Loyola University Chicago

Office of the Provost

The Astonishing Lessons from Online Learning


September 9, 2020

The change to a fall semester of online learning has many people across the country worried that the quality of higher education will be lower this semester. The main argument being advanced is that online learning is academically poorer than in-person learning. The switch to online learning is reigniting concerns about the value of higher education overall. In this communication, I address these concerns, mostly from the perspective of Loyola University Chicago.

Many professors and students feel anxiety about online learning. Is this anxiety caused by a lack of familiarity with online learning or the fear that students will know less at the conclusion of the class? Let us begin with the evidence on online versus in-person learning. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released an analysis of 99 studies on online versus in-person learning conducted between 1996 and 2008. The goal was to determine what was superior: online or classroom learning. The analysis concluded that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction…The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.” The analysis also showed that the most effective models utilize online learning differently than they do for classroom training. Online learning should emphasize less lecturing and more time to practice with peers. After the release of this analysis, a slew of online-versus-in-person-learning studies in the last 10 years confirmed the results1,2, indicating that online learning is at least as effective as in-person learning.

Our own internal data on online learning is consistent with these results. In preparation for our 2015 Higher Learning Commission accreditation site visit, we analyzed course evaluations of paired online and face-to-face course sections. Student evaluations were either the same or better for the online versions. Similar results were obtained for the 110,000 responses used to compare the fall semester of 2019 with the spring semester of 2020, when we shifted online because of COVID-19. The similarity of the recent results did not differ across courses of study or majors.

Why is online learning effective? Scholars of the field suggest that online learning can heighten flexibility for students and lead to student ownership of their intellectual development. Students are given responsibility for surfacing what they are learning and for sharing that in a collaborative exercise.  Teachers can more directly guide students’ writing, editing, and critical thinking progress as they work together, sharing screens and documents via Zoom. Although Zoom fatigue is real, teachers can parcel out smaller chunks of material for students to work on asynchronously, with discussion, collaboration, and student-driven discovery during synchronous sessions. What we have learned about the online experience will influence the future of in-person learning. Even when we can safely resume in-person instruction, the lessons learned will continue to influence our delivery, since the learning outcomes are so strong. The conventional in-person lecture class may evolve. A teacher might spend 20 minutes delivering a core lecture, but will choose to use a flipped classroom so that students can work on materials (maybe in groups) or in a collaborative fashion, as some of our faculty already do. Finally, online lectures are often recorded. Students can view the lecture repeatedly, a benefit not afforded by traditional in-person classes.

Some may say that for these advantages to hold teachers must know the most effective pedagogical online-learning techniques. That is true! Therefore, our Office of Online Learning, Instructional Technologies and Research Support, the Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy, and the Center for Experiential Learning have worked hard over the past five months to prepare many Loyola faculty to reimagine their courses in an online format. These offices saw 3,000 "faculty enrollments." We have also been able to team experienced faculty and course designers with less experienced faculty to create ongoing mentoring and feedback. This preparation of the faculty is significant because the value of our online capabilities is well supported by both our reputation and our quality. Our online strengths have been recognized by our peer institutions. We have also been highly ranked by organizations that evaluate the quality of online degree programs.

Besides learning outcomes, one must consider the content students are acquiring. Loyola is classified as a “Doctoral University with High Research Activity" by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. In universities with high research volume, education is not just learning stories from lectures or books. Researchers teach students how to think critically, how to formulate new ideas, and how to probe them. Researchers also teach students the most advanced known and unknown knowledge. By engaging with these faculty, students gain knowledge that is not in books and learn about ideas that are still maturing and which may become knowledge one day. This capacity to teach how to think and to point out nascent knowledge does not disappear because professors are delivering their materials online.

Finally, one should not forget the value of a degree that a student receives from a high-research-activity university. When a student gets a degree from such a university, the return on investment increases significantly. This return does not depend on the fraction of classes taken online versus in person. Employers do not ask whether a student took a certain class online or in-person when deciding about hiring. Consequently, the value of the educational product sold by a research university is not lower when it teaches some of its courses online. This point on the value of education at a research university is emphasized by a recent study by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. They concluded that delaying college by one year may result in the potential loss of $90,000 in lifetime earnings. Such a loss might seem counterintuitive, given that the pandemic has pushed up the jobless rate. The high unemployment rate has prompted families to ask whether one should make a pricey investment in a college degree now.  However, the pandemic has made a college degree more valuable, not less. Prospects for people with only a high school diploma are far weaker in the pandemic than for those with a bachelor’s degree.

I would like to provide a closing thought on online learning during the pandemic. I believe that because of the present online experience, learning will be immeasurably enriched when we soon return to campus. The anxiety mentioned above developed in great part because of the wild “new” world of having to teach and learn with techniques with which we were not accustomed. But we gained something unanticipated and priceless from this experience. We had to contemplate what connection and engagement were all about when we were without the benefit of the direct human contact that we took for granted. Thus, astonishingly, I believe that online learning has taught us much about how to engage and connect, and that there is some serendipity for us to be forced into online learning. To reach an objective that we did not even know we were targeting offers us a breathtaking sensation. So, when we eventually get together back on campus, we will combine the best qualities of online and in-person learning. This combination will be for the benefit of both obtaining knowledge and connecting with one another. The pandemic will thus have taught us one of the most treasured lessons of our lives.

Together in Loyola,

Norberto M. Grzywacz
Provost and Chief Academic Officer