I’ve just finished reading through a research article which investigates the effectiveness of online learning in the SUNY (State University of New York) learning network (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett, Pelz, Swan, 2001). The interesting thing about this research is that in contrast to other reports that I’ve read (1,2) they find that student retention is not significantly different in their F2F classes & their online classes, and that their students are at least as satisified if not more in their online classes. In response to the statement “Overall I was very satisfied with this online course” 39% of the students agreed strongly, Another 40% agreed, 6% disagreed & 5% disagreed strongly.

So what about the SUNY learning network programmes might be different?

In the SUNY learning network, courses are designed based on principles of social constructivism where learning is seen as an outcome of socialisation. Accordingly there is a strong focus on the use of discussion forums and student-teacher interaction. The authors believe that the level of interaction contributes to the development of “knowledge building communities”.

In addition the responsibility for course development is laid at the feet of the teaching staff, and they are provided with support in the area of instructional design. It is thought that this results in quality and coherence due to the fact that the teacher of the course knows the material better than anyone else.

I’m not sure how different this is from the other reports that I’ve read. Social constructivism definately seems to be the dominant pedagogical model used in online learning, but I’m not sure how long this has been the case. However it seems likely that the student satisfaction & retention characteristic of these courses are at least partially due to a combination of the factors discussed above.

Key Findings of the Research

  • Very strong correlation found between student satisfaction and perceived learning
  • Both high satisfaction & reported learning are highly correlated with
    • Prompt, high quality feedback from the instructor
    • Clear expecations of how to proceed in the course successfully
    • A high level of interaction with classmates
    • Satisfaction with computer support
    • Simplified course structure (fewer modules/pages)

    Those who experienced problems due to technical difficulties were most likely to report the lowest levels of learning & satisfaction.

  • Computer skill prior to taking part in an online course was not correlated with learning & satisfaction

These last two points are interesting. Another study (Pillay, Irving, Tones, 2007) found that computer self-efficacy was correlated with learning & satisfaction. At first glance the finding of Pillay et al. seems to be supported by the first point, and contradicted by the second point. Perhaps a high level of interaction mediates computer difficulties as students are able to gain support from their peers and/or teaching staff? Another possibility is that the course has computer literacy supports embedded within the courses or accessible by students who are enrolled in the courses (although there is no discussion of this in the article).

One other point of interest is that in their literature review, the authors found that many studies showed that collaborative learning was not effective in an online context. It’s worth noting that the study discussed here was completed in 2001. Articles in the literature review would mostly have been completed before this date, and there have been many developments in online learning since this time. It would be interesting to see some more contemporary research on this topic.


Pillay, H., Irving, K., & Tones, M. (2007). Validation of the diagnostic tool for assessing Tertiary students’ readiness for online learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 26:2, 217 – 234

Shea, P., Fredericksen, E., Pickett, A., Pelz, W., & Swan, K. (2001). Measures of Learning Effectiveness in the SUNY Learning Network. In J. Bourne, & J. Moore (Eds.), Online Education – Volume 2 – Learning Effectiveness, Faculty Satisfaction and Cost Effectiveness – Proceedings of the 2000 Summer Workshop on Asynchronous Learning Networks. Massachusetts, USA: Sloan Centre for Online Education.