Jan Costenbader

Face-to-Face, Blended or Online – No significant difference, but…

The growth of online and blended offerings, nationwide, continues at a steady pace. Although this data is several years old, the trend, especially at our institution, continues on the same path.


Source: Babson Survey Research Group, Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States ©, January 2014.

In Fall 2013, 26.5% of the undergraduates and 30.8% of the graduate students were enrolled in one or more distance education courses. As instructional designers, we frequently evangelize the benefits of blended/online courses, but how effective are those courses with regards to learning outcomes? I teach a Quantitative Reasoning course (LSP 120) which uses a standardized curriculum across all the sections. The course is offered face-to-face, blended and fully online. One of my colleagues, Joanna Deszcz, has compiled final exam and final grade data for 14 sections of LSP 120 over three years.


As you can see, there is little difference in the outcomes between the three different modalities. So it does appear that students are performing about the same, regardless of the modality. However, a look at the standard deviation sheds a little more light on the outcomes, particularly in the online sections.


Note that the standard deviation in the final exam in the online sections is higher and that the final course grade of the online sections is nearly twice that of the face-to-face. This indicates that the spectrum of grades is wide spread with students falling at the high end and low end of the scale with fewer in the middle. This tracks with anecdotal experience I have had with my own online sections of Math 094 and Math 100. Typically, I have more A’s and more failures in all of my online courses. Of course, the question is why?

Unfortunately, there is little data as to why this spread occurs and it is left to conjecture from watching students in the blended/online environment. I routinely survey my students in my hybrid classes and find that a fair number are worried about their time management.


I see this especially in my online sections of Math 100. I spend the first few weeks, sending frequent email reminders to students encouraging them to get engaged with the material and complete the homework assignments. Unfortunately, some never get the message. Currently, we are in week 6 of the quarter and I have two students out of twenty that have not completed a single assignment. Needless to say, they will add to the wider standard deviation of the final scores.

In the same survey, I ask students why they are taking the fully online or hybrid course. The answers are quite surprising:


This is a typical response for my hybrid courses, less so for fully online courses. Online courses are flagged at the top level of the class search that students use to enroll.


There is not a similar flag for hybrid courses and it is only evident when you drill down to the specific course information.


Flagging hybrid courses at a higher level may help somewhat, but it still remains that students are not sure what to expect in a hybrid or online course.


The real unanswered question is how do we reduce the spread in the results of both hybrid and online courses? I am a strong advocate of frequent communications from the professor, watching the student results early and sending frequent communications to all students, encouraging them to complete the work on time and recognizing students that are doing well. In addition, I send a welcome email a week before the course starts, letting the students know what the expectations are and especially telling them that it is a hybrid or online course and that much of the responsibility falls on them. This is a portion of the email that I send.


3. This is a fully online course, so a lot of responsibility rests with you to complete the work on time. I think we have prepared some engaging lectures and suitable practice problems, but it will take some discipline on your part to complete the work on time. Essentially, Sunday is the day you should remember. You need to complete the all work by Sunday night at midnight. The quizzes, however, MUST be completed by the due date. You can take each quiz three times and your highest score counts, so start early and don’t wait until 11PM Sunday night to do the work.

4. I will monitor your progress closely and am always here to help. Drop by my office, send me an email and, if there is enough interest, I will hold virtual office hours via webcam.

DO NOT PANIC! This might sound like a lot to do, but it really is not. Each item requires you to do something small. Pace yourself. Do not leave it to the last minute and you should do OK.


If I see that, early on, they are having trouble completing the assignments, I send a friendly email suggesting that they transfer to a face-to-face section. In spite of all this, I still see the spread in grades. Some students do very well and some struggle, with few in the middle.

There are also a number of online learning surveys that students can take to help them assess if they are ready to take an online course (they are quite similar):


It is not clear if these self-assessment tools are effective in encouraging/discouraging students from enrolling in an online course. What is clear, however, is that we, as faculty and instructional designers, need to continue to find ways monitor, encourage and coach our online students to a successful completion of the courses.

Jan Costenbader

About Jan Costenbader

Jan came to DePaul from California State University, Chico in November of 2010. There, he taught Mathematics and developed an online hybrid Mathematics course for General Education Mathematics. He also assisted faculty in course design as an instructional designer. Currently, he provides instructional design consultation to the College of Science and Health, the Quantitative Reasoning program and several departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. In addition, he teaches fully online developmental Mathematics and blended Quantitive Reasoning courses.

Leave a Reply