong learning processes will be strengthened. As a result, it is predicted that in the near future, online education and even digital learning with a newer name will turn into the main ground of education instead of being an alternative or having a support function in face-to-face learning. The lessons learned from the early period online learning experience, which was passed with rapid adaptation due to the Covid19 epidemic, will serve to develop this method all over the world, and in the near future, online learning will become the main learning structure through increasing its functionality with the contribution of new technologies and systems. If we look at it from this point of view, there is a necessity to strengthen online education.

In this study, the effect of online learning on academic achievement is at a moderate level. To increase this effect, the implementation of online learning requires support from teachers to prepare learning materials, to design learning appropriately, and to utilize various digital-based media such as websites, software technology and various other tools to support the effectiveness of online learning (Rolisca & Achadiyah, 2014 ). According to research conducted by Rahayu et al. ( 2017 ), it has been proven that the use of various types of software increases the effectiveness and quality of online learning. Implementation of online learning can affect students' ability to adapt to technological developments in that it makes students use various learning resources on the internet to access various types of information, and enables them to get used to performing inquiry learning and active learning (Hart et al., 2019 ; Prestiadi et al., 2019 ). In addition, there may be many reasons for the low level of effect in this study. The moderator variables examined in this study could be a guide in increasing the level of practical effect. However, the effect size did not differ significantly for all moderator variables. Different moderator analyzes can be evaluated in order to increase the level of impact of online education on academic success. If confounding variables that significantly change the effect level are detected, it can be spoken more precisely in order to increase this level. In addition to the technical and financial problems, the level of impact will increase if a few other difficulties are eliminated such as students, lack of interaction with the instructor, response time, and lack of traditional classroom socialization.

In addition, COVID-19 pandemic related social distancing has posed extreme difficulties for all stakeholders to get online as they have to work in time constraints and resource constraints. Adopting the online learning environment is not just a technical issue, it is a pedagogical and instructive challenge as well. Therefore, extensive preparation of teaching materials, curriculum, and assessment is vital in online education. Technology is the delivery tool and requires close cross-collaboration between teaching, content and technology teams (CoSN, 2020 ).

Online education applications have been used for many years. However, it has come to the fore more during the pandemic process. This result of necessity has brought with it the discussion of using online education instead of traditional education methods in the future. However, with this research, it has been revealed that online education applications are moderately effective. The use of online education instead of face-to-face education applications can only be possible with an increase in the level of success. This may have been possible with the experience and knowledge gained during the pandemic process. Therefore, the meta-analysis of experimental studies conducted in the coming years will guide us. In this context, experimental studies using online education applications should be analyzed well. It would be useful to identify variables that can change the level of impacts with different moderators. Moderator analyzes are valuable in meta-analysis studies (for example, the role of moderators in Karl Pearson's typhoid vaccine studies). In this context, each analysis study sheds light on future studies. In meta-analyses to be made about online education, it would be beneficial to go beyond the moderators determined in this study. Thus, the contribution of similar studies to the field will increase more.

The purpose of this study is to determine the effect of online education on academic achievement. In line with this purpose, the studies that analyze the effect of online education approaches on academic achievement have been included in the meta-analysis. The total sample size of the studies included in the meta-analysis is 1772. While the studies included in the meta-analysis were conducted in the US, Taiwan, Turkey, China, Philippines, Ireland, and Georgia, the studies carried out in Europe could not be reached. The reason may be attributed to that there may be more use of quantitative research methods from a positivist perspective in the countries with an American academic tradition. As a result of the study, it was found out that the effect size of online education on academic achievement (g = 0.409) was moderate. In the studies included in the present research, we found that online education approaches were more effective than traditional ones. However, contrary to the present study, the analysis of comparisons between online and traditional education in some studies shows that face-to-face traditional learning is still considered effective compared to online learning (Ahmad et al., 2016 ; Hamdani & Priatna, 2020 ; Wei & Chou, 2020 ). Online education has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of online learning compared to face-to-face learning in the classroom is the flexibility of learning time in online learning, the learning time does not include a single program, and it can be shaped according to circumstances (Lai et al., 2019 ). The next advantage is the ease of collecting assignments for students, as these can be done without having to talk to the teacher. Despite this, online education has several weaknesses, such as students having difficulty in understanding the material, teachers' inability to control students, and students’ still having difficulty interacting with teachers in case of internet network cuts (Swan, 2007 ). According to Astuti et al ( 2019 ), face-to-face education method is still considered better by students than e-learning because it is easier to understand the material and easier to interact with teachers. The results of the study illustrated that the effect size (g = 0.409) of online education on academic achievement is of medium level. Therefore, the results of the moderator analysis showed that the effect of online education on academic achievement does not differ in terms of country, lecture, class level, and online education approaches variables. After analyzing the literature, several meta-analyses on online education were published (Bernard et al., 2004 ; Machtmes & Asher, 2000 ; Zhao et al., 2005 ). Typically, these meta-analyzes also include the studies of older generation technologies such as audio, video, or satellite transmission. One of the most comprehensive studies on online education was conducted by Bernard et al. ( 2004 ). In this study, 699 independent effect sizes of 232 studies published from 1985 to 2001 were analyzed, and face-to-face education was compared to online education, with respect to success criteria and attitudes of various learners from young children to adults. In this meta-analysis, an overall effect size close to zero was found for the students' achievement (g +  = 0.01).

In another meta-analysis study carried out by Zhao et al. ( 2005 ), 98 effect sizes were examined, including 51 studies on online education conducted between 1996 and 2002. According to the study of Bernard et al. ( 2004 ), this meta-analysis focuses on the activities done in online education lectures. As a result of the research, an overall effect size close to zero was found for online education utilizing more than one generation technology for students at different levels. However, the salient point of the meta-analysis study of Zhao et al. is that it takes the average of different types of results used in a study to calculate an overall effect size. This practice is problematic because the factors that develop one type of learner outcome (e.g. learner rehabilitation), particularly course characteristics and practices, may be quite different from those that develop another type of outcome (e.g. learner's achievement), and it may even cause damage to the latter outcome. While mixing the studies with different types of results, this implementation may obscure the relationship between practices and learning.

Some meta-analytical studies have focused on the effectiveness of the new generation distance learning courses accessed through the internet for specific student populations. For instance, Sitzmann and others (Sitzmann et al., 2006 ) reviewed 96 studies published from 1996 to 2005, comparing web-based education of job-related knowledge or skills with face-to-face one. The researchers found that web-based education in general was slightly more effective than face-to-face education, but it is insufficient in terms of applicability ("knowing how to apply"). In addition, Sitzmann et al. ( 2006 ) revealed that Internet-based education has a positive effect on theoretical knowledge in quasi-experimental studies; however, it positively affects face-to-face education in experimental studies performed by random assignment. This moderator analysis emphasizes the need to pay attention to the factors of designs of the studies included in the meta-analysis. The designs of the studies included in this meta-analysis study were ignored. This can be presented as a suggestion to the new studies that will be conducted.

Another meta-analysis study was conducted by Cavanaugh et al. ( 2004 ), in which they focused on online education. In this study on internet-based distance education programs for students under 12 years of age, the researchers combined 116 results from 14 studies published between 1999 and 2004 to calculate an overall effect that was not statistically different from zero. The moderator analysis carried out in this study showed that there was no significant factor affecting the students' success. This meta-analysis used multiple results of the same study, ignoring the fact that different results of the same student would not be independent from each other.

In conclusion, some meta-analytical studies analyzed the consequences of online education for a wide range of students (Bernard et al., 2004 ; Zhao et al., 2005 ), and the effect sizes were generally low in these studies. Furthermore, none of the large-scale meta-analyzes considered the moderators, database quality standards or class levels in the selection of the studies, while some of them just referred to the country and lecture moderators. Advances in internet-based learning tools, the pandemic process, and increasing popularity in different learning contexts have required a precise meta-analysis of students' learning outcomes through online learning. Previous meta-analysis studies were typically based on the studies, involving narrow range of confounding variables. In the present study, common but significant moderators such as class level and lectures during the pandemic process were discussed. For instance, the problems have been experienced especially in terms of eligibility of class levels in online education platforms during the pandemic process. It was found that there is a need to study and make suggestions on whether online education can meet the needs of teachers and students.

Besides, the main forms of online education in the past were to watch the open lectures of famous universities and educational videos of institutions. In addition, online education is mainly a classroom-based teaching implemented by teachers in their own schools during the pandemic period, which is an extension of the original school education. This meta-analysis study will stand as a source to compare the effect size of the online education forms of the past decade with what is done today, and what will be done in the future.

Lastly, the heterogeneity test results of the meta-analysis study display that the effect size does not differ in terms of class level, country, online education approaches, and lecture moderators.

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Ulum, H. The effects of online education on academic success: A meta-analysis study. Educ Inf Technol 27 , 429–450 (2022).

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A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018

Associated data.

Systematic reviews were conducted in the nineties and early 2000's on online learning research. However, there is no review examining the broader aspect of research themes in online learning in the last decade. This systematic review addresses this gap by examining 619 research articles on online learning published in twelve journals in the last decade. These studies were examined for publication trends and patterns, research themes, research methods, and research settings and compared with the research themes from the previous decades. While there has been a slight decrease in the number of studies on online learning in 2015 and 2016, it has then continued to increase in 2017 and 2018. The majority of the studies were quantitative in nature and were examined in higher education. Online learning research was categorized into twelve themes and a framework across learner, course and instructor, and organizational levels was developed. Online learner characteristics and online engagement were examined in a high number of studies and were consistent with three of the prior systematic reviews. However, there is still a need for more research on organization level topics such as leadership, policy, and management and access, culture, equity, inclusion, and ethics and also on online instructor characteristics.

  • • Twelve online learning research themes were identified in 2009–2018.
  • • A framework with learner, course and instructor, and organizational levels was used.
  • • Online learner characteristics and engagement were the mostly examined themes.
  • • The majority of the studies used quantitative research methods and in higher education.
  • • There is a need for more research on organization level topics.

1. Introduction

Online learning has been on the increase in the last two decades. In the United States, though higher education enrollment has declined, online learning enrollment in public institutions has continued to increase ( Allen & Seaman, 2017 ), and so has the research on online learning. There have been review studies conducted on specific areas on online learning such as innovations in online learning strategies ( Davis et al., 2018 ), empirical MOOC literature ( Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013 ; Veletsianos & Shepherdson, 2016 ; Zhu et al., 2018 ), quality in online education ( Esfijani, 2018 ), accessibility in online higher education ( Lee, 2017 ), synchronous online learning ( Martin et al., 2017 ), K-12 preparation for online teaching ( Moore-Adams et al., 2016 ), polychronicity in online learning ( Capdeferro et al., 2014 ), meaningful learning research in elearning and online learning environments ( Tsai, Shen, & Chiang, 2013 ), problem-based learning in elearning and online learning environments ( Tsai & Chiang, 2013 ), asynchronous online discussions ( Thomas, 2013 ), self-regulated learning in online learning environments ( Tsai, Shen, & Fan, 2013 ), game-based learning in online learning environments ( Tsai & Fan, 2013 ), and online course dropout ( Lee & Choi, 2011 ). While there have been review studies conducted on specific online learning topics, very few studies have been conducted on the broader aspect of online learning examining research themes.

2. Systematic Reviews of Distance Education and Online Learning Research

Distance education has evolved from offline to online settings with the access to internet and COVID-19 has made online learning the common delivery method across the world. Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) reviewed research late 1990's to early 2000's, Berge and Mrozowski (2001) reviewed research 1990 to 1999, and Zawacki-Richter et al. (2009) reviewed research in 2000–2008 on distance education and online learning. Table 1 shows the research themes from previous systematic reviews on online learning research. There are some themes that re-occur in the various reviews, and there are also new themes that emerge. Though there have been reviews conducted in the nineties and early 2000's, there is no review examining the broader aspect of research themes in online learning in the last decade. Hence, the need for this systematic review which informs the research themes in online learning from 2009 to 2018. In the following sections, we review these systematic review studies in detail.

Comparison of online learning research themes from previous studies.

2.1. Distance education research themes, 1990 to 1999 ( Berge & Mrozowski, 2001 )

Berge and Mrozowski (2001) reviewed 890 research articles and dissertation abstracts on distance education from 1990 to 1999. The four distance education journals chosen by the authors to represent distance education included, American Journal of Distance Education, Distance Education, Open Learning, and the Journal of Distance Education. This review overlapped in the dates of the Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) study. Berge and Mrozowski (2001) categorized the articles according to Sherry's (1996) ten themes of research issues in distance education: redefining roles of instructor and students, technologies used, issues of design, strategies to stimulate learning, learner characteristics and support, issues related to operating and policies and administration, access and equity, and costs and benefits.

In the Berge and Mrozowski (2001) study, more than 100 studies focused on each of the three themes: (1) design issues, (2) learner characteristics, and (3) strategies to increase interactivity and active learning. By design issues, the authors focused on instructional systems design and focused on topics such as content requirement, technical constraints, interactivity, and feedback. The next theme, strategies to increase interactivity and active learning, were closely related to design issues and focused on students’ modes of learning. Learner characteristics focused on accommodating various learning styles through customized instructional theory. Less than 50 studies focused on the three least examined themes: (1) cost-benefit tradeoffs, (2) equity and accessibility, and (3) learner support. Cost-benefit trade-offs focused on the implementation costs of distance education based on school characteristics. Equity and accessibility focused on the equity of access to distance education systems. Learner support included topics such as teacher to teacher support as well as teacher to student support.

2.2. Online learning research themes, 1993 to 2004 ( Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006 )

Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) reviewed research on online instruction from 1993 to 2004. They reviewed 76 articles focused on online learning by searching five databases, ERIC, PsycINFO, ContentFirst, Education Abstracts, and WilsonSelect. Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) categorized research into four themes, (1) course environment, (2) learners' outcomes, (3) learners’ characteristics, and (4) institutional and administrative factors. The first theme that the authors describe as course environment ( n  = 41, 53.9%) is an overarching theme that includes classroom culture, structural assistance, success factors, online interaction, and evaluation.

Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) for their second theme found that studies focused on questions involving the process of teaching and learning and methods to explore cognitive and affective learner outcomes ( n  = 29, 38.2%). The authors stated that they found the research designs flawed and lacked rigor. However, the literature comparing traditional and online classrooms found both delivery systems to be adequate. Another research theme focused on learners’ characteristics ( n  = 12, 15.8%) and the synergy of learners, design of the online course, and system of delivery. Research findings revealed that online learners were mainly non-traditional, Caucasian, had different learning styles, and were highly motivated to learn. The final theme that they reported was institutional and administrative factors (n  = 13, 17.1%) on online learning. Their findings revealed that there was a lack of scholarly research in this area and most institutions did not have formal policies in place for course development as well as faculty and student support in training and evaluation. Their research confirmed that when universities offered online courses, it improved student enrollment numbers.

2.3. Distance education research themes 2000 to 2008 ( Zawacki-Richter et al., 2009 )

Zawacki-Richter et al. (2009) reviewed 695 articles on distance education from 2000 to 2008 using the Delphi method for consensus in identifying areas and classified the literature from five prominent journals. The five journals selected due to their wide scope in research in distance education included Open Learning, Distance Education, American Journal of Distance Education, the Journal of Distance Education, and the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. The reviewers examined the main focus of research and identified gaps in distance education research in this review.

Zawacki-Richter et al. (2009) classified the studies into macro, meso and micro levels focusing on 15 areas of research. The five areas of the macro-level addressed: (1) access, equity and ethics to deliver distance education for developing nations and the role of various technologies to narrow the digital divide, (2) teaching and learning drivers, markets, and professional development in the global context, (3) distance delivery systems and institutional partnerships and programs and impact of hybrid modes of delivery, (4) theoretical frameworks and models for instruction, knowledge building, and learner interactions in distance education practice, and (5) the types of preferred research methodologies. The meso-level focused on seven areas that involve: (1) management and organization for sustaining distance education programs, (2) examining financial aspects of developing and implementing online programs, (3) the challenges and benefits of new technologies for teaching and learning, (4) incentives to innovate, (5) professional development and support for faculty, (6) learner support services, and (7) issues involving quality standards and the impact on student enrollment and retention. The micro-level focused on three areas: (1) instructional design and pedagogical approaches, (2) culturally appropriate materials, interaction, communication, and collaboration among a community of learners, and (3) focus on characteristics of adult learners, socio-economic backgrounds, learning preferences, and dispositions.

The top three research themes in this review by Zawacki-Richter et al. (2009) were interaction and communities of learning ( n  = 122, 17.6%), instructional design ( n  = 121, 17.4%) and learner characteristics ( n  = 113, 16.3%). The lowest number of studies (less than 3%) were found in studies examining the following research themes, management and organization ( n  = 18), research methods in DE and knowledge transfer ( n  = 13), globalization of education and cross-cultural aspects ( n  = 13), innovation and change ( n  = 13), and costs and benefits ( n  = 12).

2.4. Online learning research themes

These three systematic reviews provide a broad understanding of distance education and online learning research themes from 1990 to 2008. However, there is an increase in the number of research studies on online learning in this decade and there is a need to identify recent research themes examined. Based on the previous systematic reviews ( Berge & Mrozowski, 2001 ; Hung, 2012 ; Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006 ; Zawacki-Richter et al., 2009 ), online learning research in this study is grouped into twelve different research themes which include Learner characteristics, Instructor characteristics, Course or program design and development, Course Facilitation, Engagement, Course Assessment, Course Technologies, Access, Culture, Equity, Inclusion, and Ethics, Leadership, Policy and Management, Instructor and Learner Support, and Learner Outcomes. Table 2 below describes each of the research themes and using these themes, a framework is derived in Fig. 1 .

Research themes in online learning.

Fig. 1

Online learning research themes framework.

The collection of research themes is presented as a framework in Fig. 1 . The themes are organized by domain or level to underscore the nested relationship that exists. As evidenced by the assortment of themes, research can focus on any domain of delivery or associated context. The “Learner” domain captures characteristics and outcomes related to learners and their interaction within the courses. The “Course and Instructor” domain captures elements about the broader design of the course and facilitation by the instructor, and the “Organizational” domain acknowledges the contextual influences on the course. It is important to note as well that due to the nesting, research themes can cross domains. For example, the broader cultural context may be studied as it pertains to course design and development, and institutional support can include both learner support and instructor support. Likewise, engagement research can involve instructors as well as learners.

In this introduction section, we have reviewed three systematic reviews on online learning research ( Berge & Mrozowski, 2001 ; Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006 ; Zawacki-Richter et al., 2009 ). Based on these reviews and other research, we have derived twelve themes to develop an online learning research framework which is nested in three levels: learner, course and instructor, and organization.

2.5. Purpose of this research

In two out of the three previous reviews, design, learner characteristics and interaction were examined in the highest number of studies. On the other hand, cost-benefit tradeoffs, equity and accessibility, institutional and administrative factors, and globalization and cross-cultural aspects were examined in the least number of studies. One explanation for this may be that it is a function of nesting, noting that studies falling in the Organizational and Course levels may encompass several courses or many more participants within courses. However, while some research themes re-occur, there are also variations in some themes across time, suggesting the importance of research themes rise and fall over time. Thus, a critical examination of the trends in themes is helpful for understanding where research is needed most. Also, since there is no recent study examining online learning research themes in the last decade, this study strives to address that gap by focusing on recent research themes found in the literature, and also reviewing research methods and settings. Notably, one goal is to also compare findings from this decade to the previous review studies. Overall, the purpose of this study is to examine publication trends in online learning research taking place during the last ten years and compare it with the previous themes identified in other review studies. Due to the continued growth of online learning research into new contexts and among new researchers, we also examine the research methods and settings found in the studies of this review.

The following research questions are addressed in this study.

  • 1. What percentage of the population of articles published in the journals reviewed from 2009 to 2018 were related to online learning and empirical?
  • 2. What is the frequency of online learning research themes in the empirical online learning articles of journals reviewed from 2009 to 2018?
  • 3. What is the frequency of research methods and settings that researchers employed in the empirical online learning articles of the journals reviewed from 2009 to 2018?

This five-step systematic review process described in the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse Procedures and Standards Handbook, Version 4.0 ( 2017 ) was used in this systematic review: (a) developing the review protocol, (b) identifying relevant literature, (c) screening studies, (d) reviewing articles, and (e) reporting findings.

3.1. Data sources and search strategies

The Education Research Complete database was searched using the keywords below for published articles between the years 2009 and 2018 using both the Title and Keyword function for the following search terms.

“online learning" OR "online teaching" OR "online program" OR "online course" OR “online education”

3.2. Inclusion/exclusion criteria

The initial search of online learning research among journals in the database resulted in more than 3000 possible articles. Therefore, we limited our search to select journals that focus on publishing peer-reviewed online learning and educational research. Our aim was to capture the journals that published the most articles in online learning. However, we also wanted to incorporate the concept of rigor, so we used expert perception to identify 12 peer-reviewed journals that publish high-quality online learning research. Dissertations and conference proceedings were excluded. To be included in this systematic review, each study had to meet the screening criteria as described in Table 3 . A research study was excluded if it did not meet all of the criteria to be included.

Inclusion/Exclusion criteria.

3.3. Process flow selection of articles

Fig. 2 shows the process flow involved in the selection of articles. The search in the database Education Research Complete yielded an initial sample of 3332 articles. Targeting the 12 journals removed 2579 articles. After reviewing the abstracts, we removed 134 articles based on the inclusion/exclusion criteria. The final sample, consisting of 619 articles, was entered into the computer software MAXQDA ( VERBI Software, 2019 ) for coding.

Fig. 2

Flowchart of online learning research selection.

3.4. Developing review protocol

A review protocol was designed as a codebook in MAXQDA ( VERBI Software, 2019 ) by the three researchers. The codebook was developed based on findings from the previous review studies and from the initial screening of the articles in this review. The codebook included 12 research themes listed earlier in Table 2 (Learner characteristics, Instructor characteristics, Course or program design and development, Course Facilitation, Engagement, Course Assessment, Course Technologies, Access, Culture, Equity, Inclusion, and Ethics, Leadership, Policy and Management, Instructor and Learner Support, and Learner Outcomes), four research settings (higher education, continuing education, K-12, corporate/military), and three research designs (quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods). Fig. 3 below is a screenshot of MAXQDA used for the coding process.

Fig. 3

Codebook from MAXQDA.

3.5. Data coding

Research articles were coded by two researchers in MAXQDA. Two researchers independently coded 10% of the articles and then discussed and updated the coding framework. The second author who was a doctoral student coded the remaining studies. The researchers met bi-weekly to address coding questions that emerged. After the first phase of coding, we found that more than 100 studies fell into each of the categories of Learner Characteristics or Engagement, so we decided to pursue a second phase of coding and reexamine the two themes. Learner Characteristics were classified into the subthemes of Academic, Affective, Motivational, Self-regulation, Cognitive, and Demographic Characteristics. Engagement was classified into the subthemes of Collaborating, Communication, Community, Involvement, Interaction, Participation, and Presence.

3.6. Data analysis

Frequency tables were generated for each of the variables so that outliers could be examined and narrative data could be collapsed into categories. Once cleaned and collapsed into a reasonable number of categories, descriptive statistics were used to describe each of the coded elements. We first present the frequencies of publications related to online learning in the 12 journals. The total number of articles for each journal (collectively, the population) was hand-counted from journal websites, excluding editorials and book reviews. The publication trend of online learning research was also depicted from 2009 to 2018. Then, the descriptive information of the 12 themes, including the subthemes of Learner Characteristics and Engagement were provided. Finally, research themes by research settings and methodology were elaborated.

4.1. Publication trends on online learning

Publication patterns of the 619 articles reviewed from the 12 journals are presented in Table 4 . International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning had the highest number of publications in this review. Overall, about 8% of the articles appearing in these twelve journals consisted of online learning publications; however, several journals had concentrations of online learning articles totaling more than 20%.

Empirical online learning research articles by journal, 2009–2018.

Note . Journal's Total Article count excludes reviews and editorials.

The publication trend of online learning research is depicted in Fig. 4 . When disaggregated by year, the total frequency of publications shows an increasing trend. Online learning articles increased throughout the decade and hit a relative maximum in 2014. The greatest number of online learning articles ( n  = 86) occurred most recently, in 2018.

Fig. 4

Online learning publication trends by year.

4.2. Online learning research themes that appeared in the selected articles

The publications were categorized into the twelve research themes identified in Fig. 1 . The frequency counts and percentages of the research themes are provided in Table 5 below. A majority of the research is categorized into the Learner domain. The fewest number of articles appears in the Organization domain.

Research themes in the online learning publications from 2009 to 2018.

The specific themes of Engagement ( n  = 179, 28.92%) and Learner Characteristics ( n  = 134, 21.65%) were most often examined in publications. These two themes were further coded to identify sub-themes, which are described in the next two sections. Publications focusing on Instructor Characteristics ( n  = 21, 3.39%) were least common in the dataset.

4.2.1. Research on engagement

The largest number of studies was on engagement in online learning, which in the online learning literature is referred to and examined through different terms. Hence, we explore this category in more detail. In this review, we categorized the articles into seven different sub-themes as examined through different lenses including presence, interaction, community, participation, collaboration, involvement, and communication. We use the term “involvement” as one of the terms since researchers sometimes broadly used the term engagement to describe their work without further description. Table 6 below provides the description, frequency, and percentages of the various studies related to engagement.

Research sub-themes on engagement.

In the sections below, we provide several examples of the different engagement sub-themes that were studied within the larger engagement theme.

Presence. This sub-theme was the most researched in engagement. With the development of the community of inquiry framework most of the studies in this subtheme examined social presence ( Akcaoglu & Lee, 2016 ; Phirangee & Malec, 2017 ; Wei et al., 2012 ), teaching presence ( Orcutt & Dringus, 2017 ; Preisman, 2014 ; Wisneski et al., 2015 ) and cognitive presence ( Archibald, 2010 ; Olesova et al., 2016 ).

Interaction . This was the second most studied theme under engagement. Researchers examined increasing interpersonal interactions ( Cung et al., 2018 ), learner-learner interactions ( Phirangee, 2016 ; Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012 ; Tawfik et al., 2018 ), peer-peer interaction ( Comer et al., 2014 ), learner-instructor interaction ( Kuo et al., 2014 ), learner-content interaction ( Zimmerman, 2012 ), interaction through peer mentoring ( Ruane & Koku, 2014 ), interaction and community building ( Thormann & Fidalgo, 2014 ), and interaction in discussions ( Ruane & Lee, 2016 ; Tibi, 2018 ).

Community. Researchers examined building community in online courses ( Berry, 2017 ), supporting a sense of community ( Jiang, 2017 ), building an online learning community of practice ( Cho, 2016 ), building an academic community ( Glazer & Wanstreet, 2011 ; Nye, 2015 ; Overbaugh & Nickel, 2011 ), and examining connectedness and rapport in an online community ( Bolliger & Inan, 2012 ; Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2012 ; Slagter van Tryon & Bishop, 2012 ).

Participation. Researchers examined engagement through participation in a number of studies. Some of the topics include, participation patterns in online discussion ( Marbouti & Wise, 2016 ; Wise et al., 2012 ), participation in MOOCs ( Ahn et al., 2013 ; Saadatmand & Kumpulainen, 2014 ), features that influence students’ online participation ( Rye & Støkken, 2012 ) and active participation.

Collaboration. Researchers examined engagement through collaborative learning. Specific studies focused on cross-cultural collaboration ( Kumi-Yeboah, 2018 ; Yang et al., 2014 ), how virtual teams collaborate ( Verstegen et al., 2018 ), types of collaboration teams ( Wicks et al., 2015 ), tools for collaboration ( Boling et al., 2014 ), and support for collaboration ( Kopp et al., 2012 ).

Involvement. Researchers examined engaging learners through involvement in various learning activities ( Cundell & Sheepy, 2018 ), student engagement through various measures ( Dixson, 2015 ), how instructors included engagement to involve students in learning ( O'Shea et al., 2015 ), different strategies to engage the learner ( Amador & Mederer, 2013 ), and designed emotionally engaging online environments ( Koseoglu & Doering, 2011 ).

Communication. Researchers examined communication in online learning in studies using social network analysis ( Ergün & Usluel, 2016 ), using informal communication tools such as Facebook for class discussion ( Kent, 2013 ), and using various modes of communication ( Cunningham et al., 2010 ; Rowe, 2016 ). Studies have also focused on both asynchronous and synchronous aspects of communication ( Swaggerty & Broemmel, 2017 ; Yamagata-Lynch, 2014 ).

4.2.2. Research on learner characteristics

The second largest theme was learner characteristics. In this review, we explore this further to identify several aspects of learner characteristics. In this review, we categorized the learner characteristics into self-regulation characteristics, motivational characteristics, academic characteristics, affective characteristics, cognitive characteristics, and demographic characteristics. Table 7 provides the number of studies and percentages examining the various learner characteristics.

Research sub-themes on learner characteristics.

Online learning has elements that are different from the traditional face-to-face classroom and so the characteristics of the online learners are also different. Yukselturk and Top (2013) categorized online learner profile into ten aspects: gender, age, work status, self-efficacy, online readiness, self-regulation, participation in discussion list, participation in chat sessions, satisfaction, and achievement. Their categorization shows that there are differences in online learner characteristics in these aspects when compared to learners in other settings. Some of the other aspects such as participation and achievement as discussed by Yukselturk and Top (2013) are discussed in different research themes in this study. The sections below provide examples of the learner characteristics sub-themes that were studied.

Self-regulation. Several researchers have examined self-regulation in online learning. They found that successful online learners are academically motivated ( Artino & Stephens, 2009 ), have academic self-efficacy ( Cho & Shen, 2013 ), have grit and intention to succeed ( Wang & Baker, 2018 ), have time management and elaboration strategies ( Broadbent, 2017 ), set goals and revisit course content ( Kizilcec et al., 2017 ), and persist ( Glazer & Murphy, 2015 ). Researchers found a positive relationship between learner's self-regulation and interaction ( Delen et al., 2014 ) and self-regulation and communication and collaboration ( Barnard et al., 2009 ).

Motivation. Researchers focused on motivation of online learners including different motivation levels of online learners ( Li & Tsai, 2017 ), what motivated online learners ( Chaiprasurt & Esichaikul, 2013 ), differences in motivation of online learners ( Hartnett et al., 2011 ), and motivation when compared to face to face learners ( Paechter & Maier, 2010 ). Harnett et al. (2011) found that online learner motivation was complex, multifaceted, and sensitive to situational conditions.

Academic. Several researchers have focused on academic aspects for online learner characteristics. Readiness for online learning has been examined as an academic factor by several researchers ( Buzdar et al., 2016 ; Dray et al., 2011 ; Wladis & Samuels, 2016 ; Yu, 2018 ) specifically focusing on creating and validating measures to examine online learner readiness including examining students emotional intelligence as a measure of student readiness for online learning. Researchers have also examined other academic factors such as academic standing ( Bradford & Wyatt, 2010 ), course level factors ( Wladis et al., 2014 ) and academic skills in online courses ( Shea & Bidjerano, 2014 ).

Affective. Anderson and Bourke (2013) describe affective characteristics through which learners express feelings or emotions. Several research studies focused on the affective characteristics of online learners. Learner satisfaction for online learning has been examined by several researchers ( Cole et al., 2014 ; Dziuban et al., 2015 ; Kuo et al., 2013 ; Lee, 2014a ) along with examining student emotions towards online assessment ( Kim et al., 2014 ).

Cognitive. Researchers have also examined cognitive aspects of learner characteristics including meta-cognitive skills, cognitive variables, higher-order thinking, cognitive density, and critical thinking ( Chen & Wu, 2012 ; Lee, 2014b ). Lee (2014b) examined the relationship between cognitive presence density and higher-order thinking skills. Chen and Wu (2012) examined the relationship between cognitive and motivational variables in an online system for secondary physical education.

Demographic. Researchers have examined various demographic factors in online learning. Several researchers have examined gender differences in online learning ( Bayeck et al., 2018 ; Lowes et al., 2016 ; Yukselturk & Bulut, 2009 ), ethnicity, age ( Ke & Kwak, 2013 ), and minority status ( Yeboah & Smith, 2016 ) of online learners.

4.2.3. Less frequently studied research themes

While engagement and learner characteristics were studied the most, other themes were less often studied in the literature and are presented here, according to size, with general descriptions of the types of research examined for each.

Evaluation and Quality Assurance. There were 38 studies (6.14%) published in the theme of evaluation and quality assurance. Some of the studies in this theme focused on course quality standards, using quality matters to evaluate quality, using the CIPP model for evaluation, online learning system evaluation, and course and program evaluations.

Course Technologies. There were 35 studies (5.65%) published in the course technologies theme. Some of the studies examined specific technologies such as Edmodo, YouTube, Web 2.0 tools, wikis, Twitter, WebCT, Screencasts, and Web conferencing systems in the online learning context.

Course Facilitation. There were 34 studies (5.49%) published in the course facilitation theme. Some of the studies in this theme examined facilitation strategies and methods, experiences of online facilitators, and online teaching methods.

Institutional Support. There were 33 studies (5.33%) published in the institutional support theme which included support for both the instructor and learner. Some of the studies on instructor support focused on training new online instructors, mentoring programs for faculty, professional development resources for faculty, online adjunct faculty training, and institutional support for online instructors. Studies on learner support focused on learning resources for online students, cognitive and social support for online learners, and help systems for online learner support.

Learner Outcome. There were 32 studies (5.17%) published in the learner outcome theme. Some of the studies that were examined in this theme focused on online learner enrollment, completion, learner dropout, retention, and learner success.

Course Assessment. There were 30 studies (4.85%) published in the course assessment theme. Some of the studies in the course assessment theme examined online exams, peer assessment and peer feedback, proctoring in online exams, and alternative assessments such as eportfolio.

Access, Culture, Equity, Inclusion, and Ethics. There were 29 studies (4.68%) published in the access, culture, equity, inclusion, and ethics theme. Some of the studies in this theme examined online learning across cultures, multi-cultural effectiveness, multi-access, and cultural diversity in online learning.

Leadership, Policy, and Management. There were 27 studies (4.36%) published in the leadership, policy, and management theme. Some of the studies on leadership, policy, and management focused on online learning leaders, stakeholders, strategies for online learning leadership, resource requirements, university policies for online course policies, governance, course ownership, and faculty incentives for online teaching.

Course Design and Development. There were 27 studies (4.36%) published in the course design and development theme. Some of the studies examined in this theme focused on design elements, design issues, design process, design competencies, design considerations, and instructional design in online courses.

Instructor Characteristics. There were 21 studies (3.39%) published in the instructor characteristics theme. Some of the studies in this theme were on motivation and experiences of online instructors, ability to perform online teaching duties, roles of online instructors, and adjunct versus full-time online instructors.

4.3. Research settings and methodology used in the studies

The research methods used in the studies were classified into quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods ( Harwell, 2012 , pp. 147–163). The research setting was categorized into higher education, continuing education, K-12, and corporate/military. As shown in Table A in the appendix, the vast majority of the publications used higher education as the research setting ( n  = 509, 67.6%). Table B in the appendix shows that approximately half of the studies adopted the quantitative method ( n  = 324, 43.03%), followed by the qualitative method ( n  = 200, 26.56%). Mixed methods account for the smallest portion ( n  = 95, 12.62%).

Table A shows that the patterns of the four research settings were approximately consistent across the 12 themes except for the theme of Leaner Outcome and Institutional Support. Continuing education had a higher relative frequency in Learner Outcome (0.28) and K-12 had a higher relative frequency in Institutional Support (0.33) compared to the frequencies they had in the total themes (0.09 and 0.08 respectively). Table B in the appendix shows that the distribution of the three methods were not consistent across the 12 themes. While quantitative studies and qualitative studies were roughly evenly distributed in Engagement, they had a large discrepancy in Learner Characteristics. There were 100 quantitative studies; however, only 18 qualitative studies published in the theme of Learner Characteristics.

In summary, around 8% of the articles published in the 12 journals focus on online learning. Online learning publications showed a tendency of increase on the whole in the past decade, albeit fluctuated, with the greatest number occurring in 2018. Among the 12 research themes related to online learning, the themes of Engagement and Learner Characteristics were studied the most and the theme of Instructor Characteristics was studied the least. Most studies were conducted in the higher education setting and approximately half of the studies used the quantitative method. Looking at the 12 themes by setting and method, we found that the patterns of the themes by setting or by method were not consistent across the 12 themes.

The quality of our findings was ensured by scientific and thorough searches and coding consistency. The selection of the 12 journals provides evidence of the representativeness and quality of primary studies. In the coding process, any difficulties and questions were resolved by consultations with the research team at bi-weekly meetings, which ensures the intra-rater and interrater reliability of coding. All these approaches guarantee the transparency and replicability of the process and the quality of our results.

5. Discussion

This review enabled us to identify the online learning research themes examined from 2009 to 2018. In the section below, we review the most studied research themes, engagement and learner characteristics along with implications, limitations, and directions for future research.

5.1. Most studied research themes

Three out of the four systematic reviews informing the design of the present study found that online learner characteristics and online engagement were examined in a high number of studies. In this review, about half of the studies reviewed (50.57%) focused on online learner characteristics or online engagement. This shows the continued importance of these two themes. In the Tallent-Runnels et al.’s (2006) study, the learner characteristics theme was identified as least studied for which they state that researchers are beginning to investigate learner characteristics in the early days of online learning.

One of the differences found in this review is that course design and development was examined in the least number of studies in this review compared to two prior systematic reviews ( Berge & Mrozowski, 2001 ; Zawacki-Richter et al., 2009 ). Zawacki-Richter et al. did not use a keyword search but reviewed all the articles in five different distance education journals. Berge and Mrozowski (2001) included a research theme called design issues to include all aspects of instructional systems design in distance education journals. In our study, in addition to course design and development, we also had focused themes on learner outcomes, course facilitation, course assessment and course evaluation. These are all instructional design focused topics and since we had multiple themes focusing on instructional design topics, the course design and development category might have resulted in fewer studies. There is still a need for more studies to focus on online course design and development.

5.2. Least frequently studied research themes

Three out of the four systematic reviews discussed in the opening of this study found management and organization factors to be least studied. In this review, Leadership, Policy, and Management was studied among 4.36% of the studies and Access, Culture, Equity, Inclusion, and Ethics was studied among 4.68% of the studies in the organizational level. The theme on Equity and accessibility was also found to be the least studied theme in the Berge and Mrozowski (2001) study. In addition, instructor characteristics was the least examined research theme among the twelve themes studied in this review. Only 3.39% of the studies were on instructor characteristics. While there were some studies examining instructor motivation and experiences, instructor ability to teach online, online instructor roles, and adjunct versus full-time online instructors, there is still a need to examine topics focused on instructors and online teaching. This theme was not included in the prior reviews as the focus was more on the learner and the course but not on the instructor. While it is helpful to see research evolving on instructor focused topics, there is still a need for more research on the online instructor.

5.3. Comparing research themes from current study to previous studies

The research themes from this review were compared with research themes from previous systematic reviews, which targeted prior decades. Table 8 shows the comparison.

Comparison of most and least studied online learning research themes from current to previous reviews.

L = Learner, C=Course O=Organization.

5.4. Need for more studies on organizational level themes of online learning

In this review there is a greater concentration of studies focused on Learner domain topics, and reduced attention to broader more encompassing research themes that fall into the Course and Organization domains. There is a need for organizational level topics such as Access, Culture, Equity, Inclusion and Ethics, and Leadership, Policy and Management to be researched on within the context of online learning. Examination of access, culture, equity, inclusion and ethics is very important to support diverse online learners, particularly with the rapid expansion of online learning across all educational levels. This was also least studied based on Berge and Mrozowski (2001) systematic review.

The topics on leadership, policy and management were least studied both in this review and also in the Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) and Zawacki-Richter et al. (2009) study. Tallent-Runnels categorized institutional and administrative aspects into institutional policies, institutional support, and enrollment effects. While we included support as a separate category, in this study leadership, policy and management were combined. There is still a need for research on leadership of those who manage online learning, policies for online education, and managing online programs. In the Zawacki-Richter et al. (2009) study, only a few studies examined management and organization focused topics. They also found management and organization to be strongly correlated with costs and benefits. In our study, costs and benefits were collectively included as an aspect of management and organization and not as a theme by itself. These studies will provide research-based evidence for online education administrators.

6. Limitations

As with any systematic review, there are limitations to the scope of the review. The search is limited to twelve journals in the field that typically include research on online learning. These manuscripts were identified by searching the Education Research Complete database which focuses on education students, professionals, and policymakers. Other discipline-specific journals as well as dissertations and proceedings were not included due to the volume of articles. Also, the search was performed using five search terms “online learning" OR "online teaching" OR "online program" OR "online course" OR “online education” in title and keyword. If authors did not include these terms, their respective work may have been excluded from this review even if it focused on online learning. While these terms are commonly used in North America, it may not be commonly used in other parts of the world. Additional studies may exist outside this scope.

The search strategy also affected how we presented results and introduced limitations regarding generalization. We identified that only 8% of the articles published in these journals were related to online learning; however, given the use of search terms to identify articles within select journals it was not feasible to identify the total number of research-based articles in the population. Furthermore, our review focused on the topics and general methods of research and did not systematically consider the quality of the published research. Lastly, some journals may have preferences for publishing studies on a particular topic or that use a particular method (e.g., quantitative methods), which introduces possible selection and publication biases which may skew the interpretation of results due to over/under representation. Future studies are recommended to include more journals to minimize the selection bias and obtain a more representative sample.

Certain limitations can be attributed to the coding process. Overall, the coding process for this review worked well for most articles, as each tended to have an individual or dominant focus as described in the abstracts, though several did mention other categories which likely were simultaneously considered to a lesser degree. However, in some cases, a dominant theme was not as apparent and an effort to create mutually exclusive groups for clearer interpretation the coders were occasionally forced to choose between two categories. To facilitate this coding, the full-texts were used to identify a study focus through a consensus seeking discussion among all authors. Likewise, some studies focused on topics that we have associated with a particular domain, but the design of the study may have promoted an aggregated examination or integrated factors from multiple domains (e.g., engagement). Due to our reliance on author descriptions, the impact of construct validity is likely a concern that requires additional exploration. Our final grouping of codes may not have aligned with the original author's description in the abstract. Additionally, coding of broader constructs which disproportionately occur in the Learner domain, such as learner outcomes, learner characteristics, and engagement, likely introduced bias towards these codes when considering studies that involved multiple domains. Additional refinement to explore the intersection of domains within studies is needed.

7. Implications and future research

One of the strengths of this review is the research categories we have identified. We hope these categories will support future researchers and identify areas and levels of need for future research. Overall, there is some agreement on research themes on online learning research among previous reviews and this one, at the same time there are some contradicting findings. We hope the most-researched themes and least-researched themes provide authors a direction on the importance of research and areas of need to focus on.

The leading themes found in this review is online engagement research. However, presentation of this research was inconsistent, and often lacked specificity. This is not unique to online environments, but the nuances of defining engagement in an online environment are unique and therefore need further investigation and clarification. This review points to seven distinct classifications of online engagement. Further research on engagement should indicate which type of engagement is sought. This level of specificity is necessary to establish instruments for measuring engagement and ultimately testing frameworks for classifying engagement and promoting it in online environments. Also, it might be of importance to examine the relationship between these seven sub-themes of engagement.

Additionally, this review highlights growing attention to learner characteristics, which constitutes a shift in focus away from instructional characteristics and course design. Although this is consistent with the focus on engagement, the role of the instructor, and course design with respect to these outcomes remains important. Results of the learner characteristics and engagement research paired with course design will have important ramifications for the use of teaching and learning professionals who support instruction. Additionally, the review also points to a concentration of research in the area of higher education. With an immediate and growing emphasis on online learning in K-12 and corporate settings, there is a critical need for further investigation in these settings.

Lastly, because the present review did not focus on the overall effect of interventions, opportunities exist for dedicated meta-analyses. Particular attention to research on engagement and learner characteristics as well as how these vary by study design and outcomes would be logical additions to the research literature.

8. Conclusion

This systematic review builds upon three previous reviews which tackled the topic of online learning between 1990 and 2010 by extending the timeframe to consider the most recent set of published research. Covering the most recent decade, our review of 619 articles from 12 leading online learning journal points to a more concentrated focus on the learner domain including engagement and learner characteristics, with more limited attention to topics pertaining to the classroom or organizational level. The review highlights an opportunity for the field to clarify terminology concerning online learning research, particularly in the areas of learner outcomes where there is a tendency to classify research more generally (e.g., engagement). Using this sample of published literature, we provide a possible taxonomy for categorizing this research using subcategories. The field could benefit from a broader conversation about how these categories can shape a comprehensive framework for online learning research. Such efforts will enable the field to effectively prioritize research aims over time and synthesize effects.

Credit author statement

Florence Martin: Conceptualization; Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing Preparation, Supervision, Project administration. Ting Sun: Methodology, Formal analysis, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Carl Westine: Methodology, Formal analysis, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing, Supervision

This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

1 Includes articles that are cited in this manuscript and also included in the systematic review. The entire list of 619 articles used in the systematic review can be obtained by emailing the authors.*

Appendix B Supplementary data to this article can be found online at .

Appendix A. 

Research Themes by the Settings in the Online Learning Publications

Research Themes by the Methodology in the Online Learning Publications

Appendix B. Supplementary data

The following are the Supplementary data to this article:

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  • Published: 25 January 2021

Online education in the post-COVID era

  • Barbara B. Lockee 1  

Nature Electronics volume  4 ,  pages 5–6 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced students and educators across all levels of education to rapidly adapt to online learning. The impact of this — and the developments required to make it work — could permanently change how education is delivered.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to engage in the ubiquitous use of virtual learning. And while online and distance learning has been used before to maintain continuity in education, such as in the aftermath of earthquakes 1 , the scale of the current crisis is unprecedented. Speculation has now also begun about what the lasting effects of this will be and what education may look like in the post-COVID era. For some, an immediate retreat to the traditions of the physical classroom is required. But for others, the forced shift to online education is a moment of change and a time to reimagine how education could be delivered 2 .

dissertations on online education

Looking back

Online education has traditionally been viewed as an alternative pathway, one that is particularly well suited to adult learners seeking higher education opportunities. However, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has required educators and students across all levels of education to adapt quickly to virtual courses. (The term ‘emergency remote teaching’ was coined in the early stages of the pandemic to describe the temporary nature of this transition 3 .) In some cases, instruction shifted online, then returned to the physical classroom, and then shifted back online due to further surges in the rate of infection. In other cases, instruction was offered using a combination of remote delivery and face-to-face: that is, students can attend online or in person (referred to as the HyFlex model 4 ). In either case, instructors just had to figure out how to make it work, considering the affordances and constraints of the specific learning environment to create learning experiences that were feasible and effective.

The use of varied delivery modes does, in fact, have a long history in education. Mechanical (and then later electronic) teaching machines have provided individualized learning programmes since the 1950s and the work of B. F. Skinner 5 , who proposed using technology to walk individual learners through carefully designed sequences of instruction with immediate feedback indicating the accuracy of their response. Skinner’s notions formed the first formalized representations of programmed learning, or ‘designed’ learning experiences. Then, in the 1960s, Fred Keller developed a personalized system of instruction 6 , in which students first read assigned course materials on their own, followed by one-on-one assessment sessions with a tutor, gaining permission to move ahead only after demonstrating mastery of the instructional material. Occasional class meetings were held to discuss concepts, answer questions and provide opportunities for social interaction. A personalized system of instruction was designed on the premise that initial engagement with content could be done independently, then discussed and applied in the social context of a classroom.

These predecessors to contemporary online education leveraged key principles of instructional design — the systematic process of applying psychological principles of human learning to the creation of effective instructional solutions — to consider which methods (and their corresponding learning environments) would effectively engage students to attain the targeted learning outcomes. In other words, they considered what choices about the planning and implementation of the learning experience can lead to student success. Such early educational innovations laid the groundwork for contemporary virtual learning, which itself incorporates a variety of instructional approaches and combinations of delivery modes.

Online learning and the pandemic

Fast forward to 2020, and various further educational innovations have occurred to make the universal adoption of remote learning a possibility. One key challenge is access. Here, extensive problems remain, including the lack of Internet connectivity in some locations, especially rural ones, and the competing needs among family members for the use of home technology. However, creative solutions have emerged to provide students and families with the facilities and resources needed to engage in and successfully complete coursework 7 . For example, school buses have been used to provide mobile hotspots, and class packets have been sent by mail and instructional presentations aired on local public broadcasting stations. The year 2020 has also seen increased availability and adoption of electronic resources and activities that can now be integrated into online learning experiences. Synchronous online conferencing systems, such as Zoom and Google Meet, have allowed experts from anywhere in the world to join online classrooms 8 and have allowed presentations to be recorded for individual learners to watch at a time most convenient for them. Furthermore, the importance of hands-on, experiential learning has led to innovations such as virtual field trips and virtual labs 9 . A capacity to serve learners of all ages has thus now been effectively established, and the next generation of online education can move from an enterprise that largely serves adult learners and higher education to one that increasingly serves younger learners, in primary and secondary education and from ages 5 to 18.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to have a lasting effect on lesson design. The constraints of the pandemic provided an opportunity for educators to consider new strategies to teach targeted concepts. Though rethinking of instructional approaches was forced and hurried, the experience has served as a rare chance to reconsider strategies that best facilitate learning within the affordances and constraints of the online context. In particular, greater variance in teaching and learning activities will continue to question the importance of ‘seat time’ as the standard on which educational credits are based 10 — lengthy Zoom sessions are seldom instructionally necessary and are not aligned with the psychological principles of how humans learn. Interaction is important for learning but forced interactions among students for the sake of interaction is neither motivating nor beneficial.

While the blurring of the lines between traditional and distance education has been noted for several decades 11 , the pandemic has quickly advanced the erasure of these boundaries. Less single mode, more multi-mode (and thus more educator choices) is becoming the norm due to enhanced infrastructure and developed skill sets that allow people to move across different delivery systems 12 . The well-established best practices of hybrid or blended teaching and learning 13 have served as a guide for new combinations of instructional delivery that have developed in response to the shift to virtual learning. The use of multiple delivery modes is likely to remain, and will be a feature employed with learners of all ages 14 , 15 . Future iterations of online education will no longer be bound to the traditions of single teaching modes, as educators can support pedagogical approaches from a menu of instructional delivery options, a mix that has been supported by previous generations of online educators 16 .

Also significant are the changes to how learning outcomes are determined in online settings. Many educators have altered the ways in which student achievement is measured, eliminating assignments and changing assessment strategies altogether 17 . Such alterations include determining learning through strategies that leverage the online delivery mode, such as interactive discussions, student-led teaching and the use of games to increase motivation and attention. Specific changes that are likely to continue include flexible or extended deadlines for assignment completion 18 , more student choice regarding measures of learning, and more authentic experiences that involve the meaningful application of newly learned skills and knowledge 19 , for example, team-based projects that involve multiple creative and social media tools in support of collaborative problem solving.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, technological and administrative systems for implementing online learning, and the infrastructure that supports its access and delivery, had to adapt quickly. While access remains a significant issue for many, extensive resources have been allocated and processes developed to connect learners with course activities and materials, to facilitate communication between instructors and students, and to manage the administration of online learning. Paths for greater access and opportunities to online education have now been forged, and there is a clear route for the next generation of adopters of online education.

Before the pandemic, the primary purpose of distance and online education was providing access to instruction for those otherwise unable to participate in a traditional, place-based academic programme. As its purpose has shifted to supporting continuity of instruction, its audience, as well as the wider learning ecosystem, has changed. It will be interesting to see which aspects of emergency remote teaching remain in the next generation of education, when the threat of COVID-19 is no longer a factor. But online education will undoubtedly find new audiences. And the flexibility and learning possibilities that have emerged from necessity are likely to shift the expectations of students and educators, diminishing further the line between classroom-based instruction and virtual learning.

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Lockee, B.B. Online education in the post-COVID era. Nat Electron 4 , 5–6 (2021).

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Home > USC Columbia > Education, College of > Educational Studies > Educational Studies Theses and Dissertations

Educational Studies Theses and Dissertations

Theses/dissertations from 2023 2023.

Centering the Teacher: How an Autonomy-Supportive Environment Impacts Arts Educators’ Sense of Agency and the Collaborative Culture of Their Education Networks , Kyle Andrew Anderson

Effects of a Self-Monitoring Tracking System Combined With Blended Learning Intervention Time on Students’ Self-Regulated Learning Skills And Academic Performance , Jennifer E. Augustine

The Integration Of Simulation-enhanced Interprofessional Education Into Undergraduate Clinical Laboratory Science Curriculum , Dana Powell Baker

Reading Strategies: Impact on Fifth Grade African American Males’ Reading Comprehension and Motivation to Read , Patrice Antoinette Barrett

Tip of the Iceberg in Changing School Culture: Acknowledging and Addressing Microaggressions , Nicole Lauren Becker

The Impact of Ability Grouping on Academic Achievement in Elementary Reading , Kristi Bissell

Impacts of Technology-Enhanced Dual Enrollment Mathematics Course on Rural High School Students’ Intentions of Going to College , Nicolae Bordieanu

Educative Curricular Supports Used to Improve High Cognitive Demand Task Implementation in High-Dosage Mathematics Tutorial , Halley Bowman

Creating a Culturally Inclusive American Literature Classroom , Holly R. Bradshaw

The Impact of a Series of Professional Development Sessions on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) on the Awareness Level of Seven Teachers at a Suburban High School , Charity Jo Brady

The Effects of Gamified Peer Feedback on Student Writing in High School English Language Arts , Kerise Amaris Broome

Evaluating the Impact of Personalized Professional Learning on Technology Integration in the Classroom , Angela Bishop Burgess

An Exploration of Perinatal Stress and Associated Mental Health of Transitioning First-Time Fathers , Timothy Reed Burkhalter

A Study of Computational Thinking Skills and Attitudes Towards Computer Science with Middle School Students , Lorien W. Cafarella

Using Critical Reflection to Mitigate Racial Implicit Bias and Enhance Cultural Humility: A Nursing Faculty Action Research Study , Teresa Stafford Cronell

Mitigating Student Anxiety in the Secondary Classroom: A Culturally Sustaining Approach , Erin Hawley Cronin

Daily Activities and Routines: A Comparative Case Study of the Home Language and Literacy Environment of Spanish-Speaking Toddlers With and Without Older Siblings , Eugenia Crosby-Quinatoa

Supporting Improvement In Academic Outcomes And Self-efficacy For Black Male Varsity Athletes , Katherine Currie

Online Professional Development’s Effect on Teachers’ Technology Self-Efficacy and Continuance Intention to Use Pear Deck , Katherine Shirley Degar

Empowering Teachers to Support MTSS Students: An Action Research Study , Sahalija Dentico

Multisensory Phonics Instruction in Struggling Readers , Amanda M. Dixon

Student Engagement Action Research a Focus on Culturally Relevant Instructional Methods , Amia Dixon

Instructional Coaching: A Support for Increasing Engagement in Middle School Mathematics , Christi Ritchie Edwards

A Holistic View of Integrated Care Within Counselor Education: A Multi-Manuscript Dissertation , Alexander McClain Fields

Faculty Perceptions of Readiness and Confidence for Teaching Online: An Evaluation of Online Professional Development , Kevin Brent Forman

The Effect Of Instructionally Embedded Cognitive Reframing On Students’ Self-beliefs Of Their Mathematical Competence , Kelly Eyre Frazee

An Examination of Physical Literacy: Learning Through A Technology Integrated, Flipped Classroom Approach. , Euan M. S. Frew

Increasing Phonemic Awareness in Intellectually Impaired Students by Using Wilson’s Fundations Phonics Program in a Self-Contained Classroom , Theresa Lynne Garcia

A Causal Comparative Study of the Effects of Physical Activity Course Enrollment on College Students’ Perceived Wellness, Mental Health, and Basic Psychological Needs , Genee’ Regina Glascoe

The Effect of Computer-Based Learning Modules on Pre-Algebra Student Proficiency and Self-Efficacy in Manipulating Math Expressions Involving Negative Signs , Brian Charles Grimm

Exploring Literary Responses to Culturally Relevant Texts Through an AsianCrit Lens: A Collective Case Study of Chinese American Students in a Community-Based Book Club , Wenyu Guo

Building Leadership Capacity to Support International Educators: A Professional Learning Series , Amanda Hajji Minnillo

Unveiling The Lifeworld Of Educators' Social Justice Journeys: A Phenomenological Investigation , Maria Rocas Halkias

The Influence and Impacts of Critical Literacy Intervention in Preservice Teachers Culturally Responsive Teaching Self-Efficacy: A Mixed Methods Study , Heather Lynn Hall

Stories From North Carolina Teachers of Color: An Inquiry of Racialized Experiences in the Workplace. , Deborah Stephanie Harrison

Electronic Portfolios in a High School Community of Practice: Action Research Exploring Writing Experiences in an Advanced Placement Writing Course , Archibald Franklin Harrison IV

The Effects of Problem-Based Learning on Mathematics Motivation in a Flipped Classroom Instructional Environment , Joshua David Harrison

University, City, and Community: Athletics Urban Renewal Projects and the University of South Carolina’s Carolina Coliseum and Blatt Physical Education Center, 1964–1971 , Theresa M. Harrison

Stories from North Carolina Teachers of Color: An Inquiry of Racialized Experiences in the Workplace. , Deborah Stephanie Harrisson

Examining The Perceptions And Knowledge Of School Administrators In Special Education , Maranda Hayward

Supporting Black Students in Sixth-Grade Science Through a Social Constructivist Approach: A Mixed-Methods Action Research Study , Kirk Anthony Heath

Effects of Choice Reading on Intrinsic Motivation in Underperforming Sixth-Grade Students , Heather M. Henderson

Academic Success and Student Development in the Health Professions: An Action Research Study , Molly Ellen Higbie

Deficit Thinking in Teacher Course Level Recommendations , Andrew Hogan

Increasing English Progress Proficiency of Multilingual Learners Utilizing Improvement Science , Stephanie Corley Huckabee

The Impact of Cognitive Coaching on High School English Teachers’ Implementation of Metacognitve Reading Strategies , Charrai Hunter

Digital Literacy Integrated Into Academic Content Through the Collaboration of a Librarian and a Core Content Teacher , Jeri Leann Jeffcoat

The Effects of Hip-Hop and Rap Music Intervention to Improve the Wellbeing of Black and African American Men , Lanita Michelle Jefferson

The Effects of Learner-Centered Professional Development and Supporting Effective Teaching Practices in Elementary-Level Professional Learning Communities , Lisa Suther Johnson

Examining the Relationship Between Multicultural Training and Cultural Humility Development in CACREP-Accredited Counselor Education Programs , Sabrina Monique Johnson

Multimodal Digital Literacy Practices: Perspectives of L2 Academic Writing Instructors , Priscila Jovazino Bastos Medrado Costa

Using Yoga, Meditation, and Art Therapy to Combat Complex Trauma and Promote Social–Emotional Learning in the Art Room , Karen Emory Kelly

Perspectives, Motivations, and Resistance: Investigating Employee Responses to Employer-Sponsored Diversity Training , Robert Kerlin

STEM Educators’ Perceptions of Gender Bias and the Contributing Factors That Persist for Women in STEM Education , Haleigh Nicole Kirkland

A Qualitative Study Examining and Comparing Families’ and Teachers’ Perceptions of School Readiness , Shalonya Cerika Knotts

The Impact of Differentiated Affective Curriculum on the Asynchronous Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Elementary Students , Michelle Koehle

Supporting Self-efficacy Through Mindset: The Impact Of A Growth Mindset Innovation On The Self-efficacy Of Middle School Students In A Teen Leadership Course , Shannon J. Kojah

The Evolution of Contextualized, Discourse-based Professional Development to Support Elementary Teachers in the Implementation of Conceptual Mathematical Teaching Practices , Jennifer Aren Kueter

A Critical Examination Of An in Class Tabata Based Physical Fitness Protocol on Student Engagement Levels in a Sixth Grade Math Class , Justin R. Kulik

Mathematics Teachers’ Attitudes and Intentions Towards Instructional Videos as Part of a Flipped Learning Model , Jessica Lee Lambert

Reimagining Parent-teacher Relationships Through Human Centered Design , Andrea Lynn Lance

Increasing Math Knowledge in 3 rd Grade: Evaluating Student Use & Teacher Perceptions of Imagine Math , Paoze Lee

Utilizing Case Studies to Increase Critical Thinking in an Undergraduate Anatomy & Physiology Classroom , Sarah E. Lehman

Exploring Chinese International Students’ Motivational Factors in Non-Mandatory Event Participation , Aimin Liao

Preparing In-Service Elementary Teachers to Support English Language Learners: A Qualitative Case Study of a Job-Embedded Professional Development Using TPACK , Rachel Theresa Lopez

Impact of Virtual Models on Students’ Multilevel Understanding of an Organic Reaction , Eli Martin

Weathering the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Study Examining How the Lived Experience Affected English Learners , Mary Kathryn Maxwell

Racial Orientations: A Phenomenological Approach , Nicholas Mazur

Measuring the Impact of Peer Coaching on Teacher Effectiveness at Friendship County High School , Whittney Michele McPherson

The Effects of Technology Integration on Academic Performance and Engagement of Third Grade Social Studies Students: A Mixed Methods Study , Ashley Megregian

Beyond The Acronym Of Stem: Experiential Learning Professional Development For Integrative Stem Education , Christine Mitchell

Counter-Stories From Former Foster Youth: College Graduates Disrupting the Dominant Narrative , Amanda May Moon

Supporting LGBTQ+ ELA Students Through Action Research , Nicole Mustaccio

What Are They Thinking?: A Qualitative Study of Secondary Students’ Critical Thinking in Online Classes , Scott Allan Nolt

Impact of the Engineering Design Process on Rural Female Students’ Achievement and Self-Efficacy , Whitney Lowery Oberndorf

Shakespeare in Virtual Reality: Social Presence of Students in a Virtual Reality Book Club , John Funchess Ott Jr.

Teacher Observations as Professional Development Opportunities , Ashton Carrie Padgett

Reading Motivation and Retrieval Practice of United States Undergraduates Aged 18 to 23 , Robyn M. Pernetti

A Descriptive Study of Factors That Support and Hinder Classroom Discourse With English Learners , Jillian Camille Plum

Implementing Meaningful Problem-Based Learning in a Middle School Science Classroom , Celestine Banks Pough

Coaching to Success: Moving From a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset Through Positive Motivation , Shannon Dianna Ramirez

Critical Literacy and Student Engagement: Disrupting the Canon in the Secondary English Classroom , Katherine Burdick Ramp

Pursuing Culturally Responsive Math Teaching By Secondary Math Educators: A Professional Development Action Research Study , Emily Bell Redding

The Impact of a Literacy Program on Summer Reading Setback: Providing Access to Books and Project-Based Learning , Tiffany Gayle Robles

Decentering the White Gaze: The Effects of Involving African-American Students in Curricular Decision-Making in an Independent School Library , Michelle Efird Rosen

Critical Literacy And Self Efficacy Among Secondary Students Repeatedly Engaged In Literacy Intervention , Haley Rowles

Transforming Lessons And Those Who Write Them: Professional Development For Educational Content Writers To Integrate Technology Into Lessons Using The Tpack Framework , Rachael Patricia Santopietro

An Examination of Semester-Long Review of Behavior Referral Data at a High School in a Southeastern State , Shalanda L. Shuler

Instructional Hub: Bridging the Gap in Teacher Preparation for Online Instruction , Charity Beth Simmons

The Impact of the Flipped Classroom Model on Elementary Students’ Achievement and Motivation for Learning Geometry , Kimberly M. Smalls

If Not Me, Then Who? A Study of Racial and Cultural Competence in a High School English Department , DiAnna Sox

“So, the World Isn’t Just Old White Guys?”: Student and Teacher Experiences in a Culturally Relevant Advanced Placement Chemistry Class , James Thomas Sox

1, 2, 3: Counting on Problem Based Learning to Improve Mathematical Achievement in African American Students , Kelley P. Spahr

The Use of Project-Based Learning to Scaffold Student Social and Emotional Learning Skill Development, Science Identity, and Science Self-Efficacy , Michelle Sutton Spigner

How Do the Students Feel? Long-Term English Learners and Their Experience Under the ESL Label , Molly M. Staeheli

My Journey Toward A Culturally Relevant Music Pedagogy , Adam Michael Steele

Implementation of Digital Flashcards to Increase Content-Specific Vocabulary Knowledge and Perceptions of Motivation and Self-Efficacy in an Eleventh-Grade U.S. History Course: An Action Research Study , Jill Lee Steinmeyer

Family Therapy, K-12 Public Education, and Discipline Risk: A Scoping Review and Relationship Analysis Multiple Manuscript Dissertation , Cara Melinda Thompson

The Impact of Extended Professional Development in Project-Based Learning on Middle School Science Teachers , Margrett Caroline Upchurch-Ford

A Qualitative Study on Mental Health Resource Utilization of Enlisted Airmen During the COVID-19 Pandemic , Hassahn Khali Wade

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dissertations on online education

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Dissertations from 2024 2024

Impact of Reasonable Accommodations on Disabled Student–Veteran Higher Educational Achievement , Michael A. Buoniconti, Education


Negotiating Identities and Ideologies: A Longitudinal Look at Multilingual Learners’ Educational Investments in the Context of School Reform , Erin E. Goldstein, Education


Identifying Rapid-Guessing Behaviors: Comparison of Response Time Threshold, Item Response Theory, and Machine Learning Methods , Minhyeong Lee, Education

Examining Social Capital and its Role in Special Education Leadership , April K. Rist, Education


Exploring the Teaching and Learning Experiences of Faculty at A Small Comprehensive College as They Transitioned to the Remote Environment: A Phenomenological Study of Shifting Mindsets and Locations During the COVID-19 Pandemic , Michele L. Vanasse, Education

The Impact of Computational Thinking Infused Professional Development and Participation in Community of Practice on Elementary Teachers’ Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Computational Thinking , Ozkan Yildiz, Education

Dissertations from 2023 2023

Validating Middle School Principals' Opinions about the Impact of Investments , David Adler, Education



The puzzle of debutant INGO participation in Guatemala’s National Reading Program Leamos Juntos: A comparative and multi-sited case study , Jacob A. Carter, Education

Youth Producing Voice: A Video-cued Ethnography of a Media Education Classroom , Isabel C. Castellanos, Education

The Im/possibilities of (Un)making In-school Pregnancy and Student Motherhood [as Praxis]: Schooling Post-Pregnancy Amidst Health and Social Crises in Malawi , Pempho Chinkondenji, Education

I’ve (Urn)ed This: An Application and Criterion-based Evaluation of the Urnings Algorithm , Ted Daisher, Education

Heritage Language Learning in College: (Performing)(Becoming)(Belonging) Through Assemblages , Margaret A. Felis, Education

‘You Crazy’: Examination of Black Transnational Collegians’ Mental Health at` Historically White Institutions , Patricia Feraud-King, Education


Black Male Trauma , Gerald D. Fonville, Education

Maintaining the Same Test Administration Time Across Translated Forms – Fairness and Validity Considerations , Alejandra Amador Garcia, Education

Conceptualizing Social Mathematical Empowerment: What is the Curricular Connection? , Alicia C. Gonzales, Education

Stakeholder Perspectives of School Discipline: A Social Ecological Exploration , Megan D. Grant, Education

Ensuring Culturally Inclusive Online Learning for International Students: A Delphi Study to Identify Requisite Instructor Competencies , Kristen Lina Heaster-Ekholm, Education

Leveraging Community Cultural Wealth Through Counterspaces and Counterstories: A Black Administrator’s Autoethnography , Renee G. Heywood, Education

The Professionalization of Collegiate Recreation and the Educational Pathways of its Practitioners: An Exploratory Study , Jason R. Incorvati, Education


Accreditation of Teaching and Research Universities in Afghanistan: A Policy Implementation Analysis , Sayed Javid Mussawy, Education

The Impact of Special Education Status and Text-to-Speech on Test-Taker Engagement , Maura O'Riordan, Education

Unsettling Resettlement: African Refugees in the US and the Paradoxes of Economic Self-Sufficiency , Mariam Rashid, Education





Understanding Faculty Use of Learning Management Systems in U.S. Higher Education , Minghui Tai, Education


Harnessing Untapped Potential: A Theory for Engaging Recent Graduates in Alumni Advocacy to Support Institutional Advancement Goals , Erin M. Valencik, Education

Aberrant Response Detection: Incorporating Cumulative Sum Control Chart and Change-Point Analysis , Siyu Wan, Education

Dissertations from 2022 2022

Conceptualization and Operationalization of College Readiness for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Grounded Theory Study with Transition Stakeholders , Jordan A. Abbott, Education


“We’re Not Born to be Quiet. Things Make You That Way”: Student Voices and Perspectives on Developing a Culturally Sustaining Trauma Informed School , Lisa C. Amato, Education

A Comparison Of Guided Reading And Systematic Phonics Approaches To Supplementary Reading Instruction , Madeline R. Berkowitz, Education

Building Together: Problem Solving for Sustainability Consciousness , Paul M. Bocko, Education


Education Assemblage: Tracing and Undermining Raciality in the Era of Standardization and Accountability , Chalais Carter, Education

How Well Does the New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program Work for Black Men? A Mixed Methods Study , MICHAEL A. DEJESUS III, Education

Examining Small-group Discourse Through the Lens of Students’ Beliefs about Mathematics and The Instructional Triangle , Jennifer Ericson, Education


New Ways of Being and Knowing: Women Ph.D. Students Exploring Embodiment through Feminist Phenomenological Photovoice , Anna Fox Reilly, Education

Examining Parents Who Are English Language Learners with Reading Difficulties: Their Experiences of Their Diverse Children's Literacy Learning , Ellen Ho, Education

Quality of Life for Women with Chronic Lyme Disease: A Socioeconomic Investigation , Dale M. Jones, Education


World-Class Universities and the Imitation Game: The Reality of the Global South , Koboul E. Mansour, Education



Who Benefits from Deferred Entry to College?: Exploring the Relationships between College Deferment, Postsecondary Academic Success, and Institutional Selectivity , Gabriel Reif, Education

Active Choice or Default Decision? When Families Who Reside in a Competitive School Choice Environment Enroll Children in Their District Schools , Julie Spencer-Robinson, Education

The Gendered, Racialized, & Dis/Abled Experiences of Neurodivergent Black Women Graduate Students Across Higher Education , Kat Stephens, Education

Avatars & Choice: Fostering Student Agency, Engagement, and Equity in Assessment , Sandra M. Sweeney, Education

Alt-Education: Gender, language, and education across the right , Catherine Tebaldi, Education


Learning by Doing: Preparing Student Activists for Democratic Engagement , Marjorie G. Valdivia, Education

Dissertations from 2021 2021



Using Generalizability and Rasch Measurement Theory to Ensure Rigorous Measurement in an International Development Education Evaluation , Louise Bahry, Education

Defining Inclusion: Surveying Educator Perceptions and Practices in Chile , Christina A. Bosch, Education

Critical Language Awareness in the Multilingual Writing Classroom: A Self-Study of Teacher Feedback Practices , Emma R. Britton, Education


Measurement Invariance Across Immigrant and Non-Immigrant Populations on PISA Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Scales , Maritza Casas, Education

Administrators of General and Special Education Perceptions of Leadership Practices for Supporting Inclusive Learning Environments for Students with Disabilities , Kimberly B. Cass, Education



"Take it with You": Humanizing and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies as Racial Literacy in Undergraduate Education , Robert Jamaal Downey, Education

Evaluating Approaches for Dealing with Omitted Items in Large-Scale Assessments , Seong Eun Hong, Education



Exploring the Role of Community Cultural Wealth in College Access and Transition: A Narrative Inquiry of Students from Refugee Backgrounds , Diep H. Luu, Education

Making Meaning of Equity in a Computer Science for All Research Practitioner Partnership , Itza D. Martínez, Education

Shifting to critical empathy: Exploring the ideological becoming of secondary teachers during critical, dialogic professional development , Maria McSorley, Education

Massachusetts Teachers of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students: A Mixed Methods Workforce Study , Kym Meyer, Education

The Voices and Lived Academic Experiences of International Doctoral Student Mothers , Mishka Murad, Education




Critical Multicultural Engagement with Children's Texts: Perspectives, Power, and Positioning , Jasmine A. Robinson, Education

Collaboration, Collective Agency, and Solidarity Through Participatory Action Research in Puerto Rico , Aurora Santiago Ortiz, Education

Rupture and Resistance in Third Space: Examining Black Girls’ Schooling Experiences at a Private Elite School , Alisha L. Smith Jean-Denis, Education

Caught between Spaces: Korean Adult EFL/ESL Female Speakers’ Negotiating Social Identities in Online English Study Groups , Rayoung Song, Education


The power of perception: social cohesion, child protection and access to education in conflict-affected communities in South Sudan , Wendy L. Wheaton, Education

Dissertations from 2020 2020

Experiences of Uzbek Immigrant Parents with Public Schools in New York City: Parental Engagement , Mekhribon Abdullaeva, Education

Building Capacity for Academically Productive Talk: The Development of Teacher Leaders in Science Professional Development , Renee Affolter, Education




“In Our Very Flesh, (R)evolution”: An Exploration of Secondary Education Teachers, Otherness, and Embodiment , Ryan Ambuter, Education


Teacher Interactions, Teacher Bias and Child Behavioral Health , Ellen E. Edge, Education

Locating Safe Spaces for Food Insecure Female Community College Students , Michelle Errington Nicholson, Education

Mobilities Through and Against Governance: Narratives from Lesvos, Greece and the Humanitarian Borderscapes of the EU , Jennifer Flemming, Education

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Home > Dissertations and Theses > Education (PhD) Dissertations

Education (PhD) Dissertations

Below is a selection of dissertations from the Attallah College of Educational Studies. Additional dissertations from years prior to 2019 are available through the Leatherby Libraries' print collection or in Proquest's Dissertations and Theses database.

Dissertations from 2024 2024

Rising from the Abyss: A Grounded Theory Exploration on How Afghani and Ukrainian Mothers Navigate Major Milestones Following the Onset of Political Conflict , Rabab Atwi

Investigating Factors Influencing Chinese Private College Students’ Engagement in Emergency Online Learning , Limei Cao

“Caught in the Continuum”: How Special Educators Facilitate Access for Students With Extensive Support Needs , Megan Doty

Exploring Community College Faculty and Administrators Work Providing Educational Opportunities for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD): An Integral Framework for Inclusive Postsecondary Education , Stacy Eldred

Leading Towards Racial Justice: Counterstories of TK-12 Latinx Men Administrators , Pedro Espinoza

Experiences of Latine LGBTQ+ High School Students in California , Michael Gorse

Shattering the Glass Ceiling: A Grounded Theory Exploration of Barriers and Facilitators to Women Leaders’ Career Advancement Within Private Universities in China , Xiuying Han

Peacing it Together: Post 9/11 Enlisted Student Veterans’ Awakening to Peace Leadership , Nicholas J. Irwin

The Experiences of Postsecondary Students with Disabilities Utilizing One Stop Student Services: A Grounded Theory Approach , Ivan Noe

Personalized Learning for Art Major Students Based on Learner Characteristics , Jiayu Shao

Influences of Cultural Capital and Internationalization on Global Competence: Evidence from China’s Higher Vocational Education , Yiying Teng

Visit the Imprisoned: A Heuristic Inquiry into the Experiences of Catholic Detention Ministry Volunteers , Christopher Tran

Factors Influencing College Students’ Learning Satisfaction With Educational Videos , Fei Wang

A Positive Psychology Perspective on Chinese EFL Students’ Well-Being, Language Mindset, and English Performance , Qian Wei

Becoming and Thriving as an EFL Instructor: Exploring Key Factors Contributing to Positive Identity Construction , Weiyi Xia

Fair or Unfair? Chinese Undergraduates’ Perceptions of College Classroom Assessments , Ying Zhu

Dissertations from 2023 2023

All Things Weird and Wonderful: A Creative Exploration of Disability Representation , Lara Ameen

Generalizability of the Scale of Teachers’ Attitudes Towards Inclusive Classrooms (STATIC) to School Psychologists , Abraham Aryadad

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Setting a new bar for online higher education

The education sector was among the hardest hit  by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools across the globe were forced to shutter their campuses in the spring of 2020 and rapidly shift to online instruction. For many higher education institutions, this meant delivering standard courses and the “traditional” classroom experience through videoconferencing and various connectivity tools.

The approach worked to support students through a period of acute crisis but stands in contrast to the offerings of online education pioneers. These institutions use AI and advanced analytics to provide personalized learning and on-demand student support, and to accommodate student preferences for varying digital formats.

Colleges and universities can take a cue from the early adopters of online education, those companies and institutions that have been refining their online teaching models for more than a decade, as well as the edtechs that have entered the sector more recently. The latter organizations use educational technology to deliver online education services.

To better understand what these institutions are doing well, we surveyed academic research as well as the reported practices of more than 30 institutions, including both regulated degree-granting universities and nonregulated lifelong education providers. We also conducted ethnographic market research, during which we followed the learning journeys of 29 students in the United States and in Brazil, two of the largest online higher education markets in the world, with more than 3.3 million 1 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, 2018, and 2.3 million 2 School Census, Censo Escolar-INEP, 2019, online higher education students, respectively.

We found that, to engage most effectively with students, the leading online higher education institutions focus on eight dimensions of the learning experience. We have organized these into three overarching principles: create a seamless journey for students, adopt an engaging approach to teaching, and build a caring network (exhibit). In this article, we talk about these principles in the context of programs that are fully online, but they may be just as effective within hybrid programs in which students complete some courses online and some in person.

Create a seamless journey for students

The performance of the early adopters of online education points to the importance of a seamless journey for students, easily navigable learning platforms accessible from any device, and content that is engaging, and whenever possible, personalized. Some early adopters have even integrated their learning platforms with their institution’s other services and resources, such as libraries and financial-aid offices.

1. Build the education road map

In our conversations with students and experts, we learned that students in online programs—precisely because they are physically disconnected from traditional classroom settings—may need more direction, motivation, and discipline than students in in-person programs. The online higher education  programs that we looked at help students build their own education road map using standardized tests, digital alerts, and time-management tools to regularly reinforce students’ progress and remind them of their goals.

Brazil’s Cogna Educação, for instance, encourages students to assess their baseline knowledge at the start of the course. 3 Digital transformation: A new culture to shape our future , Kroton 2018 Sustainability Report, Kroton Educacional, Such up-front diagnostics could be helpful in highlighting knowledge gaps and pointing students to relevant tools and resources, and may be especially helpful to students who have had unequal educational opportunities. A web-based knowledge assessment allows Cogna students to confirm their mastery of certain parts of a course, which, according to our research, can potentially boost their confidence and allow them to move faster through the course material.

At the outset of a course, leaders in online higher education can help students clearly understand the format and content, how they will use what they learn, how much time and effort is required, and how prepared they are for its demands.

The University of Michigan’s online Atlas platform, for instance, gives students detailed information about courses and curricula, including profiles of past students, sample reports and evaluations, and grade distributions, so they can make informed decisions about their studies. 4 Atlas, Center for Academic Innovation, University of Michigan, Another provider, Pluralsight, shares movie-trailer-style overviews of its course content and offers trial options so students can get a sense of what to expect before making financial commitments.

Meanwhile, some of the online doctoral students we interviewed have access to an interactive timeline and graduation calculator for each course, which help students understand each of the milestones and requirements for completing their dissertations. Breaking up the education process into manageable tasks this way can potentially ease anxiety, according to our interviews with education experts.

2. Enable seamless connections

Students may struggle to learn if they aren’t able to connect to learning platforms. Online higher education pioneers provide a single sign-on through which students can interact with professors and classmates and gain access to critical support services. Traditional institutions considering a similar model should remember that because high-speed and reliable internet are not always available, courses and program content should be structured so they can be accessed even in low-bandwidth situations or downloaded for offline use.

The technology is just one element of creating seamless connections. Since remote students may face a range of distractions, online-course content could benefit them by being more engaging than in-person courses. Online higher education pioneers allow students to study at their own pace through a range of channels and media, anytime and anywhere—including during otherwise unproductive periods, such as while in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Coursera, for example, invites students to log into a personalized home page where they can review the status of their coursework, complete unfinished lessons, and access recommended “next content to learn” units. Brazilian online university Ampli Pitagoras offers content optimized for mobile devices that allows students to listen to lessons, contact tutors for help, or do quizzes from wherever they happen to be.

Adopt an engaging approach to teaching

The pioneers in online higher education we researched pair the “right” course content with the “right” formats to capture students’ attention. They incorporate real-world applications into their lesson plans, use adaptive learning tools to personalize their courses, and offer easily accessible platforms for group learning.

3. Offer a range of learning formats

The online higher education programs we reviewed incorporate group activities and collaboration with classmates—important hallmarks of the higher education experience—into their mix of course formats, offering both live classes and self-guided, on-demand lessons.

The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, augments live lessons from faculty members in its online graduate program in data analytics with a collaboration platform where students can interact outside of class, according to a student we interviewed. Instructors can provide immediate answers to students’ questions via the platform or endorse students’ responses to questions from their peers. Instructors at Zhejiang University in China use live videoconferencing and chat rooms to communicate with more than 300 participants, assign and collect homework assignments, and set goals. 5 Wu Zhaohui, “How a top Chinese university is responding to coronavirus,” World Economic Forum, March 16, 2020,

The element of personalization is another area in which online programs can consider upping their ante, even in large student groups. Institutions could offer customized ways of learning online, whether via digital textbook, podcast, or video, ensuring that these materials are high quality and that the cost of their production is spread among large student populations.

Some institutions have invested in bespoke tools to facilitate various learning modes. The University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation embeds custom-designed software into its courses to enhance the experience for both students and professors. 6 “Our mission & principles,” University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation, The school’s ECoach platform helps students in large classes navigate content when one-on-one interaction with instructors is difficult because of the sheer number of students. It also sends students reminders, motivational tips, performance reviews, and exam-preparation materials. 7 University of Michigan, Meanwhile, Minerva University focuses on a real-time online-class model that supports higher student participation and feedback and has built a platform with a “talk time” feature that lets instructors balance class participation and engage “back-row students” who may be inclined to participate less. 8 Samad Twemlow-Carter, “Talk Time,” Minerva University,

4. Ensure captivating experiences

Delivering education on digital platforms opens the potential to turn curricula into engaging and interactive journeys, and online education leaders are investing in content whose quality is on a par with high-end entertainment. Strayer University, for example, has recruited Emmy Award–winning film producers and established an in-house production unit to create multimedia lessons. The university’s initial findings show that this investment is paying off in increased student engagement, with 85 percent of learners reporting that they watch lessons from beginning to end, and also shows a 10 percent reduction in the student dropout rate. 9 Increased student engagement and success through captivating content , Strayer Studios outcomes report, Strayer University,

Other educators are attracting students not only with high-production values but influential personalities. Outlier provides courses in the form of high-quality videos that feature charismatic Ivy League professors and are shot in a format that reduces eye strain. 10 Outlier online course registration for Calculus I, The course content follows a storyline, and each course is presented as a crucial piece in an overall learning journey.

5. Utilize adaptive learning tools

Online higher education pioneers deliver adaptive learning using AI and analytics to detect and address individual students’ needs and offer real-time feedback and support. They can also predict students’ requirements, based on individuals’ past searches and questions, and respond with relevant content. This should be conducted according to the applicable personal data privacy regulations of the country where the institution is operating.

Cogna Educação, for example, developed a system that delivers real-time, personalized tutoring to more than 500,000 online students, paired with exercises customized to address specific knowledge gaps. 11 Digital transformation , 2018. Minerva University used analytics to devise a highly personalized feedback model, which allows instructors to comment and provide feedback on students’ online learning assignments and provide access to test scores during one-on-one feedback sessions. 12 “Maybe we need to rethink our assumptions about ‘online’ learning,” Minerva University, According to our research, instructors can also access recorded lessons during one-on-one sessions and provide feedback on student participation during class.

6. Include real-world application of skills

The online higher education pioneers use virtual reality (VR) laboratories, simulations, and games for students to practice skills in real-world scenarios within controlled virtual environments. This type of hands-on instruction, our research shows, has traditionally been a challenge for online institutions.

Arizona State University, for example, has partnered with several companies to develop a biology degree that can be obtained completely online. The program leverages VR technology that gives online students in its biological-sciences program access to a state-of-the-art lab. Students can zoom in to molecules and repeat experiments as many times as needed—all from the comfort of wherever they happen to be. 13 “ASU online biology course is first to offer virtual-reality lab in Google partnership,” Arizona State University, August 23, 2018, Meanwhile, students at Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas are using 3-D games to find innovative solutions to real-world problems—for instance, designing the post-COVID-19 campus experience. 14 Cleofé Vergara, “Learn by playing with Minecraft Education,” Innovación Educativa, July 13, 2021,

Some institutions have expanded the real-world experience by introducing online internships. Columbia University’s Virtual Internship Program, for example, was developed in partnership with employers across the United States and offers skills workshops and resources, as well as one-on-one career counseling. 15 Virtual Internship Program, Columbia University Center for Career Education,

Create a caring network

Establishing interpersonal connections may be more difficult in online settings. Leading online education programs provide dedicated channels to help students with academic, personal, technological, administrative, and financial challenges and to provide a means for students to connect with each other for peer-to-peer support. Such programs are also using technologies to recognize signs of student distress and to extend just-in-time support.

7. Provide academic and nonacademic support

Online education pioneers combine automation and analytics with one-on-one personal interactions to give students the support they need.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, uses a system of alerts and communication nudges when its digital platform detects low student engagement. Meanwhile, AI-powered chatbots provide quick responses to common student requests and questions. 16 “SNHU turns student data into student success,” Southern New Hampshire University, May 2019, Strayer University has a virtual assistant named Irving that is accessible from every page of the university’s online campus website and offers 24/7 administrative support to students, from recommending courses to making personalized graduation projections. 17 “Meet Irving, the Strayer chatbot that saves students time,” Strayer University, October 31, 2019,

Many of these pioneer institutions augment that digital assistance with human support. SNHU, for example, matches students in distress with personal coaches and tutors who can follow the students’ progress and provide regular check-ins. In this way, they can help students navigate the program and help cultivate a sense of belonging. 18 Academic advising, Southern New Hampshire University, 2021, Similarly, Arizona State University pairs students with “success coaches” who give personalized guidance and counseling. 19 “Accessing your success coach,” Arizona State University,

8. Foster a strong community

The majority of students we interviewed have a strong sense of belonging to their academic community. Building a strong network of peers and professors, however, may be challenging in online settings.

To alleviate this challenge, leading online programs often combine virtual social events with optional in-person gatherings. Minerva University, for example, hosts exclusive online events that promote school rituals and traditions for online students, and encourages online students to visit its various locations for in-person gatherings where they can meet members of its diverse, dispersed student population. 20 “Join your extended family,” Minerva University, SNHU’s Connect social gateway gives online-activity access to more than 15,000 members, and helps them interact within an exclusive university social network. Students can also join student organizations and affinity clubs virtually. 21 SNHU Connect, Southern New Hampshire University,

Getting started: Designing the online journey

Building a distinctive online student experience requires significant time, effort, and investment. Most institutions whose practices we reviewed in this article took several years to understand student needs and refine their approaches to online education.

For those institutions in the early stages of rethinking their online offerings, the following three steps may be useful. Each will typically involve various functions within the institution, including but not necessarily limited to, academic management, IT, and marketing.

The diagnosis could be performed through a combination of focus groups and quantitative surveys, for example. It’s important that participants represent various student segments, which are likely to have different expectations, including young-adult full-time undergraduate students, working-adult part-time undergraduate students, and graduate students. The eight key dimensions outlined above may be helpful for structuring groups and surveys, in addition to self-evaluation of institution performance and potential benchmarks.

  • Set a strategic vision for your online learning experience. The vision should be student-centric and link tightly to the institution’s overarching manifesto. The function leaders could evaluate the costs/benefits of each part of the online experience to ensure that the costs are realistic. The online model may vary depending on each school’s market, target audience, and tuition price point. An institution with high tuition, for example, is more likely to afford and provide one-on-one live coaching and student support, while an institution with lower tuition may need to rely more on automated tools and asynchronous interactions with students.
  • Design the transformation journey. Institutions should expect a multiyear journey. Some may opt to outsource the program design and delivery to dedicated program-management companies. But in our experience, an increasing number of institutions are developing these capabilities internally, especially as online learning moves further into the mainstream and becomes a source of long-term strategic advantage.

We have found that leading organizations often begin with quick wins that significantly raise student experiences, such as stronger student support, integrated technology platforms, and structured course road maps. In parallel, they begin the incremental redesign of courses and delivery models, often focusing on key programs with the largest enrollments and tapping into advanced analytics for insights to refine these experiences.

Finally, institutions tackle key enabling factors, such as instructor onboarding and online-teaching training, robust technology infrastructure, and advanced-analytics programs that enable the institutions to understand which features of online education are performing well and generating exceptional learning experiences for their students.

The question is no longer whether the move to online will outlive the COVID-19 lockdowns but when online learning will become the dominant means for delivering higher education. As digital transformation accelerates across all industries, higher education institutions will need to consider how to develop their own online strategies.

Felipe Child is a partner in McKinsey’s Bogotá office, Marcus Frank is a senior practice expert in the São Paulo office, Mariana Lef is an associate in the Buenos Aires office, and Jimmy Sarakatsannis is a partner in the Washington, DC, office.

References to specific products, companies, or organizations are solely for information purposes and do not constitute any endorsement or recommendation.

This article was edited by Justine Jablonska, an editor in the New York office.

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    With EBSCO Open Dissertations, institutions and students are offered an innovative approach to driving additional traffic to ETDs in institutional repositories. Our goal is to help make their students' theses and dissertations as widely visible and cited as possible. This approach extends the work started in 2014, when EBSCO and the H.W ...

  18. PDF Harvard Graduate School of Education

    Harvard Graduate School of Education . 2022 Doctor of Philosophy in Education Graduates . Frannie Abernethy, Human Development, Learning and Teaching.Thesis: Critical Inquiries Into Language Ideologies and Pedagogies in a Linguistically Diverse, Reform-Minded, Urban Middle School.

  19. OATD

    You may also want to consult these sites to search for other theses: Google Scholar; NDLTD, the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations.NDLTD provides information and a search engine for electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs), whether they are open access or not. Proquest Theses and Dissertations (PQDT), a database of dissertations and theses, whether they were published ...

  20. College of Education Dissertations Collection

    Dissertations from 2024 PDF. Impact of Reasonable Accommodations on Disabled Student-Veteran Higher Educational Achievement, Michael A. Buoniconti, Education. PDF. IMPLICATIONS AND IMPACTS OF MATHEMATICAL SELF-EFFICACY IN A LARGE CALCULUS CLASS: SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR GENDER, RACE, AND MAJOR, Adena Calden, Education. PDF

  21. Education (PhD) Dissertations

    Education (PhD) Dissertations. Below is a selection of dissertations from the Attallah College of Educational Studies. Additional dissertations from years prior to 2019 are available through the Leatherby Libraries' print collection or in Proquest's Dissertations and Theses database.

  22. Dissertations

    Over the last 80 years, ProQuest has built the world's most comprehensive and renowned dissertations program. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (PQDT Global), continues to grow its repository of 5 million graduate works each year, thanks to the continued contribution from the world's universities, creating an ever-growing resource of emerging research to fuel innovation and new insights.

  23. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global

    The ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (PQDT) ™ database is the world's most comprehensive curated collection of multi-disciplinary dissertations and theses from around the world, offering over 5 million citations and 3 million full-text works from thousands of universities. Within dissertations and theses is a wealth of scholarship, yet ...

  24. Best Online Doctorates In Education Of 2024

    An Ed.D. or Ph.D. in education can prepare you for leadership, research and policy roles. Explore the top 10 schools for an online doctorate in education.

  25. Setting a new bar for online higher education

    We also conducted ethnographic market research, during which we followed the learning journeys of 29 students in the United States and in Brazil, two of the largest online higher education markets in the world, with more than 3.3 million 1 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, 2018, and 2.3 million 2 School Census, Censo ...

  26. Online Thesis and Dissertation Formatting Workshop, College of

    This online workshop covers the submission process for format review and demonstrates how to use the automated templates on to format MSU theses and dissertations to the requirements for students in the College of Education or Department of Psychology set forth in the Standards for Preparing Theses and Dissertations: 8th edition. These templates were designed to help an author organize and ...