1 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 1 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings Indiana University Bloomington
2 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 2 Introduction Advances in technology have made online education an increasingly common occurrence across most collegiate programs, including business schools where internet-based courses are seen as vital alternatives or supplements to traditional classroom-based courses (Rossin et. al., 2009). Online courses afford the student greater convenience and flexibility through anytime, anywhere learning (Bocchi et al., 2004), and have allowed individuals participating in MBA programs the ability to remain in the workforce and keep working while completing their degree requirements. Given the undeniable popularity of these courses in U.S. MBA programs, it is no longer a question of if this delivery model is here to stay, but rather how can programs organize and leverage their existing assets to transition from relying solely on the traditional classroom experience to attract students. Indeed, the online MBA is here to stay, and as a result, it is becoming increasingly important for the scholarly community to continue its exploration of the key predictors of effective online instruction. As Arbaugh indicated in his 2009 review of the literature, researchers have found that in general, online courses are at least comparable to classroom courses in achieving desired learning outcomes (Arbaugh, 2009). This paper is intended to summarize the theoretical foundations of the current literature on online MBA education effectiveness, with further emphasis on what we know about the online student, the online instructor, and the online learning environment. The implications of our current understanding are offered, and suggestions for further investigation are provided. Online business education Theoretical foundations for measuring effectiveness Research of online education began in earnest around the turn of the 21 st century. Given the newness of the instructional method, scholars turned to established models of technology
3 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 3 adaptation to predict satisfaction with Internet-based courses. The Technology Acceptance Model (Davis, 1989) suggests that beliefs and attitudes towards a technology predict whether or not the technology will be adopted. Leveraging this framework, researchers sought to apply measures of usefulness and ease of use to predict student satisfaction with online instruction. Using this framework, Arbaugh (2000) found that flexibility and the ability to leverage the technical platform to design an interactive course plays a larger role in determining student satisfaction that the ease of use or frequency with which the medium can be used. Building upon this initial investigation, Arbaugh added the Computer Mediated Communications framework (Lediner & Jarvenpaa, 1995) to find the behavioral characteristics of online instruction were stronger predictors of student satisfaction than technical characteristics of the learning platform. Finally, Prosperio (2007) uses the Internet Technologies Classification schema offered by Morris & Egan (1996) to assess the next generation of learners (V-Gen) ability to achieve learning goals in an online setting. He finds that students must possess the ability to make content connections via hyperlinks, forge interpersonal connections with their peers, and make complex inter-domain connections within the context of the course. In addition to frameworks that focused on the technical aspects of online learning environments, there has also been a subsequent effort to conceptualize modes of learning online. Arbaugh (2004) utilized Transactional Distance Theory (Moore, 1973) to find that while most indicators of online learning quality increase significantly as students take additional online courses, much of this increase occurs between the first and second instance. Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fich (2006) developed the Teaching Approach Framework which combines the social dimensions of learning (individual vs. group) with the epistemological dimension (objectivist vs. constructivist) and conclude that courses conducted with objectivist and group approaches led to
4 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 4 higher learning and student satisfaction in online instruction. Scholars additionally applied the Knowledge Construction theory (Benbunan-Fich, 2006) to explore the relationship between types of participant interaction in online learning environments. Although learner-learner interactions do not have a significant effect on student learning, it appears learner-instructor and learner-system interactions do in fact predict higher perceptions of learning (Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fich, 2007). While Lee et. al., (2007) found that both students and instructors value case-based learning approaches online, little empirical evidence was provided to support its impact on learning relative to case-based teaching in the traditional classroom. There have been far fewer studies in the current literature that examine the impact of subject matter in online business education. In 2005, Arbaugh used the Structure-Conduct- Performance framework (Rummelt, 1991) to examine the role subject matter plays in both learning and satisfaction for online learners. His conclusions point to the lack of evidence that subject matter has any effect at all, and that course conduct is a more significant predictor on course outcomes. In an exploratory analysis, Liu et. al., (2010) found that online business education lacked global orientation, and significant language and cultural barriers continue to limit international student participation in online MBA education. Perhaps the most influential of all theories to date in online instruction comes to us from the work of Garrison et al. (2000), in the form of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework. The framework, built upon the earlier work of Lipman (1991), describes three categories critical inquiry in text-based learning environments, conceived through detailed reviews of transcripts of prior online instruction examples. The most basic of the three elements, yet the least researched is cognitive presence (Dewey, 1931), and represents the ability of students within the community of inquiry to construct meaning through sustained communication. The second element of the
5 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 5 model, and conversely the most heavily researched, is social presence (Garrison, 1997). Social presence is defined as the ability for participants to build and sustain their personal identity or personality characteristics into the community. This allows participants to present themselves as individual realities, and not faceless contributors. Liu (2007) finds that close relationships exist between the sense of a learning community and perceived learning of the individual, yet most online instructors are not community building minded when designing for online instruction. The final element of the model, teaching presence, consists of both the design and facilitation functions of the educational experience. As Garrison et. al., point out, facilitation is not solely the responsibility of the instructor, however, and may in fact be shared among the teacher and some or all of the students in the learning environment. Following the conceptualization of the CoI framework, Shea et. al., (2003) developed a survey instrument designed to operationalize the work of Garrison et. al. Although cognitive presence proved to be the most difficult category to test, a robust 34-question survey has emerged. Scholars continue to call for efforts to collect evidence to build support for the CoI survey instrument from across diverse higher education disciplines and programs to increase its value as a formative assessment tool (Bangert, 2009). Attempts to prove both the construct and external validity of the CoI framework have proven fruitful. Arbaugh (2008) tested the external validity of the framework and found the CoI framework to be a parsimonious predictor of learning in MBA courses; teaching presence is a much stronger predictor learning than student satisfaction, social presence is a much stronger predictor of satisfaction than learning, and cognitive presence a strong predictor of learning. Following this study, Shea (2009) finds the instrument used to measure the construct includes survey items that cohere into interpretable factors that represent the intended CoI framework.
6 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 6 Further, Shea contends CoI is preferable to the competing Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) framework (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) which does not account for the role of the learner in knowledge building in online education. Overview of our Current Understanding Research on the efficacy and effectiveness of online business education began in earnest at the turn of the century. Although much of what we know has not found its way to technology mediated journals (Arbaugh et. al., 2009), scholars have tended to focus in three areas of research: what we know about the online student learner, what we know about the online instructor, and what we know about the technology platform used to deliver instruction. What follows is a summary of the current literature, organized by these three principles. A summary of our learning to date is shown in Table 1. What we know about the student Program Selection Criteria Only recently have researchers attempted to describe the motivations of a typical MBA student in selecting online degree programs. In a 2010 qualitative study, Rydzewski et. al., found several important selection criteria amongst both recent alums and current students in the federated Georgia WebMBA program. The importance of characteristics fall into three categories: availability, quality, program length and cost, and courses offered. It appears more experienced students view availability to be more important criteria than those with fewer years of previous work experience. However, we still do not know how students determine the strength of each factor when making the selection decision, nor do we have any comparison of a students motivation visa-vie the decision to attend a traditional MBA Program. Demographic Predictors
7 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 7 Liu finds that there is a close relationship between the sense of learning community and perceived learning of the individual student (Liu et. al., 2007). This sense of community building may help explain a curious finding of Arbaugh (2000) who suggests that there may be a genderbased difference in class participation, with females participating far more in the online setting versus the traditional classroom. If in fact female students prioritize building relationships, and contribute more actively in online courses, we may in fact be able to draw conclusions to support improved performance for this demographic. However, in 2005, Arbaugh found a negative relationship between learning and gender. This may suggest that perhaps women s efforts to build a sense of community went unnoticed by their peers in this particular study. Further research on gender bias in online MBA programs may help resolve this apparent contradiction in the literature. Age, skill level, attitudes, number of courses, and prior work experience were viewed in any of the reviewed publications to be a predictor of perceived learning or satisfaction in the online environment. However, as Liu et. al. (2010) point out, international students face significant learning barriers when it comes to language, cultural differences, time zone differences, academic conduct assumptions, and the lack of multi-cultural content. With respect to students familiarity with online learning, Arbaugh (2004) finds that online learning quality increases significantly as students take subsequent online courses, but much of this increase occurs between the first and second online course. Learning Styles One major distinction that has often been studied between online and traditional business education is the type of interaction students have with their peers, the instructor, and the online learning platform. Arbaugh et. al., (2007) found that although learner-learner interactions enhance teaming skills, only learner-instructor and learner-system interactions predict higher
8 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 8 perceptions of learning. There is a discrepancy in the literature regarding the impact learnerlearner interaction has on student satisfaction with online learning. Although Eom (2006) predicted a strong positive relationship between learner-learner interaction and satisfaction, Arbaugh et. al. found just the opposite to be true. We also know that course structure also influences student satisfaction (Arbaugh et. al., 2007). Lee et. al., (2009) examined the case method in-depth, and found that both students and instructors value case-based learning. Although whole class discussion was the most common instructional activity, students were equally satisfied with asynchronous discussion forums, question and answer formats, round robin discussions, role play, and simple reflection activities. From the literature, we also see that blended classroom and virtual-based interaction may lead to more effective learning (Arbaugh et. al., 2009). Generally, online courses are at least comparable to classroom courses in achieved the desired learning outcomes, but students report a more positive experience from learning in a high dialogue, low structure environment online (Arbaugh et. al, 2009). With the emphasis students place on high levels of dialog online, it becomes apparent that the moderator of such discussions must work to employ strategies to manage over-participation, or risk losing the sense of community so strongly correlated to higher levels of academic achievement. Curricula There has also been an emerging discussion in the literature with respect to the role content or subject matter plays in both student perceived learning and satisfaction. Inquiry into the appropriateness of specific disciplines for the online learning environment has yielded several results. In 2007, Arbaugh et. al., finds that perceived learning is higher for students in less quantitative courses. The courses that contributed to this conclusion in the study came from
9 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 9 the disciplines of Finance and Management Information Systems. Interestingly enough, a subsequent review of the literature by Arbaugh et. al. (2009), finds that Finance and Economics are two of the most under-represented disciplines in the research of online learning strategies, while Information Systems and Management have the highest volumes of research activity. The results regarding disciplines effect on student satisfaction, however, are less convincing. The only study reviewed that investigated the question found only a weak correlation between discipline and student satisfaction (Arbaugh et. al., 2007). A follow-on study finds that students in health and technology related courses rated all three dimensions of CoI higher on average than other courses (Arbaugh, 2010). While quantitative courses score lower in cognitive presence, business law and ethics courses score much higher in teaching and social presence than the rest of the core business disciplines. Comparing the analysis of CoI to perceived learning and satisfaction, we see that lower cognitive presence is highly correlated with the lack of perceived learning by business students. Clearly these courses struggle to provide learning opportunities that may or may not be associated with limitations of the current technologies utilized to conduct online instruction. What we know about the instructor Instructor Demographics Although not surprising, instructor experience with online teaching is a strong predictor of both students perceived learning and satisfaction (Arbaugh, 2005). The typical online MBA student tends to be more experienced, and many have full-time employment responsibilities competing for their attention throughout their study. For this reason, there is very little patience for instructors who are unfamiliar with the technical resources, and/or are perceived to be learning online interaction styles as they go. Online students expect the instructor to be
10 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 10 comfortable with the capabilities of employed technology, and how to moderate asynchronous discussions. Additionally, a point of divergence between student expectations and instructor attitudes can be seen in the work of Liu et. al., (2007). Although students reported a close relationship between the sense of a learning community and perceived learning, overall the instructors in this study reported to not be community building minded. Instructors appear to be far more focused on material coverage, than on the process of collaborative learning online. Important research remains to confirm this discrepancy, and identify guidelines for instructors to strike a balance between content and process. Instructional Strategies In perhaps a nod to the efficiency that students seeking in choosing online MBA Programs (Mujtaba, 2007), students expressed perceived learning gains when instructors choose an objectivist learning approach (Arbaugh, 2006). As opposed to a constructivist approach, which provides students the latitude to construct knowledge for themselves, there is an expressed need for both clarity and discernible correctness when instructors elect clear and reasonable learning objectives for the course. Along with objectivist approaches, students also report higher perceiving learning when group work selected over individual assignments. This goes hand in hand with the students desire to build a learning community, and suggests that online MBA students enjoy interacting with their peers in support of achieving the identified learning outcomes. Not only is interaction with peers important in building teaming skills in online MBA courses, students also report that an interactive teaching style may be most appropriate for online courses as well (Arbaugh, 2002). Learner-instructor interactions show some of the strongest
11 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 11 predictors of online student s perceived learning (Arbaugh et. al., 2009). Students want the instructor to be engaged, and not simply load the course software with lecture slides and stand aside. Although the interactivity desired does not always have to be driven by the instructor, students express the need to feel activity and a sense of presence from the instructor in a virtual classroom. Virtual Classroom Behaviors As an indication of the vital role an instructor plays in online learning, students report the behavior characteristics of the instructor as a strong predictor not only of their perceived learning, but also of their overall satisfaction with the course (Arbaugh, 2002). Teaching presence, as defined by the Community of Inquiry framework, has been studied by many scholars through the operationalization of the construct using a 20 question survey instrument developed by Shea et. al., (2006). Utilizing this survey instrument, several consistent themes have emerged regarding the instructors behaviors in an online course that led to both higher levels of perceived student learning, as well as increased student satisfaction. First, it is clear from the literature that instructors are expected to provide a facilitative, yet expert role in the virtual classroom. Online students do not expect a sage on the stage, or someone who blunts the process of discovery. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, instructor login was found to be a negative predictor of learning (Arbaugh, 2010). Instead, Bower (2003) offers three principles for instructor behavior: 1) silence is golden, 2) don t answer but promote discovery, and 3) encourage and inspire. Immediacy behaviors that provide timely, relevant feedback were positive predictors of both learning and satisfaction, but results indicate this is a small, yet significant explanation in the variance of student responses (Arbaugh, 2010).
12 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 12 Secondly, an equally as important, there is also evidence that instructors need to structure and organize their courses before the course begins, and focus on efficient engagement with the enrolled students while the class is in session. There is heavy emphasis in the literature on the need for the instructor to communicate goals, provide clear instructions, and set deadlines for online MBA students (Arbaugh, 2010). This approach allows students with competing demands for their time at work and home to more effectively manage the additional workload commiserate with taking an online course. Once structure is provided upon initial setup of the course, ongoing process interventions by the instructor are necessary to promote discovery and understanding. What we know about the learning environment Course technology When evaluating the role technology plays in online business education, three important variables have been considered: usefulness, ease of use, and flexibility. The flexibility of the medium and the ability to develop an interactive course environment play a larger role in determining student satisfaction that the ease or frequency with which the medium is used by students (Arbaugh, 2000). Further, it appears current technologies are not detrimental to the learning process, although further research by discipline may uncover obstacles with quantitative courses. Given the centrality of course technology as a delivery medium for online instruction, many scholars have called for more institutional support that educates faculty on the use of technology prior to teaching online (Arbaugh et. al., 2009). Given the increased number of platform choices, more studies that examine the differences between these platforms and their effectiveness in achieving learning outcomes is an important next step for researchers. Media Variety
13 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 13 The variety of media used in an online course has been consistently evaluated as being positively associated with both learning and student satisfaction (Arbaugh et. al., 2007). Online students expect the instructor to utilize the full capability of online software, but expect consistent use of these capabilities throughout their program. Recent qualitative research from one major Midwest online MBA program suggests student frustration can set in when instructors place common course documents such as syllabi and assignment descriptions in different locations throughout the online platform. Follow-on research has attempted to clarify what students mean by media variety. Mujtaba (2007) conducted qualitative research with online students at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship of Nova Southeastern University, and found that students would like to see downloadable audio and visual lectures, CD-ROM based simulations, synchronous voice and video discussions, and external web hyperlinks all incorporated in the online environment to aid and assist in the learning process. Going forward, the implication is that instructors should spend significant time upfront designing curriculum based on clear learning outcomes, and apply the technical implementation that best supports this design. Unfortunately, many faculty currently approach their curriculum in reverse; spending time with structuring content to fit within the confines of their current capabilities to deliver within the online platform. Implications for Further Research A rich body of knowledge on online business education began to emerge at the turn of the 21 st century. As scholars began to explore the nuances of this new delivery mechanism, we have learned the nuances of online learning as they relate to students, faculty, and the technical environment. What follows are suggestions for the continued research of the scholarly
14 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 14 community, taking into account what we already know, what confirmatory tasks we have, and what new environmental threats challenge our current assumptions. Clarifying the technical needs of students Given the proliferation of educational learning platforms, it is surprising that to date there have been very few studies exploring the nuances of these environments. There is a need for comparative studies of the effectiveness of the various software packages with the intent of producing a dominant design (Arbaugh, 2000). A complete needs analysis performed with current and prospective online MBA students may provide insights for operationalizing a construct to evaluate tool capabilities that lead to effective online learning environments. Although individual product vendors have independently taken the first step, empirical research to validate the efficacy of these tools is important and has practical implications for both administrators and individual faculty when selecting online software packages. In examining software design characteristics, scholars should seek to understand how learner-system interactions are supported, and how the learner s general internet self-efficacy and courseware self-efficacy affect beliefs, attitudes, intentions and actual usage (Arbaugh et. al., 2007). In so doing, we may gain valuable insight about the lack of an identified relationship between learner usage of the courseware and student performance. Comparing online to traditional classrooms Although the CoI survey instrument has stood up to tests for both internal and external validity, and continues to be a reliable assessment tool for the efficacy of online instruction, few models have been operationalized in a similar fashion to study the comparison between online and traditional learning in business education. Studies that examine perceived learning in both environments have concluded that online learning can be just as effective as traditional learning,
15 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 15 yet we still don t know under what conditions this holds true. The scholarly community is challenged to develop a construct capable of discerning nuances between subject matter, learner interaction modes, and assessment techniques in both environments. For example, Lee s study in 2009 concluded that case-based learning was valued by students in an online course. However, a follow-up study is required to investigate the learning improvement in comparing traditional versus online case teaching to inform instructors on the emphasis they place on this technique in both settings. Clarifying the interaction model Today, most online MBA programs employ a mix of face-to-face and online instruction. Further, within each course, instructors also leverage a mix of synchronous and asynchronous discussion forums. Knowing the value online students place on learner-learner interactions for building a sense of community, and learner-instructor interactions for coaching and guidance, it is imperative that continued research seeks to clarify the appropriate types and levels of interaction. More refined measures of interaction such as small group formation, conversational style, encouragement, or discussion synthesis could help refine the immediacy behaviors students purport to be strong predictors of learning and satisfaction in online courses (Arbaugh, 2002). In addition, qualitative research that examines the nature of discourse in online discussions might help scholars determine what kinds of conversations lead to both social and cognitive presence, both of which are fundamental to our understanding of the CoI construct (Shea et. al., 2009). In the event we are able to clarify the optimal interaction model, practical questions regarding the optimal class size, and controlling for both over and under participation amongst participants will become approachable.
16 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 16 Longitudinal studies throughout an online program To date, only a handful of studies have examined students perceptions of learning and satisfaction in an online MBA program over time (Arbaugh, 2004). We know that much of the increase in learning perception occurs between the first and second online course, but there is a need to extend this line of research to follow a cohort throughout the lifecycle of their full degree program. By doing so, we may learn more about the types of scaffolding an instructor needs to put in place depending on the experience of the learner. We may also be in a better position to describe how the technical environment needs to change to reflect the growth of students from course to course. A one size fits all design for all courses in an online program may cause unnecessary frustration for entering students, while also leading to monotony and boredom for soon-to-be graduates. In addition to extending the duration of study for online learners, there is a similar call to extend the breadth of studies. More multidisciplinary, multi-institutional studies would assist in the ability to generalize some of the emerging themes in the literature. Teaching the teacher in online instruction To date, most instructors have learned on the job after years of leading courses in traditional classrooms. While we are beginning to understand better what instructor behaviors lead to increased levels of learning online, there is a need to further our research in this area by studying what demographic, dispositional, and behavioral characteristics are particularly desirable of online instructors (Arbaugh et. al., 2009). We have yet to answer the fundamental question, Do instructors just have a knack for online instruction, or can they be trained? (Arbaugh et. al., 2010). Once we understand the behaviors of successful online instructors better, we will be better positioned to understand whether high levels of proficiency with any one
17 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 17 dimension of behavior can offset low levels of another. This investigation is all in support of building towards a robust set of training materials future online instructors can access before stepping into the virtual classroom. Accessing the instructors who have preceded us and learned the hard way provides us with an important opportunity to be true stewards of the online teaching model. Table 1. Online Education Research Knowledge Summary What we know about Students Students make online MBA selection decisions based on availability, quality, program length and cost, and courses Students who perceive a sense of community in their course report higher perceived learning outcomes International students participating in online courses experience barriers related to language, culture, time zones, and academic content. Much of the increase in learning quality amongst online students occurs between the first and second course Learner-instructor and learner-system interactions are both significant predictors of perceived learning online Case-based learning online leads to higher levels of student satisfaction Students struggle with perceived learning in highly quantitative online courses Practical Implications Administrators should focus on creating flexible programs that shorten the duration and decrease the cost of MBA degrees while holding quality of instruction consistent with on-campus program. Instructors should consider posting of personal pages, and collaborative ad hoc activities to build a sense of community early in the course. Instructors must place an emphasis on reducing multi-cultural impediments to learning and take a global perspective when designing course materials. Administrators should encourage students to take at least 2 online courses before dropping out of the program, and students should be provided with materials on how to learn online before the first course begins. Instructors must be engaged with their courses and be proficient with the platform for students to learn. Instructors should transform their role to guide from that of lecturer, and make students comfortable with case-based learning procedures before utilizing this method. Instructors in highly quantitative disciplines (e.g., Finance & Economics) should consider blended classrooms or more high-fidelity techniques to support virtual classroom
18 Online MBA Education: A Review of the Literature and Key Findings 18 Instructors Previous online teaching experience is positively associated with student learning and satisfaction Instructors do not place a priority on building a sense of community for online learners Courses conducted with objectivist and group approaches lead to higher student learning and satisfaction Learner-instructor interactions and immediacy behaviors lead to higher student learning and satisfaction Instructors who play the role of expert guides lead to higher levels of perceived learning and satisfaction Learning Environment Flexibility of the medium and the ability to develop an interactive course environment play a significant role in determining student satisfaction Current platforms struggle to provide effective learning opportunities for quantitatively oriented courses Students expect consistency across courses with respect to platform usage Students expect a rich and diverse set of media to complement their learning in the online environment interaction First time online instructors should be given guidance, or an experienced peer mentor to help them through their initial course conduct Instructors can offset a lack of experience with a stronger focus on learner-learner interactions. Instructors need to set clear learning outcomes and define group assignments designed to achieve these outcomes Instructors need to be actively engaged in facilitating and leading online instruction, and provide timely feedback that guides and promotes discovery Faculty should focus less on dispensing information ( sage on the stage ), and more on creating a collaborative discussion facilitated by an expert ( guide on the side ) Administrators should spend time collecting requirements from instructors prior to making the online software platform decision Instructors teaching quantitative courses need to focus on providing additional scaffolding support for students in these disciplines Program leadership should establish guidelines for common usage patterns such as syllabi and assignment placement Instructors should being with an instructional design built upon identified learning outcomes before challenging themselves on bringing the appropriate resources to bear in the online course
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