Click through the PLOS taxonomy to find articles in your field.

For more information about PLOS Subject Areas, click here .

Loading metrics

Open Access


Research Article

COVID-19’s impacts on the scope, effectiveness, and interaction characteristics of online learning: A social network analysis

Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing – review & editing

¶ ‡ JZ and YD are contributed equally to this work as first authors.

Affiliation School of Educational Information Technology, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, Guangdong, China

Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing – original draft

Affiliations School of Educational Information Technology, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, Hangzhou Zhongce Vocational School Qiantang, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China

Roles Data curation, Writing – original draft

Roles Data curation

Roles Writing – original draft

Affiliation Faculty of Education, Shenzhen University, Shenzhen, Guangdong, China

Roles Conceptualization, Supervision, Writing – review & editing

* E-mail: [email protected] (JH); [email protected] (YZ)

ORCID logo

  • Junyi Zhang, 
  • Yigang Ding, 
  • Xinru Yang, 
  • Jinping Zhong, 
  • XinXin Qiu, 
  • Zhishan Zou, 
  • Yujie Xu, 
  • Xiunan Jin, 
  • Xiaomin Wu, 


  • Published: August 23, 2022
  • Reader Comments

Table 1

The COVID-19 outbreak brought online learning to the forefront of education. Scholars have conducted many studies on online learning during the pandemic, but only a few have performed quantitative comparative analyses of students’ online learning behavior before and after the outbreak. We collected review data from China’s massive open online course platform called icourse.163 and performed social network analysis on 15 courses to explore courses’ interaction characteristics before, during, and after the COVID-19 pan-demic. Specifically, we focused on the following aspects: (1) variations in the scale of online learning amid COVID-19; (2a) the characteristics of online learning interaction during the pandemic; (2b) the characteristics of online learning interaction after the pandemic; and (3) differences in the interaction characteristics of social science courses and natural science courses. Results revealed that only a small number of courses witnessed an uptick in online interaction, suggesting that the pandemic’s role in promoting the scale of courses was not significant. During the pandemic, online learning interaction became more frequent among course network members whose interaction scale increased. After the pandemic, although the scale of interaction declined, online learning interaction became more effective. The scale and level of interaction in Electrodynamics (a natural science course) and Economics (a social science course) both rose during the pan-demic. However, long after the pandemic, the Economics course sustained online interaction whereas interaction in the Electrodynamics course steadily declined. This discrepancy could be due to the unique characteristics of natural science courses and social science courses.

Citation: Zhang J, Ding Y, Yang X, Zhong J, Qiu X, Zou Z, et al. (2022) COVID-19’s impacts on the scope, effectiveness, and interaction characteristics of online learning: A social network analysis. PLoS ONE 17(8): e0273016.

Editor: Heng Luo, Central China Normal University, CHINA

Received: April 20, 2022; Accepted: July 29, 2022; Published: August 23, 2022

Copyright: © 2022 Zhang et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: The data underlying the results presented in the study were downloaded from and are now shared fully on Github ( ). These data have no private information and can be used for academic research free of charge.

Funding: The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

1. Introduction

The development of the mobile internet has spurred rapid advances in online learning, offering novel prospects for teaching and learning and a learning experience completely different from traditional instruction. Online learning harnesses the advantages of network technology and multimedia technology to transcend the boundaries of conventional education [ 1 ]. Online courses have become a popular learning mode owing to their flexibility and openness. During online learning, teachers and students are in different physical locations but interact in multiple ways (e.g., via online forum discussions and asynchronous group discussions). An analysis of online learning therefore calls for attention to students’ participation. Alqurashi [ 2 ] defined interaction in online learning as the process of constructing meaningful information and thought exchanges between more than two people; such interaction typically occurs between teachers and learners, learners and learners, and the course content and learners.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), a 21st-century teaching mode, have greatly influenced global education. Data released by China’s Ministry of Education in 2020 show that the country ranks first globally in the number and scale of higher education MOOCs. The COVID-19 outbreak has further propelled this learning mode, with universities being urged to leverage MOOCs and other online resource platforms to respond to government’s “School’s Out, But Class’s On” policy [ 3 ]. Besides MOOCs, to reduce in-person gatherings and curb the spread of COVID-19, various online learning methods have since become ubiquitous [ 4 ]. Though Lederman asserted that the COVID-19 outbreak has positioned online learning technologies as the best way for teachers and students to obtain satisfactory learning experiences [ 5 ], it remains unclear whether the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged interaction in online learning, as interactions between students and others play key roles in academic performance and largely determine the quality of learning experiences [ 6 ]. Similarly, it is also unclear what impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the scale of online learning.

Social constructivism paints learning as a social phenomenon. As such, analyzing the social structures or patterns that emerge during the learning process can shed light on learning-based interaction [ 7 ]. Social network analysis helps to explain how a social network, rooted in interactions between learners and their peers, guides individuals’ behavior, emotions, and outcomes. This analytical approach is especially useful for evaluating interactive relationships between network members [ 8 ]. Mohammed cited social network analysis (SNA) as a method that can provide timely information about students, learning communities and interactive networks. SNA has been applied in numerous fields, including education, to identify the number and characteristics of interelement relationships. For example, Lee et al. also used SNA to explore the effects of blogs on peer relationships [ 7 ]. Therefore, adopting SNA to examine interactions in online learning communities during the COVID-19 pandemic can uncover potential issues with this online learning model.

Taking China’s icourse.163 MOOC platform as an example, we chose 15 courses with a large number of participants for SNA, focusing on learners’ interaction characteristics before, during, and after the COVID-19 outbreak. We visually assessed changes in the scale of network interaction before, during, and after the outbreak along with the characteristics of interaction in Gephi. Examining students’ interactions in different courses revealed distinct interactive network characteristics, the pandemic’s impact on online courses, and relevant suggestions. Findings are expected to promote effective interaction and deep learning among students in addition to serving as a reference for the development of other online learning communities.

2. Literature review and research questions

Interaction is deemed as central to the educational experience and is a major focus of research on online learning. Moore began to study the problem of interaction in distance education as early as 1989. He defined three core types of interaction: student–teacher, student–content, and student–student [ 9 ]. Lear et al. [ 10 ] described an interactivity/ community-process model of distance education: they specifically discussed the relationships between interactivity, community awareness, and engaging learners and found interactivity and community awareness to be correlated with learner engagement. Zulfikar et al. [ 11 ] suggested that discussions initiated by the students encourage more students’ engagement than discussions initiated by the instructors. It is most important to afford learners opportunities to interact purposefully with teachers, and improving the quality of learner interaction is crucial to fostering profound learning [ 12 ]. Interaction is an important way for learners to communicate and share information, and a key factor in the quality of online learning [ 13 ].

Timely feedback is the main component of online learning interaction. Woo and Reeves discovered that students often become frustrated when they fail to receive prompt feedback [ 14 ]. Shelley et al. conducted a three-year study of graduate and undergraduate students’ satisfaction with online learning at universities and found that interaction with educators and students is the main factor affecting satisfaction [ 15 ]. Teachers therefore need to provide students with scoring justification, support, and constructive criticism during online learning. Some researchers examined online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that most students preferred face-to-face learning rather than online learning due to obstacles faced online, such as a lack of motivation, limited teacher-student interaction, and a sense of isolation when learning in different times and spaces [ 16 , 17 ]. However, it can be reduced by enhancing the online interaction between teachers and students [ 18 ].

Research showed that interactions contributed to maintaining students’ motivation to continue learning [ 19 ]. Baber argued that interaction played a key role in students’ academic performance and influenced the quality of the online learning experience [ 20 ]. Hodges et al. maintained that well-designed online instruction can lead to unique teaching experiences [ 21 ]. Banna et al. mentioned that using discussion boards, chat sessions, blogs, wikis, and other tools could promote student interaction and improve participation in online courses [ 22 ]. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mahmood proposed a series of teaching strategies suitable for distance learning to improve its effectiveness [ 23 ]. Lapitan et al. devised an online strategy to ease the transition from traditional face-to-face instruction to online learning [ 24 ]. The preceding discussion suggests that online learning goes beyond simply providing learning resources; teachers should ideally design real-life activities to give learners more opportunities to participate.

As mentioned, COVID-19 has driven many scholars to explore the online learning environment. However, most have ignored the uniqueness of online learning during this time and have rarely compared pre- and post-pandemic online learning interaction. Taking China’s icourse.163 MOOC platform as an example, we chose 15 courses with a large number of participants for SNA, centering on student interaction before and after the pandemic. Gephi was used to visually analyze changes in the scale and characteristics of network interaction. The following questions were of particular interest:

  • (1) Can the COVID-19 pandemic promote the expansion of online learning?
  • (2a) What are the characteristics of online learning interaction during the pandemic?
  • (2b) What are the characteristics of online learning interaction after the pandemic?
  • (3) How do interaction characteristics differ between social science courses and natural science courses?

3. Methodology

3.1 research context.

We selected several courses with a large number of participants and extensive online interaction among hundreds of courses on the icourse.163 MOOC platform. These courses had been offered on the platform for at least three semesters, covering three periods (i.e., before, during, and after the COVID-19 outbreak). To eliminate the effects of shifts in irrelevant variables (e.g., course teaching activities), we chose several courses with similar teaching activities and compared them on multiple dimensions. All course content was taught online. The teachers of each course posted discussion threads related to learning topics; students were expected to reply via comments. Learners could exchange ideas freely in their responses in addition to asking questions and sharing their learning experiences. Teachers could answer students’ questions as well. Conversations in the comment area could partly compensate for a relative absence of online classroom interaction. Teacher–student interaction is conducive to the formation of a social network structure and enabled us to examine teachers’ and students’ learning behavior through SNA. The comment areas in these courses were intended for learners to construct knowledge via reciprocal communication. Meanwhile, by answering students’ questions, teachers could encourage them to reflect on their learning progress. These courses’ successive terms also spanned several phases of COVID-19, allowing us to ascertain the pandemic’s impact on online learning.

3.2 Data collection and preprocessing

To avoid interference from invalid or unclear data, the following criteria were applied to select representative courses: (1) generality (i.e., public courses and professional courses were chosen from different schools across China); (2) time validity (i.e., courses were held before during, and after the pandemic); and (3) notability (i.e., each course had at least 2,000 participants). We ultimately chose 15 courses across the social sciences and natural sciences (see Table 1 ). The coding is used to represent the course name.


  • PPT PowerPoint slide
  • PNG larger image
  • TIFF original image

To discern courses’ evolution during the pandemic, we gathered data on three terms before, during, and after the COVID-19 outbreak in addition to obtaining data from two terms completed well before the pandemic and long after. Our final dataset comprised five sets of interactive data. Finally, we collected about 120,000 comments for SNA. Because each course had a different start time—in line with fluctuations in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in China and the opening dates of most colleges and universities—we divided our sample into five phases: well before the pandemic (Phase I); before the pandemic (Phase Ⅱ); during the pandemic (Phase Ⅲ); after the pandemic (Phase Ⅳ); and long after the pandemic (Phase Ⅴ). We sought to preserve consistent time spans to balance the amount of data in each period ( Fig 1 ).


3.3 Instrumentation

Participants’ comments and “thumbs-up” behavior data were converted into a network structure and compared using social network analysis (SNA). Network analysis, according to M’Chirgui, is an effective tool for clarifying network relationships by employing sophisticated techniques [ 25 ]. Specifically, SNA can help explain the underlying relationships among team members and provide a better understanding of their internal processes. Yang and Tang used SNA to discuss the relationship between team structure and team performance [ 26 ]. Golbeck argued that SNA could improve the understanding of students’ learning processes and reveal learners’ and teachers’ role dynamics [ 27 ].

To analyze Question (1), the number of nodes and diameter in the generated network were deemed as indicators of changes in network size. Social networks are typically represented as graphs with nodes and degrees, and node count indicates the sample size [ 15 ]. Wellman et al. proposed that the larger the network scale, the greater the number of network members providing emotional support, goods, services, and companionship [ 28 ]. Jan’s study measured the network size by counting the nodes which represented students, lecturers, and tutors [ 29 ]. Similarly, network nodes in the present study indicated how many learners and teachers participated in the course, with more nodes indicating more participants. Furthermore, we investigated the network diameter, a structural feature of social networks, which is a common metric for measuring network size in SNA [ 30 ]. The network diameter refers to the longest path between any two nodes in the network. There has been evidence that a larger network diameter leads to greater spread of behavior [ 31 ]. Likewise, Gašević et al. found that larger networks were more likely to spread innovative ideas about educational technology when analyzing MOOC-related research citations [ 32 ]. Therefore, we employed node count and network diameter to measure the network’s spatial size and further explore the expansion characteristic of online courses. Brief introduction of these indicators can be summarized in Table 2 .


To address Question (2), a list of interactive analysis metrics in SNA were introduced to scrutinize learners’ interaction characteristics in online learning during and after the pandemic, as shown below:

  • (1) The average degree reflects the density of the network by calculating the average number of connections for each node. As Rong and Xu suggested, the average degree of a network indicates how active its participants are [ 33 ]. According to Hu, a higher average degree implies that more students are interacting directly with each other in a learning context [ 34 ]. The present study inherited the concept of the average degree from these previous studies: the higher the average degree, the more frequent the interaction between individuals in the network.
  • (2) Essentially, a weighted average degree in a network is calculated by multiplying each degree by its respective weight, and then taking the average. Bydžovská took the strength of the relationship into account when determining the weighted average degree [ 35 ]. By calculating friendship’s weighted value, Maroulis assessed peer achievement within a small-school reform [ 36 ]. Accordingly, we considered the number of interactions as the weight of the degree, with a higher average degree indicating more active interaction among learners.
  • (3) Network density is the ratio between actual connections and potential connections in a network. The more connections group members have with each other, the higher the network density. In SNA, network density is similar to group cohesion, i.e., a network of more strong relationships is more cohesive [ 37 ]. Network density also reflects how much all members are connected together [ 38 ]. Therefore, we adopted network density to indicate the closeness among network members. Higher network density indicates more frequent interaction and closer communication among students.
  • (4) Clustering coefficient describes local network attributes and indicates that two nodes in the network could be connected through adjacent nodes. The clustering coefficient measures users’ tendency to gather (cluster) with others in the network: the higher the clustering coefficient, the more frequently users communicate with other group members. We regarded this indicator as a reflection of the cohesiveness of the group [ 39 ].
  • (5) In a network, the average path length is the average number of steps along the shortest paths between any two nodes. Oliveres has observed that when an average path length is small, the route from one node to another is shorter when graphed [ 40 ]. This is especially true in educational settings where students tend to become closer friends. So we consider that the smaller the average path length, the greater the possibility of interaction between individuals in the network.
  • (6) A network with a large number of nodes, but whose average path length is surprisingly small, is known as the small-world effect [ 41 ]. A higher clustering coefficient and shorter average path length are important indicators of a small-world network: a shorter average path length enables the network to spread information faster and more accurately; a higher clustering coefficient can promote frequent knowledge exchange within the group while boosting the timeliness and accuracy of knowledge dissemination [ 42 ]. Brief introduction of these indicators can be summarized in Table 3 .


To analyze Question 3, we used the concept of closeness centrality, which determines how close a vertex is to others in the network. As Opsahl et al. explained, closeness centrality reveals how closely actors are coupled with their entire social network [ 43 ]. In order to analyze social network-based engineering education, Putnik et al. examined closeness centrality and found that it was significantly correlated with grades [ 38 ]. We used closeness centrality to measure the position of an individual in the network. Brief introduction of these indicators can be summarized in Table 4 .


3.4 Ethics statement

This study was approved by the Academic Committee Office (ACO) of South China Normal University ( ), Guangzhou, China. Research data were collected from the open platform and analyzed anonymously. There are thus no privacy issues involved in this study.

4.1 COVID-19’s role in promoting the scale of online courses was not as important as expected

As shown in Fig 2 , the number of course participants and nodes are closely correlated with the pandemic’s trajectory. Because the number of participants in each course varied widely, we normalized the number of participants and nodes to more conveniently visualize course trends. Fig 2 depicts changes in the chosen courses’ number of participants and nodes before the pandemic (Phase II), during the pandemic (Phase III), and after the pandemic (Phase IV). The number of participants in most courses during the pandemic exceeded those before and after the pandemic. But the number of people who participate in interaction in some courses did not increase.


In order to better analyze the trend of interaction scale in online courses before, during, and after the pandemic, the selected courses were categorized according to their scale change. When the number of participants increased (decreased) beyond 20% (statistical experience) and the diameter also increased (decreased), the course scale was determined to have increased (decreased); otherwise, no significant change was identified in the course’s interaction scale. Courses were subsequently divided into three categories: increased interaction scale, decreased interaction scale, and no significant change. Results appear in Table 5 .


From before the pandemic until it broke out, the interaction scale of five courses increased, accounting for 33.3% of the full sample; one course’s interaction scale declined, accounting for 6.7%. The interaction scale of nine courses decreased, accounting for 60%. The pandemic’s role in promoting online courses thus was not as important as anticipated, and most courses’ interaction scale did not change significantly throughout.

No courses displayed growing interaction scale after the pandemic: the interaction scale of nine courses fell, accounting for 60%; and the interaction scale of six courses did not shift significantly, accounting for 40%. Courses with an increased scale of interaction during the pandemic did not maintain an upward trend. On the contrary, the improvement in the pandemic caused learners’ enthusiasm for online learning to wane. We next analyzed several interaction metrics to further explore course interaction during different pandemic periods.

4.2 Characteristics of online learning interaction amid COVID-19

4.2.1 during the covid-19 pandemic, online learning interaction in some courses became more active..

Changes in course indicators with the growing interaction scale during the pandemic are presented in Fig 3 , including SS5, SS6, NS1, NS3, and NS8. The horizontal ordinate indicates the number of courses, with red color representing the rise of the indicator value on the vertical ordinate and blue representing the decline.


Specifically: (1) The average degree and weighted average degree of the five course networks demonstrated an upward trend. The emergence of the pandemic promoted students’ enthusiasm; learners were more active in the interactive network. (2) Fig 3 shows that 3 courses had increased network density and 2 courses had decreased. The higher the network density, the more communication within the team. Even though the pandemic accelerated the interaction scale and frequency, the tightness between learners in some courses did not improve. (3) The clustering coefficient of social science courses rose whereas the clustering coefficient and small-world property of natural science courses fell. The higher the clustering coefficient and the small-world property, the better the relationship between adjacent nodes and the higher the cohesion [ 39 ]. (4) Most courses’ average path length increased as the interaction scale increased. However, when the average path length grew, adverse effects could manifest: communication between learners might be limited to a small group without multi-directional interaction.

When the pandemic emerged, the only declining network scale belonged to a natural science course (NS2). The change in each course index is pictured in Fig 4 . The abscissa indicates the size of the value, with larger values to the right. The red dot indicates the index value before the pandemic; the blue dot indicates its value during the pandemic. If the blue dot is to the right of the red dot, then the value of the index increased; otherwise, the index value declined. Only the weighted average degree of the course network increased. The average degree, network density decreased, indicating that network members were not active and that learners’ interaction degree and communication frequency lessened. Despite reduced learner interaction, the average path length was small and the connectivity between learners was adequate.


4.2.2 After the COVID-19 pandemic, the scale decreased rapidly, but most course interaction was more effective.

Fig 5 shows the changes in various courses’ interaction indicators after the pandemic, including SS1, SS2, SS3, SS6, SS7, NS2, NS3, NS7, and NS8.


Specifically: (1) The average degree and weighted average degree of most course networks decreased. The scope and intensity of interaction among network members declined rapidly, as did learners’ enthusiasm for communication. (2) The network density of seven courses also fell, indicating weaker connections between learners in most courses. (3) In addition, the clustering coefficient and small-world property of most course networks decreased, suggesting little possibility of small groups in the network. The scope of interaction between learners was not limited to a specific space, and the interaction objects had no significant tendencies. (4) Although the scale of course interaction became smaller in this phase, the average path length of members’ social networks shortened in nine courses. Its shorter average path length would expedite the spread of information within the network as well as communication and sharing among network members.

Fig 6 displays the evolution of course interaction indicators without significant changes in interaction scale after the pandemic, including SS4, SS5, NS1, NS4, NS5, and NS6.


Specifically: (1) Some course members’ social networks exhibited an increase in the average and weighted average. In these cases, even though the course network’s scale did not continue to increase, communication among network members rose and interaction became more frequent and deeper than before. (2) Network density and average path length are indicators of social network density. The greater the network density, the denser the social network; the shorter the average path length, the more concentrated the communication among network members. However, at this phase, the average path length and network density in most courses had increased. Yet the network density remained small despite having risen ( Table 6 ). Even with more frequent learner interaction, connections remained distant and the social network was comparatively sparse.


In summary, the scale of interaction did not change significantly overall. Nonetheless, some course members’ frequency and extent of interaction increased, and the relationships between network members became closer as well. In the study, we found it interesting that the interaction scale of Economics (a social science course) course and Electrodynamics (a natural science course) course expanded rapidly during the pandemic and retained their interaction scale thereafter. We next assessed these two courses to determine whether their level of interaction persisted after the pandemic.

4.3 Analyses of natural science courses and social science courses

4.3.1 analyses of the interaction characteristics of economics and electrodynamics..

Economics and Electrodynamics are social science courses and natural science courses, respectively. Members’ interaction within these courses was similar: the interaction scale increased significantly when COVID-19 broke out (Phase Ⅲ), and no significant changes emerged after the pandemic (Phase Ⅴ). We hence focused on course interaction long after the outbreak (Phase V) and compared changes across multiple indicators, as listed in Table 7 .


As the pandemic continued to improve, the number of participants and the diameter long after the outbreak (Phase V) each declined for Economics compared with after the pandemic (Phase IV). The interaction scale decreased, but the interaction between learners was much deeper. Specifically: (1) The weighted average degree, network density, clustering coefficient, and small-world property each reflected upward trends. The pandemic therefore exerted a strong impact on this course. Interaction was well maintained even after the pandemic. The smaller network scale promoted members’ interaction and communication. (2) Compared with after the pandemic (Phase IV), members’ network density increased significantly, showing that relationships between learners were closer and that cohesion was improving. (3) At the same time, as the clustering coefficient and small-world property grew, network members demonstrated strong small-group characteristics: the communication between them was deepening and their enthusiasm for interaction was higher. (4) Long after the COVID-19 outbreak (Phase V), the average path length was reduced compared with previous terms, knowledge flowed more quickly among network members, and the degree of interaction gradually deepened.

The average degree, weighted average degree, network density, clustering coefficient, and small-world property of Electrodynamics all decreased long after the COVID-19 outbreak (Phase V) and were lower than during the outbreak (Phase Ⅲ). The level of learner interaction therefore gradually declined long after the outbreak (Phase V), and connections between learners were no longer active. Although the pandemic increased course members’ extent of interaction, this rise was merely temporary: students’ enthusiasm for learning waned rapidly and their interaction decreased after the pandemic (Phase IV). To further analyze the interaction characteristics of course members in Economics and Electrodynamics, we evaluated the closeness centrality of their social networks, as shown in section 4.3.2.

4.3.2 Analysis of the closeness centrality of Economics and Electrodynamics.

The change in the closeness centrality of social networks in Economics was small, and no sharp upward trend appeared during the pandemic outbreak, as shown in Fig 7 . The emergence of COVID-19 apparently fostered learners’ interaction in Economics albeit without a significant impact. The closeness centrality changed in Electrodynamics varied from that of Economics: upon the COVID-19 outbreak, closeness centrality was significantly different from other semesters. Communication between learners was closer and interaction was more effective. Electrodynamics course members’ social network proximity decreased rapidly after the pandemic. Learners’ communication lessened. In general, Economics course showed better interaction before the outbreak and was less affected by the pandemic; Electrodynamics course was more affected by the pandemic and showed different interaction characteristics at different periods of the pandemic.


(Note: "****" indicates the significant distinction in closeness centrality between the two periods, otherwise no significant distinction).

5. Discussion

We referred to discussion forums from several courses on the icourse.163 MOOC platform to compare online learning before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic via SNA and to delineate the pandemic’s effects on online courses. Only 33.3% of courses in our sample increased in terms of interaction during the pandemic; the scale of interaction did not rise in any courses thereafter. When the courses scale rose, the scope and frequency of interaction showed upward trends during the pandemic; and the clustering coefficient of natural science courses and social science courses differed: the coefficient for social science courses tended to rise whereas that for natural science courses generally declined. When the pandemic broke out, the interaction scale of a single natural science course decreased along with its interaction scope and frequency. The amount of interaction in most courses shrank rapidly during the pandemic and network members were not as active as they had been before. However, after the pandemic, some courses saw declining interaction but greater communication between members; interaction also became more frequent and deeper than before.

5.1 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the scale of interaction increased in only a few courses

The pandemic outbreak led to a rapid increase in the number of participants in most courses; however, the change in network scale was not significant. The scale of online interaction expanded swiftly in only a few courses; in others, the scale either did not change significantly or displayed a downward trend. After the pandemic, the interaction scale in most courses decreased quickly; the same pattern applied to communication between network members. Learners’ enthusiasm for online interaction reduced as the circumstances of the pandemic improved—potentially because, during the pandemic, China’s Ministry of Education declared “School’s Out, But Class’s On” policy. Major colleges and universities were encouraged to use the Internet and informational resources to provide learning support, hence the sudden increase in the number of participants and interaction in online courses [ 46 ]. After the pandemic, students’ enthusiasm for online learning gradually weakened, presumably due to easing of the pandemic [ 47 ]. More activities also transitioned from online to offline, which tempered learners’ online discussion. Research has shown that long-term online learning can even bore students [ 48 ].

Most courses’ interaction scale decreased significantly after the pandemic. First, teachers and students occupied separate spaces during the outbreak, had few opportunities for mutual cooperation and friendship, and lacked a sense of belonging [ 49 ]. Students’ enthusiasm for learning dissipated over time [ 50 ]. Second, some teachers were especially concerned about adapting in-person instructional materials for digital platforms; their pedagogical methods were ineffective, and they did not provide learning activities germane to student interaction [ 51 ]. Third, although teachers and students in remote areas were actively engaged in online learning, some students could not continue to participate in distance learning due to inadequate technology later in the outbreak [ 52 ].

5.2 Characteristics of online learning interaction during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

5.2.1 during the covid-19 pandemic, online interaction in most courses did not change significantly..

The interaction scale of only a few courses increased during the pandemic. The interaction scope and frequency of these courses climbed as well. Yet even as the degree of network interaction rose, course network density did not expand in all cases. The pandemic sparked a surge in the number of online learners and a rapid increase in network scale, but students found it difficult to interact with all learners. Yau pointed out that a greater network scale did not enrich the range of interaction between individuals; rather, the number of individuals who could interact directly was limited [ 53 ]. The internet facilitates interpersonal communication. However, not everyone has the time or ability to establish close ties with others [ 54 ].

In addition, social science courses and natural science courses in our sample revealed disparate trends in this regard: the clustering coefficient of social science courses increased and that of natural science courses decreased. Social science courses usually employ learning approaches distinct from those in natural science courses [ 55 ]. Social science courses emphasize critical and innovative thinking along with personal expression [ 56 ]. Natural science courses focus on practical skills, methods, and principles [ 57 ]. Therefore, the content of social science courses can spur large-scale discussion among learners. Some course evaluations indicated that the course content design was suboptimal as well: teachers paid close attention to knowledge transmission and much less to piquing students’ interest in learning. In addition, the thread topics that teachers posted were scarcely diversified and teachers’ questions lacked openness. These attributes could not spark active discussion among learners.

5.2.2 Online learning interaction declined after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most courses’ interaction scale and intensity decreased rapidly after the pandemic, but some did not change. Courses with a larger network scale did not continue to expand after the outbreak, and students’ enthusiasm for learning paled. The pandemic’s reduced severity also influenced the number of participants in online courses. Meanwhile, restored school order moved many learning activities from virtual to in-person spaces. Face-to-face learning has gradually replaced online learning, resulting in lower enrollment and less interaction in online courses. Prolonged online courses could have also led students to feel lonely and to lack a sense of belonging [ 58 ].

The scale of interaction in some courses did not change substantially after the pandemic yet learners’ connections became tighter. We hence recommend that teachers seize pandemic-related opportunities to design suitable activities. Additionally, instructors should promote student-teacher and student-student interaction, encourage students to actively participate online, and generally intensify the impact of online learning.

5.3 What are the characteristics of interaction in social science courses and natural science courses?

The level of interaction in Economics (a social science course) was significantly higher than that in Electrodynamics (a natural science course), and the small-world property in Economics increased as well. To boost online courses’ learning-related impacts, teachers can divide groups of learners based on the clustering coefficient and the average path length. Small groups of students may benefit teachers in several ways: to participate actively in activities intended to expand students’ knowledge, and to serve as key actors in these small groups. Cultivating students’ keenness to participate in class activities and self-management can also help teachers guide learner interaction and foster deep knowledge construction.

As evidenced by comments posted in the Electrodynamics course, we observed less interaction between students. Teachers also rarely urged students to contribute to conversations. These trends may have arisen because teachers and students were in different spaces. Teachers might have struggled to discern students’ interaction status. Teachers could also have failed to intervene in time, to design online learning activities that piqued learners’ interest, and to employ sound interactive theme planning and guidance. Teachers are often active in traditional classroom settings. Their roles are comparatively weakened online, such that they possess less control over instruction [ 59 ]. Online instruction also requires a stronger hand in learning: teachers should play a leading role in regulating network members’ interactive communication [ 60 ]. Teachers can guide learners to participate, help learners establish social networks, and heighten students’ interest in learning [ 61 ]. Teachers should attend to core members in online learning while also considering edge members; by doing so, all network members can be driven to share their knowledge and become more engaged. Finally, teachers and assistant teachers should help learners develop knowledge, exchange topic-related ideas, pose relevant questions during course discussions, and craft activities that enable learners to interact online [ 62 ]. These tactics can improve the effectiveness of online learning.

As described, network members displayed distinct interaction behavior in Economics and Electrodynamics courses. First, these courses varied in their difficulty: the social science course seemed easier to understand and focused on divergent thinking. Learners were often willing to express their views in comments and to ponder others’ perspectives [ 63 ]. The natural science course seemed more demanding and was oriented around logical thinking and skills [ 64 ]. Second, courses’ content differed. In general, social science courses favor the acquisition of declarative knowledge and creative knowledge compared with natural science courses. Social science courses also entertain open questions [ 65 ]. Natural science courses revolve around principle knowledge, strategic knowledge, and transfer knowledge [ 66 ]. Problems in these courses are normally more complicated than those in social science courses. Third, the indicators affecting students’ attitudes toward learning were unique. Guo et al. discovered that “teacher feedback” most strongly influenced students’ attitudes towards learning social science courses but had less impact on students in natural science courses [ 67 ]. Therefore, learners in social science courses likely expect more feedback from teachers and greater interaction with others.

6. Conclusion and future work

Our findings show that the network interaction scale of some online courses expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The network scale of most courses did not change significantly, demonstrating that the pandemic did not notably alter the scale of course interaction. Online learning interaction among course network members whose interaction scale increased also became more frequent during the pandemic. Once the outbreak was under control, although the scale of interaction declined, the level and scope of some courses’ interactive networks continued to rise; interaction was thus particularly effective in these cases. Overall, the pandemic appeared to have a relatively positive impact on online learning interaction. We considered a pair of courses in detail and found that Economics (a social science course) fared much better than Electrodynamics (a natural science course) in classroom interaction; learners were more willing to partake in-class activities, perhaps due to these courses’ unique characteristics. Brint et al. also came to similar conclusions [ 57 ].

This study was intended to be rigorous. Even so, several constraints can be addressed in future work. The first limitation involves our sample: we focused on a select set of courses hosted on China’s icourse.163 MOOC platform. Future studies should involve an expansive collection of courses to provide a more holistic understanding of how the pandemic has influenced online interaction. Second, we only explored the interactive relationship between learners and did not analyze interactive content. More in-depth content analysis should be carried out in subsequent research. All in all, the emergence of COVID-19 has provided a new path for online learning and has reshaped the distance learning landscape. To cope with associated challenges, educational practitioners will need to continue innovating in online instructional design, strengthen related pedagogy, optimize online learning conditions, and bolster teachers’ and students’ competence in online learning.

  • View Article
  • Google Scholar
  • PubMed/NCBI
  • 30. Serrat O. Social network analysis. Knowledge solutions: Springer; 2017. p. 39–43.
  • 33. Rong Y, Xu E, editors. Strategies for the Management of the Government Affairs Microblogs in China Based on the SNA of Fifty Government Affairs Microblogs in Beijing. 14th International Conference on Service Systems and Service Management 2017.
  • 34. Hu X, Chu S, editors. A comparison on using social media in a professional experience course. International Conference on Social Media and Society; 2013.
  • 35. Bydžovská H. A Comparative Analysis of Techniques for Predicting Student Performance. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Educational Data Mining; Raleigh, NC, USA: International Educational Data Mining Society2016. p. 306–311.
  • 40. Olivares D, Adesope O, Hundhausen C, et al., editors. Using social network analysis to measure the effect of learning analytics in computing education. 19th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies 2019.
  • 41. Travers J, Milgram S. An experimental study of the small world problem. Social Networks: Elsevier; 1977. p. 179–197.–3
  • 43. Okamoto K, Chen W, Li X-Y, editors. Ranking of closeness centrality for large-scale social networks. International workshop on frontiers in algorithmics; 2008; Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.
  • 47. Ding Y, Yang X, Zheng Y, editors. COVID-19’s Effects on the Scope, Effectiveness, and Roles of Teachers in Online Learning Based on Social Network Analysis: A Case Study. International Conference on Blended Learning; 2021: Springer.
  • 64. Boys C, Brennan J., Henkel M., Kirkland J., Kogan M., Youl P. Higher Education and Preparation for Work. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 1988.
  • Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 02 December 2020

Integrating students’ perspectives about online learning: a hierarchy of factors

  • Montgomery Van Wart 1 ,
  • Anna Ni 1 ,
  • Pamela Medina 1 ,
  • Jesus Canelon 1 ,
  • Melika Kordrostami 1 ,
  • Jing Zhang 1 &

International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education volume  17 , Article number:  53 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

149k Accesses

51 Citations

24 Altmetric

Metrics details

This article reports on a large-scale ( n  = 987), exploratory factor analysis study incorporating various concepts identified in the literature as critical success factors for online learning from the students’ perspective, and then determines their hierarchical significance. Seven factors--Basic Online Modality, Instructional Support, Teaching Presence, Cognitive Presence, Online Social Comfort, Online Interactive Modality, and Social Presence--were identified as significant and reliable. Regression analysis indicates the minimal factors for enrollment in future classes—when students consider convenience and scheduling—were Basic Online Modality, Cognitive Presence, and Online Social Comfort. Students who accepted or embraced online courses on their own merits wanted a minimum of Basic Online Modality, Teaching Presence, Cognitive Presence, Online Social Comfort, and Social Presence. Students, who preferred face-to-face classes and demanded a comparable experience, valued Online Interactive Modality and Instructional Support more highly. Recommendations for online course design, policy, and future research are provided.


While there are different perspectives of the learning process such as learning achievement and faculty perspectives, students’ perspectives are especially critical since they are ultimately the raison d’être of the educational endeavor (Chickering & Gamson, 1987 ). More pragmatically, students’ perspectives provide invaluable, first-hand insights into their experiences and expectations (Dawson et al., 2019 ). The student perspective is especially important when new teaching approaches are used and when new technologies are being introduced (Arthur, 2009 ; Crews & Butterfield, 2014 ; Van Wart, Ni, Ready, Shayo, & Court, 2020 ). With the renewed interest in “active” education in general (Arruabarrena, Sánchez, Blanco, et al., 2019 ; Kay, MacDonald, & DiGiuseppe, 2019 ; Nouri, 2016 ; Vlachopoulos & Makri, 2017 ) and the flipped classroom approach in particular (Flores, del-Arco, & Silva, 2016 ; Gong, Yang, & Cai, 2020 ; Lundin, et al., 2018 ; Maycock, 2019 ; McGivney-Burelle, 2013 ; O’Flaherty & Phillips, 2015 ; Tucker , 2012 ) along with extraordinary shifts in the technology, the student perspective on online education is profoundly important. What shapes students’ perceptions of quality integrate are their own sense of learning achievement, satisfaction with the support they receive, technical proficiency of the process, intellectual and emotional stimulation, comfort with the process, and sense of learning community. The factors that students perceive as quality online teaching, however, has not been as clear as it might be for at least two reasons.

First, it is important to note that the overall online learning experience for students is also composed of non-teaching factors which we briefly mention. Three such factors are (1) convenience, (2) learner characteristics and readiness, and (3) antecedent conditions that may foster teaching quality but are not directly responsible for it. (1) Convenience is an enormous non-quality factor for students (Artino, 2010 ) which has driven up online demand around the world (Fidalgo, Thormann, Kulyk, et al., 2020 ; Inside Higher Education and Gallup, 2019 ; Legon & Garrett, 2019 ; Ortagus, 2017 ). This is important since satisfaction with online classes is frequently somewhat lower than face-to-face classes (Macon, 2011 ). However, the literature generally supports the relative equivalence of face-to-face and online modes regarding learning achievement criteria (Bernard et al., 2004 ; Nguyen, 2015 ; Ni, 2013 ; Sitzmann, Kraiger, Stewart, & Wisher, 2006 ; see Xu & Jaggars, 2014 for an alternate perspective). These contrasts are exemplified in a recent study of business students, in which online students using a flipped classroom approach outperformed their face-to-face peers, but ironically rated instructor performance lower (Harjoto, 2017 ). (2) Learner characteristics also affect the experience related to self-regulation in an active learning model, comfort with technology, and age, among others,which affect both receptiveness and readiness of online instruction. (Alqurashi, 2016 ; Cohen & Baruth, 2017 ; Kintu, Zhu, & Kagambe, 2017 ; Kuo, Walker, Schroder, & Belland, 2013 ; Ventura & Moscoloni, 2015 ) (3) Finally, numerous antecedent factors may lead to improved instruction, but are not themselves directly perceived by students such as instructor training (Brinkley-Etzkorn, 2018 ), and the sources of faculty motivation (e.g., incentives, recognition, social influence, and voluntariness) (Wingo, Ivankova, & Moss, 2017 ). Important as these factors are, mixing them with the perceptions of quality tends to obfuscate the quality factors directly perceived by students.

Second, while student perceptions of quality are used in innumerable studies, our overall understanding still needs to integrate them more holistically. Many studies use student perceptions of quality and overall effectiveness of individual tools and strategies in online contexts such as mobile devices (Drew & Mann, 2018 ), small groups (Choi, Land, & Turgeon, 2005 ), journals (Nair, Tay, & Koh, 2013 ), simulations (Vlachopoulos & Makri, 2017 ), video (Lange & Costley, 2020 ), etc. Such studies, however, cannot provide the overall context and comparative importance. Some studies have examined the overall learning experience of students with exploratory lists, but have mixed non-quality factors with quality of teaching factors making it difficult to discern the instructor’s versus contextual roles in quality (e.g., Asoodar, Vaezi, & Izanloo, 2016 ; Bollinger & Martindale, 2004 ; Farrell & Brunton, 2020 ; Hong, 2002 ; Song, Singleton, Hill, & Koh, 2004 ; Sun, Tsai, Finger, Chen, & Yeh, 2008 ). The application of technology adoption studies also fall into this category by essentially aggregating all teaching quality in the single category of performance ( Al-Gahtani, 2016 ; Artino, 2010 ). Some studies have used high-level teaching-oriented models, primarily the Community of Inquiry model (le Roux & Nagel, 2018 ), but empirical support has been mixed (Arbaugh et al., 2008 ); and its elegance (i.e., relying on only three factors) has not provided much insight to practitioners (Anderson, 2016 ; Cleveland-Innes & Campbell, 2012 ).

Research questions

Integration of studies and concepts explored continues to be fragmented and confusing despite the fact that the number of empirical studies related to student perceptions of quality factors has increased. It is important to have an empirical view of what students’ value in a single comprehensive study and, also, to know if there is a hierarchy of factors, ranging from students who are least to most critical of the online learning experience. This research study has two research questions.

The first research question is: What are the significant factors in creating a high-quality online learning experience from students’ perspectives? That is important to know because it should have a significant effect on the instructor’s design of online classes. The goal of this research question is identify a more articulated and empirically-supported set of factors capturing the full range of student expectations.

The second research question is: Is there a priority or hierarchy of factors related to students’ perceptions of online teaching quality that relate to their decisions to enroll in online classes? For example, is it possible to distinguish which factors are critical for enrollment decisions when students are primarily motivated by convenience and scheduling flexibility (minimum threshold)? Do these factors differ from students with a genuine acceptance of the general quality of online courses (a moderate threshold)? What are the factors that are important for the students who are the most critical of online course delivery (highest threshold)?

This article next reviews the literature on online education quality, focusing on the student perspective and reviews eight factors derived from it. The research methods section discusses the study structure and methods. Demographic data related to the sample are next, followed by the results, discussion, and conclusion.

Literature review

Online education is much discussed (Prinsloo, 2016 ; Van Wart et al., 2019 ; Zawacki-Richter & Naidu, 2016 ), but its perception is substantially influenced by where you stand and what you value (Otter et al., 2013 ; Tanner, Noser, & Totaro, 2009 ). Accrediting bodies care about meeting technical standards, proof of effectiveness, and consistency (Grandzol & Grandzol, 2006 ). Institutions care about reputation, rigor, student satisfaction, and institutional efficiency (Jung, 2011 ). Faculty care about subject coverage, student participation, faculty satisfaction, and faculty workload (Horvitz, Beach, Anderson, & Xia, 2015 ; Mansbach & Austin, 2018 ). For their part, students care about learning achievement (Marks, Sibley, & Arbaugh, 2005 ; O’Neill & Sai, 2014 ; Shen, Cho, Tsai, & Marra, 2013 ), but also view online education as a function of their enjoyment of classes, instructor capability and responsiveness, and comfort in the learning environment (e.g., Asoodar et al., 2016 ; Sebastianelli, Swift, & Tamimi, 2015 ). It is this last perspective, of students, upon which we focus.

It is important to note students do not sign up for online classes solely based on perceived quality. Perceptions of quality derive from notions of the capacity of online learning when ideal—relative to both learning achievement and satisfaction/enjoyment, and perceptions about the likelihood and experience of classes living up to expectations. Students also sign up because of convenience and flexibility, and personal notions of suitability about learning. Convenience and flexibility are enormous drivers of online registration (Lee, Stringer, & Du, 2017 ; Mann & Henneberry, 2012 ). Even when students say they prefer face-to-face classes to online, many enroll in online classes and re-enroll in the future if the experience meets minimum expectations. This study examines the threshold expectations of students when they are considering taking online classes.

When discussing students’ perceptions of quality, there is little clarity about the actual range of concepts because no integrated empirical studies exist comparing major factors found throughout the literature. Rather, there are practitioner-generated lists of micro-competencies such as the Quality Matters consortium for higher education (Quality Matters, 2018 ), or broad frameworks encompassing many aspects of quality beyond teaching (Open and Distant Learning Quality Council, 2012 ). While checklists are useful for practitioners and accreditation processes, they do not provide robust, theoretical bases for scholarly development. Overarching frameworks are heuristically useful, but not for pragmatic purposes or theory building arenas. The most prominent theoretical framework used in online literature is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model (Arbaugh et al., 2008 ; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2003 ), which divides instruction into teaching, cognitive, and social presence. Like deductive theories, however, the supportive evidence is mixed (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009 ), especially regarding the importance of social presence (Annand, 2011 ; Armellini and De Stefani, 2016 ). Conceptually, the problem is not so much with the narrow articulation of cognitive or social presence; cognitive presence is how the instructor provides opportunities for students to interact with material in robust, thought-provoking ways, and social presence refers to building a community of learning that incorporates student-to-student interactions. However, teaching presence includes everything else the instructor does—structuring the course, providing lectures, explaining assignments, creating rehearsal opportunities, supplying tests, grading, answering questions, and so on. These challenges become even more prominent in the online context. While the lecture as a single medium is paramount in face-to-face classes, it fades as the primary vehicle in online classes with increased use of detailed syllabi, electronic announcements, recorded and synchronous lectures, 24/7 communications related to student questions, etc. Amassing the pedagogical and technological elements related to teaching under a single concept provides little insight.

In addition to the CoI model, numerous concepts are suggested in single-factor empirical studies when focusing on quality from a student’s perspective, with overlapping conceptualizations and nonstandardized naming conventions. Seven distinct factors are derived here from the literature of student perceptions of online quality: Instructional Support, Teaching Presence, Basic Online Modality, Social Presence, Online Social Comfort, cognitive Presence, and Interactive Online Modality.

Instructional support

Instructional Support refers to students’ perceptions of techniques by the instructor used for input, rehearsal, feedback, and evaluation. Specifically, this entails providing detailed instructions, designed use of multimedia, and the balance between repetitive class features for ease of use, and techniques to prevent boredom. Instructional Support is often included as an element of Teaching Presence, but is also labeled “structure” (Lee & Rha, 2009 ; So & Brush, 2008 ) and instructor facilitation (Eom, Wen, & Ashill, 2006 ). A prime example of the difference between face-to-face and online education is the extensive use of the “flipped classroom” (Maycock, 2019 ; Wang, Huang, & Schunn, 2019 ) in which students move to rehearsal activities faster and more frequently than traditional classrooms, with less instructor lecture (Jung, 2011 ; Martin, Wang, & Sadaf, 2018 ). It has been consistently supported as an element of student perceptions of quality (Espasa & Meneses, 2010 ).

  • Teaching presence

Teaching Presence refers to students’ perceptions about the quality of communication in lectures, directions, and individual feedback including encouragement (Jaggars & Xu, 2016 ; Marks et al., 2005 ). Specifically, instructor communication is clear, focused, and encouraging, and instructor feedback is customized and timely. If Instructional Support is what an instructor does before the course begins and in carrying out those plans, then Teaching Presence is what the instructor does while the class is conducted and in response to specific circumstances. For example, a course could be well designed but poorly delivered because the instructor is distracted; or a course could be poorly designed but an instructor might make up for the deficit by spending time and energy in elaborate communications and ad hoc teaching techniques. It is especially important in student satisfaction (Sebastianelli et al., 2015 ; Young, 2006 ) and also referred to as instructor presence (Asoodar et al., 2016 ), learner-instructor interaction (Marks et al., 2005 ), and staff support (Jung, 2011 ). As with Instructional Support, it has been consistently supported as an element of student perceptions of quality.

Basic online modality

Basic Online Modality refers to the competent use of basic online class tools—online grading, navigation methods, online grade book, and the announcements function. It is frequently clumped with instructional quality (Artino, 2010 ), service quality (Mohammadi, 2015 ), instructor expertise in e-teaching (Paechter, Maier, & Macher, 2010 ), and similar terms. As a narrowly defined concept, it is sometimes called technology (Asoodar et al., 2016 ; Bollinger & Martindale, 2004 ; Sun et al., 2008 ). The only empirical study that did not find Basic Online Modality significant, as technology, was Sun et al. ( 2008 ). Because Basic Online Modality is addressed with basic instructor training, some studies assert the importance of training (e.g., Asoodar et al., 2016 ).

Social presence

Social Presence refers to students’ perceptions of the quality of student-to-student interaction. Social Presence focuses on the quality of shared learning and collaboration among students, such as in threaded discussion responses (Garrison et al., 2003 ; Kehrwald, 2008 ). Much emphasized but challenged in the CoI literature (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009 ), it has mixed support in the online literature. While some studies found Social Presence or related concepts to be significant (e.g., Asoodar et al., 2016 ; Bollinger & Martindale, 2004 ; Eom et al., 2006 ; Richardson, Maeda, Lv, & Caskurlu, 2017 ), others found Social Presence insignificant (Joo, Lim, & Kim, 2011 ; So & Brush, 2008 ; Sun et al., 2008 ).

Online social comfort

Online Social Comfort refers to the instructor’s ability to provide an environment in which anxiety is low, and students feel comfortable interacting even when expressing opposing viewpoints. While numerous studies have examined anxiety (e.g., Liaw & Huang, 2013 ; Otter et al., 2013 ; Sun et al., 2008 ), only one found anxiety insignificant (Asoodar et al., 2016 ); many others have not examined the concept.

  • Cognitive presence

Cognitive Presence refers to the engagement of students such that they perceive they are stimulated by the material and instructor to reflect deeply and critically, and seek to understand different perspectives (Garrison et al., 2003 ). The instructor provides instructional materials and facilitates an environment that piques interest, is reflective, and enhances inclusiveness of perspectives (Durabi, Arrastia, Nelson, Cornille, & Liang, 2011 ). Cognitive Presence includes enhancing the applicability of material for student’s potential or current careers. Cognitive Presence is supported as significant in many online studies (e.g., Artino, 2010 ; Asoodar et al., 2016 ; Joo et al., 2011 ; Marks et al., 2005 ; Sebastianelli et al., 2015 ; Sun et al., 2008 ). Further, while many instructors perceive that cognitive presence is diminished in online settings, neuroscientific studies indicate this need not be the case (Takamine, 2017 ). While numerous studies failed to examine Cognitive Presence, this review found no studies that lessened its significance for students.

Interactive online modality

Interactive Online Modality refers to the “high-end” usage of online functionality. That is, the instructor uses interactive online class tools—video lectures, videoconferencing, and small group discussions—well. It is often included in concepts such as instructional quality (Artino, 2010 ; Asoodar et al., 2016 ; Mohammadi, 2015 ; Otter et al., 2013 ; Paechter et al., 2010 ) or engagement (Clayton, Blumberg, & Anthony, 2018 ). While individual methods have been investigated (e.g. Durabi et al., 2011 ), high-end engagement methods have not.

Other independent variables affecting perceptions of quality include age, undergraduate versus graduate status, gender, ethnicity/race, discipline, educational motivation of students, and previous online experience. While age has been found to be small or insignificant, more notable effects have been reported at the level-of-study, with graduate students reporting higher “success” (Macon, 2011 ), and community college students having greater difficulty with online classes (Legon & Garrett, 2019 ; Xu & Jaggars, 2014 ). Ethnicity and race have also been small or insignificant. Some situational variations and student preferences can be captured by paying attention to disciplinary differences (Arbaugh, 2005 ; Macon, 2011 ). Motivation levels of students have been reported to be significant in completion and achievement, with better students doing as well across face-to-face and online modes, and weaker students having greater completion and achievement challenges (Clayton et al., 2018 ; Lu & Lemonde, 2013 ).

Research methods

To examine the various quality factors, we apply a critical success factor methodology, initially introduced to schools of business research in the 1970s. In 1981, Rockhart and Bullen codified an approach embodying principles of critical success factors (CSFs) as a way to identify the information needs of executives, detailing steps for the collection and analyzation of data to create a set of organizational CSFs (Rockhart & Bullen, 1981 ). CSFs describe the underlying or guiding principles which must be incorporated to ensure success.

Utilizing this methodology, CSFs in the context of this paper define key areas of instruction and design essential for an online class to be successful from a student’s perspective. Instructors implicitly know and consider these areas when setting up an online class and designing and directing activities and tasks important to achieving learning goals. CSFs make explicit those things good instructors may intuitively know and (should) do to enhance student learning. When made explicit, CSFs not only confirm the knowledge of successful instructors, but tap their intuition to guide and direct the accomplishment of quality instruction for entire programs. In addition, CSFs are linked with goals and objectives, helping generate a small number of truly important matters an instructor should focus attention on to achieve different thresholds of online success.

After a comprehensive literature review, an instrument was created to measure students’ perceptions about the importance of techniques and indicators leading to quality online classes. Items were designed to capture the major factors in the literature. The instrument was pilot studied during academic year 2017–18 with a 397 student sample, facilitating an exploratory factor analysis leading to important preliminary findings (reference withheld for review). Based on the pilot, survey items were added and refined to include seven groups of quality teaching factors and two groups of items related to students’ overall acceptance of online classes as well as a variable on their future online class enrollment. Demographic information was gathered to determine their effects on students’ levels of acceptance of online classes based on age, year in program, major, distance from university, number of online classes taken, high school experience with online classes, and communication preferences.

This paper draws evidence from a sample of students enrolled in educational programs at Jack H. Brown College of Business and Public Administration (JHBC), California State University San Bernardino (CSUSB). The JHBC offers a wide range of online courses for undergraduate and graduate programs. To ensure comparable learning outcomes, online classes and face-to-face classes of a certain subject are similar in size—undergraduate classes are generally capped at 60 and graduate classes at 30, and often taught by the same instructors. Students sometimes have the option to choose between both face-to-face and online modes of learning.

A Qualtrics survey link was sent out by 11 instructors to students who were unlikely to be cross-enrolled in classes during the 2018–19 academic year. 1 Approximately 2500 students were contacted, with some instructors providing class time to complete the anonymous survey. All students, whether they had taken an online class or not, were encouraged to respond. Nine hundred eighty-seven students responded, representing a 40% response rate. Although drawn from a single business school, it is a broad sample representing students from several disciplines—management, accounting and finance, marketing, information decision sciences, and public administration, as well as both graduate and undergraduate programs of study.

The sample age of students is young, with 78% being under 30. The sample has almost no lower division students (i.e., freshman and sophomore), 73% upper division students (i.e., junior and senior) and 24% graduate students (master’s level). Only 17% reported having taken a hybrid or online class in high school. There was a wide range of exposure to university level online courses, with 47% reporting having taken 1 to 4 classes, and 21% reporting no online class experience. As a Hispanic-serving institution, 54% self-identified as Latino, 18% White, and 13% Asian and Pacific Islander. The five largest majors were accounting & finance (25%), management (21%), master of public administration (16%), marketing (12%), and information decision sciences (10%). Seventy-four percent work full- or part-time. See Table  1 for demographic data.

Measures and procedure

To increase the reliability of evaluation scores, composite evaluation variables are formed after an exploratory factor analysis of individual evaluation items. A principle component method with Quartimin (oblique) rotation was applied to explore the factor construct of student perceptions of online teaching CSFs. The item correlations for student perceptions of importance coefficients greater than .30 were included, a commonly acceptable ratio in factor analysis. A simple least-squares regression analysis was applied to test the significance levels of factors on students’ impression of online classes.

Exploratory factor constructs

Using a threshold loading of 0.3 for items, 37 items loaded on seven factors. All factors were logically consistent. The first factor, with eight items, was labeled Teaching Presence. Items included providing clear instructions, staying on task, clear deadlines, and customized feedback on strengths and weaknesses. Teaching Presence items all related to instructor involvement during the course as a director, monitor, and learning facilitator. The second factor, with seven items, aligned with Cognitive Presence. Items included stimulating curiosity, opportunities for reflection, helping students construct explanations posed in online courses, and the applicability of material. The third factor, with six items, aligned with Social Presence defined as providing student-to-student learning opportunities. Items included getting to know course participants for sense of belonging, forming impressions of other students, and interacting with others. The fourth factor, with six new items as well as two (“interaction with other students” and “a sense of community in the class”) shared with the third factor, was Instructional Support which related to the instructor’s roles in providing students a cohesive learning experience. They included providing sufficient rehearsal, structured feedback, techniques for communication, navigation guide, detailed syllabus, and coordinating student interaction and creating a sense of online community. This factor also included enthusiasm which students generally interpreted as a robustly designed course, rather than animation in a traditional lecture. The fifth factor was labeled Basic Online Modality and focused on the basic technological requirements for a functional online course. Three items included allowing students to make online submissions, use of online gradebooks, and online grading. A fourth item is the use of online quizzes, viewed by students as mechanical practice opportunities rather than small tests and a fifth is navigation, a key component of Online Modality. The sixth factor, loaded on four items, was labeled Online Social Comfort. Items here included comfort discussing ideas online, comfort disagreeing, developing a sense of collaboration via discussion, and considering online communication as an excellent medium for social interaction. The final factor was called Interactive Online Modality because it included items for “richer” communications or interactions, no matter whether one- or two-way. Items included videoconferencing, instructor-generated videos, and small group discussions. Taken together, these seven explained 67% of the variance which is considered in the acceptable range in social science research for a robust model (Hair, Black, Babin, & Anderson, 2014 ). See Table  2 for the full list.

To test for factor reliability, the Cronbach alpha of variables were calculated. All produced values greater than 0.7, the standard threshold used for reliability, except for system trust which was therefore dropped. To gauge students’ sense of factor importance, all items were means averaged. Factor means (lower means indicating higher importance to students), ranged from 1.5 to 2.6 on a 5-point scale. Basic Online Modality was most important, followed by Instructional Support and Teaching Presence. Students deemed Cognitive Presence, Social Online Comfort, and Online Interactive Modality less important. The least important for this sample was Social Presence. Table  3 arrays the critical success factor means, standard deviations, and Cronbach alpha.

To determine whether particular subgroups of respondents viewed factors differently, a series of ANOVAs were conducted using factor means as dependent variables. Six demographic variables were used as independent variables: graduate vs. undergraduate, age, work status, ethnicity, discipline, and past online experience. To determine strength of association of the independent variables to each of the seven CSFs, eta squared was calculated for each ANOVA. Eta squared indicates the proportion of variance in the dependent variable explained by the independent variable. Eta squared values greater than .01, .06, and .14 are conventionally interpreted as small, medium, and large effect sizes, respectively (Green & Salkind, 2003 ). Table  4 summarizes the eta squared values for the ANOVA tests with Eta squared values less than .01 omitted.

While no significant differences in factor means among students in different disciplines in the College occur, all five other independent variables have some small effect on some or all CSFs. Graduate students tend to rate Online Interactive Modality, Instructional Support, Teaching Presence, and Cognitive Presence higher than undergraduates. Elder students value more Online Interactive Modality. Full-time working students rate all factors, except Social Online Comfort, slightly higher than part-timers and non-working students. Latino and White rate Basic Online Modality and Instructional Support higher; Asian and Pacific Islanders rate Social Presence higher. Students who have taken more online classes rate all factors higher.

In addition to factor scores, two variables are constructed to identify the resultant impressions labeled online experience. Both were logically consistent with a Cronbach’s α greater than 0.75. The first variable, with six items, labeled “online acceptance,” included items such as “I enjoy online learning,” “My overall impression of hybrid/online learning is very good,” and “the instructors of online/hybrid classes are generally responsive.” The second variable was labeled “face-to-face preference” and combines four items, including enjoying, learning, and communicating more in face-to-face classes, as well as perceiving greater fairness and equity. In addition to these two constructed variables, a one-item variable was also used subsequently in the regression analysis: “online enrollment.” That question asked: if hybrid/online classes are well taught and available, how much would online education make up your entire course selection going forward?

Regression results

As noted above, two constructed variables and one item were used as dependent variables for purposes of regression analysis. They were online acceptance, F2F preference, and the selection of online classes. In addition to seven quality-of-teaching factors identified by factor analysis, control variables included level of education (graduate versus undergraduate), age, ethnicity, work status, distance to university, and number of online/hybrid classes taken in the past. See Table  5 .

When the ETA squared values for ANOVA significance were measured for control factors, only one was close to a medium effect. Graduate versus undergraduate status had a .05 effect (considered medium) related to Online Interactive Modality, meaning graduate students were more sensitive to interactive modality than undergraduates. Multiple regression analysis of critical success factors and online impressions were conducted to compare under what conditions factors were significant. The only consistently significant control factor was number of online classes taken. The more classes students had taken online, the more inclined they were to take future classes. Level of program, age, ethnicity, and working status do not significantly affect students’ choice or overall acceptance of online classes.

The least restrictive condition was online enrollment (Table  6 ). That is, students might not feel online courses were ideal, but because of convenience and scheduling might enroll in them if minimum threshold expectations were met. When considering online enrollment three factors were significant and positive (at the 0.1 level): Basic Online Modality, Cognitive Presence, and Online Social Comfort. These least-demanding students expected classes to have basic technological functionality, provide good opportunities for knowledge acquisition, and provide comfortable interaction in small groups. Students who demand good Instructional Support (e.g., rehearsal opportunities, standardized feedback, clear syllabus) are less likely to enroll.

Online acceptance was more restrictive (see Table  7 ). This variable captured the idea that students not only enrolled in online classes out of necessity, but with an appreciation of the positive attributes of online instruction, which balanced the negative aspects. When this standard was applied, students expected not only Basic Online Modality, Cognitive Presence, and Online Social Comfort, but expected their instructors to be highly engaged virtually as the course progressed (Teaching Presence), and to create strong student-to-student dynamics (Social Presence). Students who rated Instructional Support higher are less accepting of online classes.

Another restrictive condition was catering to the needs of students who preferred face-to-face classes (see Table  8 ). That is, they preferred face-to-face classes even when online classes were well taught. Unlike students more accepting of, or more likely to enroll in, online classes, this group rates Instructional Support as critical to enrolling, rather than a negative factor when absent. Again different from the other two groups, these students demand appropriate interactive mechanisms (Online Interactive Modality) to enable richer communication (e.g., videoconferencing). Student-to-student collaboration (Social Presence) was also significant. This group also rated Cognitive Presence and Online Social Comfort as significant, but only in their absence. That is, these students were most attached to direct interaction with the instructor and other students rather than specific teaching methods. Interestingly, Basic Online Modality and Teaching Presence were not significant. Our interpretation here is this student group, most critical of online classes for its loss of physical interaction, are beyond being concerned with mechanical technical interaction and demand higher levels of interactivity and instructional sophistication.

Discussion and study limitations

Some past studies have used robust empirical methods to identify a single factor or a small number of factors related to quality from a student’s perspective, but have not sought to be relatively comprehensive. Others have used a longer series of itemized factors, but have less used less robust methods, and have not tied those factors back to the literature. This study has used the literature to develop a relatively comprehensive list of items focused on quality teaching in a single rigorous protocol. That is, while a Beta test had identified five coherent factors, substantial changes to the current survey that sharpened the focus on quality factors rather than antecedent factors, as well as better articulating the array of factors often lumped under the mantle of “teaching presence.” In addition, it has also examined them based on threshold expectations: from minimal, such as when flexibility is the driving consideration, to modest, such as when students want a “good” online class, to high, when students demand an interactive virtual experience equivalent to face-to-face.

Exploratory factor analysis identified seven factors that were reliable, coherent, and significant under different conditions. When considering students’ overall sense of importance, they are, in order: Basic Online Modality, Instructional Support, Teaching Presence, Cognitive Presence, Social Online Comfort, Interactive Online Modality, and Social Presence. Students are most concerned with the basics of a course first, that is the technological and instructor competence. Next they want engagement and virtual comfort. Social Presence, while valued, is the least critical from this overall perspective.

The factor analysis is quite consistent with the range of factors identified in the literature, pointing to the fact that students can differentiate among different aspects of what have been clumped as larger concepts, such as teaching presence. Essentially, the instructor’s role in quality can be divided into her/his command of basic online functionality, good design, and good presence during the class. The instructor’s command of basic functionality is paramount. Because so much of online classes must be built in advance of the class, quality of the class design is rated more highly than the instructor’s role in facilitating the class. Taken as a whole, the instructor’s role in traditional teaching elements is primary, as we would expect it to be. Cognitive presence, especially as pertinence of the instructional material and its applicability to student interests, has always been found significant when studied, and was highly rated as well in a single factor. Finally, the degree to which students feel comfortable with the online environment and enjoy the learner-learner aspect has been less supported in empirical studies, was found significant here, but rated the lowest among the factors of quality to students.

Regression analysis paints a more nuanced picture, depending on student focus. It also helps explain some of the heterogeneity of previous studies, depending on what the dependent variables were. If convenience and scheduling are critical and students are less demanding, minimum requirements are Basic Online Modality, Cognitive Presence, and Online Social Comfort. That is, students’ expect an instructor who knows how to use an online platform, delivers useful information, and who provides a comfortable learning environment. However, they do not expect to get poor design. They do not expect much in terms of the quality teaching presence, learner-to-learner interaction, or interactive teaching.

When students are signing up for critical classes, or they have both F2F and online options, they have a higher standard. That is, they not only expect the factors for decisions about enrolling in noncritical classes, but they also expect good Teaching and Social Presence. Students who simply need a class may be willing to teach themselves a bit more, but students who want a good class expect a highly present instructor in terms responsiveness and immediacy. “Good” classes must not only create a comfortable atmosphere, but in social science classes at least, must provide strong learner-to-learner interactions as well. At the time of the research, most students believe that you can have a good class without high interactivity via pre-recorded video and videoconference. That may, or may not, change over time as technology thresholds of various video media become easier to use, more reliable, and more commonplace.

The most demanding students are those who prefer F2F classes because of learning style preferences, poor past experiences, or both. Such students (seem to) assume that a worthwhile online class has basic functionality and that the instructor provides a strong presence. They are also critical of the absence of Cognitive Presence and Online Social Comfort. They want strong Instructional Support and Social Presence. But in addition, and uniquely, they expect Online Interactive Modality which provides the greatest verisimilitude to the traditional classroom as possible. More than the other two groups, these students crave human interaction in the learning process, both with the instructor and other students.

These findings shed light on the possible ramifications of the COVID-19 aftermath. Many universities around the world jumped from relatively low levels of online instruction in the beginning of spring 2020 to nearly 100% by mandate by the end of the spring term. The question becomes, what will happen after the mandate is removed? Will demand resume pre-crisis levels, will it increase modestly, or will it skyrocket? Time will be the best judge, but the findings here would suggest that the ability/interest of instructors and institutions to “rise to the occasion” with quality teaching will have as much effect on demand as students becoming more acclimated to online learning. If in the rush to get classes online many students experience shoddy basic functional competence, poor instructional design, sporadic teaching presence, and poorly implemented cognitive and social aspects, they may be quite willing to return to the traditional classroom. If faculty and institutions supporting them are able to increase the quality of classes despite time pressures, then most students may be interested in more hybrid and fully online classes. If instructors are able to introduce high quality interactive teaching, nearly the entire student population will be interested in more online classes. Of course students will have a variety of experiences, but this analysis suggests that those instructors, departments, and institutions that put greater effort into the temporary adjustment (and who resist less), will be substantially more likely to have increases in demand beyond what the modest national trajectory has been for the last decade or so.

There are several study limitations. First, the study does not include a sample of non-respondents. Non-responders may have a somewhat different profile. Second, the study draws from a single college and university. The profile derived here may vary significantly by type of student. Third, some survey statements may have led respondents to rate quality based upon experience rather than assess the general importance of online course elements. “I felt comfortable participating in the course discussions,” could be revised to “comfort in participating in course discussions.” The authors weighed differences among subgroups (e.g., among majors) as small and statistically insignificant. However, it is possible differences between biology and marketing students would be significant, leading factors to be differently ordered. Emphasis and ordering might vary at a community college versus research-oriented university (Gonzalez, 2009 ).

Availability of data and materials

We will make the data available.

Al-Gahtani, S. S. (2016). Empirical investigation of e-learning acceptance and assimilation: A structural equation model. Applied Comput Information , 12 , 27–50.

Google Scholar  

Alqurashi, E. (2016). Self-efficacy in online learning environments: A literature review. Contemporary Issues Educ Res (CIER) , 9 (1), 45–52.

Anderson, T. (2016). A fourth presence for the Community of Inquiry model? Retrieved from .

Annand, D. (2011). Social presence within the community of inquiry framework. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning , 12 (5), 40.

Arbaugh, J. B. (2005). How much does “subject matter” matter? A study of disciplinary effects in on-line MBA courses. Academy of Management Learning & Education , 4 (1), 57–73.

Arbaugh, J. B., Cleveland-Innes, M., Diaz, S. R., Garrison, D. R., Ice, P., Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. P. (2008). Developing a community of inquiry instrument: Testing a measure of the Community of Inquiry framework using a multi-institutional sample. Internet and Higher Education , 11 , 133–136.

Armellini, A., & De Stefani, M. (2016). Social presence in the 21st century: An adjustment to the Community of Inquiry framework. British Journal of Educational Technology , 47 (6), 1202–1216.

Arruabarrena, R., Sánchez, A., Blanco, J. M., et al. (2019). Integration of good practices of active methodologies with the reuse of student-generated content. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 16 , #10.

Arthur, L. (2009). From performativity to professionalism: Lecturers’ responses to student feedback. Teaching in Higher Education , 14 (4), 441–454.

Artino, A. R. (2010). Online or face-to-face learning? Exploring the personal factors that predict students’ choice of instructional format. Internet and Higher Education , 13 , 272–276.

Asoodar, M., Vaezi, S., & Izanloo, B. (2016). Framework to improve e-learner satisfaction and further strengthen e-learning implementation. Computers in Human Behavior , 63 , 704–716.

Bernard, R. M., et al. (2004). How does distance education compare with classroom instruction? A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Review of Educational Research , 74 (3), 379–439.

Bollinger, D., & Martindale, T. (2004). Key factors for determining student satisfaction in online courses. Int J E-learning , 3 (1), 61–67.

Brinkley-Etzkorn, K. E. (2018). Learning to teach online: Measuring the influence of faculty development training on teaching effectiveness through a TPACK lens. The Internet and Higher Education , 38 , 28–35.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin , 3 , 7.

Choi, I., Land, S. M., & Turgeon, A. J. (2005). Scaffolding peer-questioning strategies to facilitate metacognition during online small group discussion. Instructional Science , 33 , 483–511.

Clayton, K. E., Blumberg, F. C., & Anthony, J. A. (2018). Linkages between course status, perceived course value, and students’ preferences for traditional versus non-traditional learning environments. Computers & Education , 125 , 175–181.

Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning , 13 (4), 269–292.

Cohen, A., & Baruth, O. (2017). Personality, learning, and satisfaction in fully online academic courses. Computers in Human Behavior , 72 , 1–12.

Crews, T., & Butterfield, J. (2014). Data for flipped classroom design: Using student feedback to identify the best components from online and face-to-face classes. Higher Education Studies , 4 (3), 38–47.

Dawson, P., Henderson, M., Mahoney, P., Phillips, M., Ryan, T., Boud, D., & Molloy, E. (2019). What makes for effective feedback: Staff and student perspectives. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education , 44 (1), 25–36.

Drew, C., & Mann, A. (2018). Unfitting, uncomfortable, unacademic: A sociological reading of an interactive mobile phone app in university lectures. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 15 , #43.

Durabi, A., Arrastia, M., Nelson, D., Cornille, T., & Liang, X. (2011). Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning: A comparison of four discussion strategies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 27 (3), 216–227.

Eom, S. B., Wen, H. J., & Ashill, N. (2006). The determinants of students’ perceived learning outcomes and satisfaction in university online education: An empirical investigation. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education , 4 (2), 215–235.

Espasa, A., & Meneses, J. (2010). Analysing feedback processes in an online teaching and learning environment: An exploratory study. Higher Education , 59 (3), 277–292.

Farrell, O., & Brunton, J. (2020). A balancing act: A window into online student engagement experiences. International Journal of Educational Technology in High Education , 17 , #25.

Fidalgo, P., Thormann, J., Kulyk, O., et al. (2020). Students’ perceptions on distance education: A multinational study. International Journal of Educational Technology in High Education , 17 , #18.

Flores, Ò., del-Arco, I., & Silva, P. (2016). The flipped classroom model at the university: Analysis based on professors’ and students’ assessment in the educational field. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 13 , #21.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2003). A theory of critical inquiry in online distance education. Handbook of Distance Education , 1 , 113–127.

Gong, D., Yang, H. H., & Cai, J. (2020). Exploring the key influencing factors on college students’ computational thinking skills through flipped-classroom instruction. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 17 , #19.

Gonzalez, C. (2009). Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: A study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses. Higher Education , 57 (3), 299–314.

Grandzol, J. R., & Grandzol, C. J. (2006). Best practices for online business Education. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning , 7 (1), 1–18.

Green, S. B., & Salkind, N. J. (2003). Using SPSS: Analyzing and understanding data , (3rd ed., ). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Hair, J. F., Black, W. C., Babin, B. J., & Anderson, R. E. (2014). Multivariate data analysis: Pearson new international edition . Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Harjoto, M. A. (2017). Blended versus face-to-face: Evidence from a graduate corporate finance class. Journal of Education for Business , 92 (3), 129–137.

Hong, K.-S. (2002). Relationships between students’ instructional variables with satisfaction and learning from a web-based course. The Internet and Higher Education , 5 , 267–281.

Horvitz, B. S., Beach, A. L., Anderson, M. L., & Xia, J. (2015). Examination of faculty self-efficacy related to online teaching. Innovation Higher Education , 40 , 305–316.

Inside Higher Education and Gallup. (2019). The 2019 survey of faculty attitudes on technology. Author .

Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers and Education , 95 , 270–284.

Joo, Y. J., Lim, K. Y., & Kim, E. K. (2011). Online university students’ satisfaction and persistence: Examining perceived level of presence, usefulness and ease of use as predictor in a structural model. Computers & Education , 57 (2), 1654–1664.

Jung, I. (2011). The dimensions of e-learning quality: From the learner’s perspective. Educational Technology Research and Development , 59 (4), 445–464.

Kay, R., MacDonald, T., & DiGiuseppe, M. (2019). A comparison of lecture-based, active, and flipped classroom teaching approaches in higher education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education , 31 , 449–471.

Kehrwald, B. (2008). Understanding social presence in text-based online learning environments. Distance Education , 29 (1), 89–106.

Kintu, M. J., Zhu, C., & Kagambe, E. (2017). Blended learning effectiveness: The relationship between student characteristics, design features and outcomes. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 14 , #7.

Kuo, Y.-C., Walker, A. E., Schroder, K. E., & Belland, B. R. (2013). Interaction, internet self-efficacy, and self-regulated learning as predictors of student satisfaction in online education courses. Internet and Education , 20 , 35–50.

Lange, C., & Costley, J. (2020). Improving online video lectures: Learning challenges created by media. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 17 , #16.

le Roux, I., & Nagel, L. (2018). Seeking the best blend for deep learning in a flipped classroom – Viewing student perceptions through the Community of Inquiry lens. International Journal of Educational Technology in High Education , 15 , #16.

Lee, H.-J., & Rha, I. (2009). Influence of structure and interaction on student achievement and satisfaction in web-based distance learning. Educational Technology & Society , 12 (4), 372–382.

Lee, Y., Stringer, D., & Du, J. (2017). What determines students’ preference of online to F2F class? Business Education Innovation Journal , 9 (2), 97–102.

Legon, R., & Garrett, R. (2019). CHLOE 3: Behind the numbers . Published online by Quality Matters and Eduventures.

Liaw, S.-S., & Huang, H.-M. (2013). Perceived satisfaction, perceived usefulness and interactive learning environments as predictors of self-regulation in e-learning environments. Computers & Education , 60 (1), 14–24.

Lu, F., & Lemonde, M. (2013). A comparison of online versus face-to-face students teaching delivery in statistics instruction for undergraduate health science students. Advances in Health Science Education , 18 , 963–973.

Lundin, M., Bergviken Rensfeldt, A., Hillman, T., Lantz-Andersson, A., & Peterson, L. (2018). Higher education dominance and siloed knowledge: a systematic review of flipped classroom research. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 15 (1).

Macon, D. K. (2011). Student satisfaction with online courses versus traditional courses: A meta-analysis . Disssertation: Northcentral University, CA.

Mann, J., & Henneberry, S. (2012). What characteristics of college students influence their decisions to select online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration , 15 (5), 1–14.

Mansbach, J., & Austin, A. E. (2018). Nuanced perspectives about online teaching: Mid-career senior faculty voices reflecting on academic work in the digital age. Innovative Higher Education , 43 (4), 257–272.

Marks, R. B., Sibley, S. D., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2005). A structural equation model of predictors for effective online learning. Journal of Management Education , 29 (4), 531–563.

Martin, F., Wang, C., & Sadaf, A. (2018). Student perception of facilitation strategies that enhance instructor presence, connectedness, engagement and learning in online courses. Internet and Higher Education , 37 , 52–65.

Maycock, K. W. (2019). Chalk and talk versus flipped learning: A case study. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 35 , 121–126.

McGivney-Burelle, J. (2013). Flipping Calculus. PRIMUS Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate . Studies , 23 (5), 477–486.

Mohammadi, H. (2015). Investigating users’ perspectives on e-learning: An integration of TAM and IS success model. Computers in Human Behavior , 45 , 359–374.

Nair, S. S., Tay, L. Y., & Koh, J. H. L. (2013). Students’ motivation and teachers’ teaching practices towards the use of blogs for writing of online journals. Educational Media International , 50 (2), 108–119.

Nguyen, T. (2015). The effectiveness of online learning: Beyond no significant difference and future horizons. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching , 11 (2), 309–319.

Ni, A. Y. (2013). Comparing the effectiveness of classroom and online learning: Teaching research methods. Journal of Public Affairs Education , 19 (2), 199–215.

Nouri, J. (2016). The flipped classroom: For active, effective and increased learning – Especially for low achievers. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 13 , #33.

O’Neill, D. K., & Sai, T. H. (2014). Why not? Examining college students’ reasons for avoiding an online course. Higher Education , 68 (1), 1–14.

O'Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. The Internet and Higher Education , 25 , 85–95.

Open & Distant Learning Quality Council (2012). ODLQC standards . England: Author .

Ortagus, J. C. (2017). From the periphery to prominence: An examination of the changing profile of online students in American higher education. Internet and Higher Education , 32 , 47–57.

Otter, R. R., Seipel, S., Graef, T., Alexander, B., Boraiko, C., Gray, J., … Sadler, K. (2013). Comparing student and faculty perceptions of online and traditional courses. Internet and Higher Education , 19 , 27–35.

Paechter, M., Maier, B., & Macher, D. (2010). Online or face-to-face? Students’ experiences and preferences in e-learning. Internet and Higher Education , 13 , 292–329.

Prinsloo, P. (2016). (re)considering distance education: Exploring its relevance, sustainability and value contribution. Distance Education , 37 (2), 139–145.

Quality Matters (2018). Specific review standards from the QM higher Education rubric , (6th ed., ). MD: MarylandOnline.

Richardson, J. C., Maeda, Y., Lv, J., & Caskurlu, S. (2017). Social presence in relation to students’ satisfaction and learning in the online environment: A meta-analysis. Computers in Human Behavior , 71 , 402–417.

Rockhart, J. F., & Bullen, C. V. (1981). A primer on critical success factors . Cambridge: Center for Information Systems Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rourke, L., & Kanuka, H. (2009). Learning in Communities of Inquiry: A Review of the Literature. The Journal of Distance Education / Revue de l'ducation Distance , 23 (1), 19–48 Athabasca University Press. Retrieved August 2, 2020 from .

Sebastianelli, R., Swift, C., & Tamimi, N. (2015). Factors affecting perceived learning, satisfaction, and quality in the online MBA: A structural equation modeling approach. Journal of Education for Business , 90 (6), 296–305.

Shen, D., Cho, M.-H., Tsai, C.-L., & Marra, R. (2013). Unpacking online learning experiences: Online learning self-efficacy and learning satisfaction. Internet and Higher Education , 19 , 10–17.

Sitzmann, T., Kraiger, K., Stewart, D., & Wisher, R. (2006). The comparative effectiveness of web-based and classroom instruction: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology , 59 (3), 623–664.

So, H. J., & Brush, T. A. (2008). Student perceptions of collaborative learning, social presence and satisfaction in a blended learning environment: Relationships and critical factors. Computers & Education , 51 (1), 318–336.

Song, L., Singleton, E. S., Hill, J. R., & Koh, M. H. (2004). Improving online learning: Student perceptions of useful and challenging characteristics. The Internet and Higher Education , 7 (1), 59–70.

Sun, P. C., Tsai, R. J., Finger, G., Chen, Y. Y., & Yeh, D. (2008). What drives a successful e-learning? An empirical investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction. Computers & Education , 50 (4), 1183–1202.

Takamine, K. (2017). Michelle D. miller: Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Higher Education , 73 , 789–791.

Tanner, J. R., Noser, T. C., & Totaro, M. W. (2009). Business faculty and undergraduate students’ perceptions of online learning: A comparative study. Journal of Information Systems Education , 20 (1), 29.

Tucker, B. (2012). The flipped classroom. Education Next , 12 (1), 82–83.

Van Wart, M., Ni, A., Ready, D., Shayo, C., & Court, J. (2020). Factors leading to online learner satisfaction. Business Educational Innovation Journal , 12 (1), 15–24.

Van Wart, M., Ni, A., Rose, L., McWeeney, T., & Worrell, R. A. (2019). Literature review and model of online teaching effectiveness integrating concerns for learning achievement, student satisfaction, faculty satisfaction, and institutional results. Pan-Pacific . Journal of Business Research , 10 (1), 1–22.

Ventura, A. C., & Moscoloni, N. (2015). Learning styles and disciplinary differences: A cross-sectional study of undergraduate students. International Journal of Learning and Teaching , 1 (2), 88–93.

Vlachopoulos, D., & Makri, A. (2017). The effect of games and simulations on higher education: A systematic literature review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education , 14 , #22.

Wang, Y., Huang, X., & Schunn, C. D. (2019). Redesigning flipped classrooms: A learning model and its effects on student perceptions. Higher Education , 78 , 711–728.

Wingo, N. P., Ivankova, N. V., & Moss, J. A. (2017). Faculty perceptions about teaching online: Exploring the literature using the technology acceptance model as an organizing framework. Online Learning , 21 (1), 15–35.

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2014). Performance gaps between online and face-to-face courses: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas. Journal of Higher Education , 85 (5), 633–659.

Young, S. (2006). Student views of effective online teaching in higher education. American Journal of Distance Education , 20 (2), 65–77.

Zawacki-Richter, O., & Naidu, S. (2016). Mapping research trends from 35 years of publications in distance Education. Distance Education , 37 (3), 245–269.

Download references


No external funding/ NA.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

Development for the JHB College of Business and Public Administration, 5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino, California, 92407, USA

Montgomery Van Wart, Anna Ni, Pamela Medina, Jesus Canelon, Melika Kordrostami, Jing Zhang & Yu Liu

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar


Equal. The author(s) read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Montgomery Van Wart .

Ethics declarations

Competing interests.

We have no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note.

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit .

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article.

Van Wart, M., Ni, A., Medina, P. et al. Integrating students’ perspectives about online learning: a hierarchy of factors. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 17 , 53 (2020).

Download citation

Received : 29 April 2020

Accepted : 30 July 2020

Published : 02 December 2020


Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Online education
  • Online teaching
  • Student perceptions
  • Online quality
  • Student presence

research paper about online learning chapter 1

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • Wiley - PMC COVID-19 Collection

Logo of pheblackwell

Students’ experience of online learning during the COVID‐19 pandemic: A province‐wide survey study

Lixiang yan.

1 Centre for Learning Analytics at Monash, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University, Clayton VIC, Australia

Alexander Whitelock‐Wainwright

2 Portfolio of the Deputy Vice‐Chancellor (Education), Monash University, Melbourne VIC, Australia

Quanlong Guan

3 Department of Computer Science, Jinan University, Guangzhou China

Gangxin Wen

4 College of Cyber Security, Jinan University, Guangzhou China

Dragan Gašević

Guanliang chen, associated data.

The data is not openly available as it is restricted by the Chinese government.

Online learning is currently adopted by educational institutions worldwide to provide students with ongoing education during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Even though online learning research has been advancing in uncovering student experiences in various settings (i.e., tertiary, adult, and professional education), very little progress has been achieved in understanding the experience of the K‐12 student population, especially when narrowed down to different school‐year segments (i.e., primary and secondary school students). This study explores how students at different stages of their K‐12 education reacted to the mandatory full‐time online learning during the COVID‐19 pandemic. For this purpose, we conducted a province‐wide survey study in which the online learning experience of 1,170,769 Chinese students was collected from the Guangdong Province of China. We performed cross‐tabulation and Chi‐square analysis to compare students’ online learning conditions, experiences, and expectations. Results from this survey study provide evidence that students’ online learning experiences are significantly different across school years. Foremost, policy implications were made to advise government authorises and schools on improving the delivery of online learning, and potential directions were identified for future research into K‐12 online learning.

Practitioner notes

What is already known about this topic

  • Online learning has been widely adopted during the COVID‐19 pandemic to ensure the continuation of K‐12 education.
  • Student success in K‐12 online education is substantially lower than in conventional schools.
  • Students experienced various difficulties related to the delivery of online learning.

What this paper adds

  • Provide empirical evidence for the online learning experience of students in different school years.
  • Identify the different needs of students in primary, middle, and high school.
  • Identify the challenges of delivering online learning to students of different age.

Implications for practice and/or policy

  • Authority and schools need to provide sufficient technical support to students in online learning.
  • The delivery of online learning needs to be customised for students in different school years.


The ongoing COVID‐19 pandemic poses significant challenges to the global education system. By July 2020, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2020) reported nationwide school closure in 111 countries, affecting over 1.07 billion students, which is around 61% of the global student population. Traditional brick‐and‐mortar schools are forced to transform into full‐time virtual schools to provide students with ongoing education (Van Lancker & Parolin,  2020 ). Consequently, students must adapt to the transition from face‐to‐face learning to fully remote online learning, where synchronous video conferences, social media, and asynchronous discussion forums become their primary venues for knowledge construction and peer communication.

For K‐12 students, this sudden transition is problematic as they often lack prior online learning experience (Barbour & Reeves,  2009 ). Barbour and LaBonte ( 2017 ) estimated that even in countries where online learning is growing rapidly, such as USA and Canada, less than 10% of the K‐12 student population had prior experience with this format. Maladaptation to online learning could expose inexperienced students to various vulnerabilities, including decrements in academic performance (Molnar et al.,  2019 ), feeling of isolation (Song et al.,  2004 ), and lack of learning motivation (Muilenburg & Berge,  2005 ). Unfortunately, with confirmed cases continuing to rise each day, and new outbreaks occur on a global scale, full‐time online learning for most students could last longer than anticipated (World Health Organization,  2020 ). Even after the pandemic, the current mass adoption of online learning could have lasting impacts on the global education system, and potentially accelerate and expand the rapid growth of virtual schools on a global scale (Molnar et al.,  2019 ). Thus, understanding students' learning conditions and their experiences of online learning during the COVID pandemic becomes imperative.

Emerging evidence on students’ online learning experience during the COVID‐19 pandemic has identified several major concerns, including issues with internet connection (Agung et al.,  2020 ; Basuony et al.,  2020 ), problems with IT equipment (Bączek et al.,  2021 ; Niemi & Kousa,  2020 ), limited collaborative learning opportunities (Bączek et al.,  2021 ; Yates et al.,  2020 ), reduced learning motivation (Basuony et al.,  2020 ; Niemi & Kousa,  2020 ; Yates et al.,  2020 ), and increased learning burdens (Niemi & Kousa,  2020 ). Although these findings provided valuable insights about the issues students experienced during online learning, information about their learning conditions and future expectations were less mentioned. Such information could assist educational authorises and institutions to better comprehend students’ difficulties and potentially improve their online learning experience. Additionally, most of these recent studies were limited to higher education, except for Yates et al. ( 2020 ) and Niemi and Kousa’s ( 2020 ) studies on senior high school students. Empirical research targeting the full spectrum of K‐12students remain scarce. Therefore, to address these gaps, the current paper reports the findings of a large‐scale study that sought to explore K‐12 students’ online learning experience during the COVID‐19 pandemic in a provincial sample of over one million Chinese students. The findings of this study provide policy recommendations to educational institutions and authorities regarding the delivery of K‐12 online education.


Learning conditions and technologies.

Having stable access to the internet is critical to students’ learning experience during online learning. Berge ( 2005 ) expressed the concern of the divide in digital‐readiness, and the pedagogical approach between different countries could influence students’ online learning experience. Digital‐readiness is the availability and adoption of information technologies and infrastructures in a country. Western countries like America (3rd) scored significantly higher in digital‐readiness compared to Asian countries like China (54th; Cisco,  2019 ). Students from low digital‐readiness countries could experience additional technology‐related problems. Supporting evidence is emerging in recent studies conducted during the COVID‐19 pandemic. In Egypt's capital city, Basuony et al. ( 2020 ) found that only around 13.9%of the students experienced issues with their internet connection. Whereas more than two‐thirds of the students in rural Indonesia reported issues of unstable internet, insufficient internet data, and incompatible learning device (Agung et al.,  2020 ).

Another influential factor for K‐12 students to adequately adapt to online learning is the accessibility of appropriate technological devices, especially having access to a desktop or a laptop (Barbour et al., 2018 ). However, it is unlikely for most of the students to satisfy this requirement. Even in higher education, around 76% of students reported having incompatible devices for online learning and only 15% of students used laptop for online learning, whereas around 85% of them used smartphone (Agung et al.,  2020 ). It is very likely that K‐12 students also suffer from this availability issue as they depend on their parents to provide access to relevant learning devices.

Technical issues surrounding technological devices could also influence students’ experience in online learning. (Barbour & Reeves,  2009 ) argues that students need to have a high level of digital literacy to find and use relevant information and communicate with others through technological devices. Students lacking this ability could experience difficulties in online learning. Bączek et al. ( 2021 ) found that around 54% of the medical students experienced technical problems with IT equipment and this issue was more prevalent in students with lower years of tertiary education. Likewise, Niemi and Kousa ( 2020 ) also find that students in a Finish high school experienced increased amounts of technical problems during the examination period, which involved additional technical applications. These findings are concerning as young children and adolescent in primary and lower secondary school could be more vulnerable to these technical problems as they are less experienced with the technologies in online learning (Barbour & LaBonte,  2017 ). Therefore, it is essential to investigate the learning conditions and the related difficulties experienced by students in K‐12 education as the extend of effects on them remain underexplored.

Learning experience and interactions

Apart from the aforementioned issues, the extent of interaction and collaborative learning opportunities available in online learning could also influence students’ experience. The literature on online learning has long emphasised the role of effective interaction for the success of student learning. According to Muirhead and Juwah ( 2004 ), interaction is an event that can take the shape of any type of communication between two or subjects and objects. Specifically, the literature acknowledges the three typical forms of interactions (Moore,  1989 ): (i) student‐content, (ii) student‐student, and (iii) student‐teacher. Anderson ( 2003 ) posits, in the well‐known interaction equivalency theorem, learning experiences will not deteriorate if only one of the three interaction is of high quality, and the other two can be reduced or even eliminated. Quality interaction can be accomplished by across two dimensions: (i) structure—pedagogical means that guide student interaction with contents or other students and (ii) dialogue—communication that happens between students and teachers and among students. To be able to scale online learning and prevent the growth of teaching costs, the emphasise is typically on structure (i.e., pedagogy) that can promote effective student‐content and student‐student interaction. The role of technology and media is typically recognised as a way to amplify the effect of pedagogy (Lou et al.,  2006 ). Novel technological innovations—for example learning analytics‐based personalised feedback at scale (Pardo et al.,  2019 ) —can also empower teachers to promote their interaction with students.

Online education can lead to a sense of isolation, which can be detrimental to student success (McInnerney & Roberts,  2004 ). Therefore, integration of social interaction into pedagogy for online learning is essential, especially at the times when students do not actually know each other or have communication and collaboration skills underdeveloped (Garrison et al.,  2010 ; Gašević et al.,  2015 ). Unfortunately, existing evidence suggested that online learning delivery during the COVID‐19 pandemic often lacks interactivity and collaborative experiences (Bączek et al.,  2021 ; Yates et al.,  2020 ). Bączek et al., ( 2021 ) found that around half of the medical students reported reduced interaction with teachers, and only 4% of students think online learning classes are interactive. Likewise, Yates et al. ( 2020 )’s study in high school students also revealed that over half of the students preferred in‐class collaboration over online collaboration as they value the immediate support and the proximity to teachers and peers from in‐class interaction.

Learning expectations and age differentiation

Although these studies have provided valuable insights and stressed the need for more interactivity in online learning, K‐12 students in different school years could exhibit different expectations for the desired activities in online learning. Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory illustrated children's difficulties in understanding abstract and hypothetical concepts (Thomas,  2000 ). Primary school students will encounter many abstract concepts in their STEM education (Uttal & Cohen,  2012 ). In face‐to‐face learning, teachers provide constant guidance on students’ learning progress and can help them to understand difficult concepts. Unfortunately, the level of guidance significantly drops in online learning, and, in most cases, children have to face learning obstacles by themselves (Barbour,  2013 ). Additionally, lower primary school students may lack the metacognitive skills to use various online learning functions, maintain engagement in synchronous online learning, develop and execute self‐regulated learning plans, and engage in meaningful peer interactions during online learning (Barbour,  2013 ; Broadbent & Poon,  2015 ; Huffaker & Calvert, 2003; Wang et al.,  2013 ). Thus, understanding these younger students’ expectations is imperative as delivering online learning to them in the same way as a virtual high school could hinder their learning experiences. For students with more matured metacognition, their expectations of online learning could be substantially different from younger students. Niemi et al.’s study ( 2020 ) with students in a Finish high school have found that students often reported heavy workload and fatigue during online learning. These issues could cause anxiety and reduce students’ learning motivation, which would have negative consequences on their emotional well‐being and academic performance (Niemi & Kousa,  2020 ; Yates et al.,  2020 ), especially for senior students who are under the pressure of examinations. Consequently, their expectations of online learning could be orientated toward having additional learning support functions and materials. Likewise, they could also prefer having more opportunities for peer interactions as these interactions are beneficial to their emotional well‐being and learning performance (Gašević et al., 2013 ; Montague & Rinaldi, 2001 ). Therefore, it is imperative to investigate the differences between online learning expectations in students of different school years to suit their needs better.

Research questions

By building upon the aforementioned relevant works, this study aimed to contribute to the online learning literature with a comprehensive understanding of the online learning experience that K‐12 students had during the COVID‐19 pandemic period in China. Additionally, this study also aimed to provide a thorough discussion of what potential actions can be undertaken to improve online learning delivery. Formally, this study was guided by three research questions (RQs):

RQ1 . What learning conditions were experienced by students across 12 years of education during their online learning process in the pandemic period? RQ2 . What benefits and obstacles were perceived by students across 12 years of education when performing online learning? RQ3 . What expectations do students, across 12 years of education, have for future online learning practices ?


The total number of K‐12 students in the Guangdong Province of China is around 15 million. In China, students of Year 1–6, Year 7–9, and Year 10–12 are referred to as students of primary school, middle school, and high school, respectively. Typically, students in China start their study in primary school at the age of around six. At the end of their high‐school study, students have to take the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE; also known as Gaokao) to apply for tertiary education. The survey was administrated across the whole Guangdong Province, that is the survey was exposed to all of the 15 million K‐12 students, though it was not mandatory for those students to accomplish the survey. A total of 1,170,769 students completed the survey, which accounts for a response rate of 7.80%. After removing responses with missing values and responses submitted from the same IP address (duplicates), we had 1,048,575 valid responses, which accounts to about 7% of the total K‐12 students in the Guangdong Province. The number of students in different school years is shown in Figure  1 . Overall, students were evenly distributed across different school years, except for a smaller sample in students of Year 10–12.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is BJET-52-2038-g004.jpg

The number of students in each school year

Survey design

The survey was designed collaboratively by multiple relevant parties. Firstly, three educational researchers working in colleges and universities and three educational practitioners working in the Department of Education in Guangdong Province were recruited to co‐design the survey. Then, the initial draft of the survey was sent to 30 teachers from different primary and secondary schools, whose feedback and suggestions were considered to improve the survey. The final survey consisted of a total of 20 questions, which, broadly, can be classified into four categories: demographic, behaviours, experiences, and expectations. Details are available in Appendix.

All K‐12 students in the Guangdong Province were made to have full‐time online learning from March 1, 2020 after the outbreak of COVID‐19 in January in China. A province‐level online learning platform was provided to all schools by the government. In addition to the learning platform, these schools can also use additional third‐party platforms to facilitate the teaching activities, for example WeChat and Dingding, which provide services similar to WhatsApp and Zoom. The main change for most teachers was that they had to shift the classroom‐based lectures to online lectures with the aid of web‐conferencing tools. Similarly, these teachers also needed to perform homework marking and have consultation sessions in an online manner.

The Department of Education in the Guangdong Province of China distributed the survey to all K‐12 schools in the province on March 21, 2020 and collected responses on March 26, 2020. Students could access and answer the survey anonymously by either scan the Quick Response code along with the survey or click the survey address link on their mobile device. The survey was administrated in a completely voluntary manner and no incentives were given to the participants. Ethical approval was granted by the Department of Education in the Guangdong Province. Parental approval was not required since the survey was entirely anonymous and facilitated by the regulating authority, which satisfies China's ethical process.

The original survey was in Chinese, which was later translated by two bilingual researchers and verified by an external translator who is certified by the Australian National Accreditation Authority of Translators and Interpreters. The original and translated survey questionnaires are available in Supporting Information. Given the limited space we have here and the fact that not every survey item is relevant to the RQs, the following items were chosen to answer the RQs: item Q3 (learning media) and Q11 (learning approaches) for RQ1, item Q13 (perceived obstacle) and Q19 (perceived benefits) for RQ2, and item Q19 (expected learning activities) for RQ3. Cross‐tabulation based approaches were used to analyse the collected data. To scrutinise whether the differences displayed by students of different school years were statistically significant, we performed Chi‐square tests and calculated the Cramer's V to assess the strengths of the association after chi‐square had determined significance.

For the analyses, students were segmented into four categories based on their school years, that is Year 1–3, Year 4–6, Year 7–9, and Year 10–12, to provide a clear understanding of the different experiences and needs that different students had for online learning. This segmentation was based on the educational structure of Chinese schools: elementary school (Year 1–6), middle school (Year 7–9), and high school (Year 10–12). Children in elementary school can further be segmented into junior (Year 1–3) or senior (Year 4–6) students because senior elementary students in China are facing more workloads compared to junior students due to the provincial Middle School Entry Examination at the end of Year 6.

Learning conditions—RQ1

Learning media.

The Chi‐square test showed significant association between school years and students’ reported usage of learning media, χ 2 (55, N  = 1,853,952) = 46,675.38, p  < 0.001. The Cramer's V is 0.07 ( df ∗ = 5), which indicates a small‐to‐medium effect according to Cohen’s ( 1988 ) guidelines. Based on Figure  2 , we observed that an average of up to 87.39% students used smartphones to perform online learning, while only 25.43% students used computer, which suggests that smartphones, with widespread availability in China (2020), have been adopted by students for online learning. As for the prevalence of the two media, we noticed that both smartphones ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 9,395.05, p < 0.001, Cramer's V  = 0.10 ( df ∗ = 1)) and computers ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 11,025.58, p <.001, Cramer's V  = 0.10 ( df ∗ = 1)) were more adopted by high‐school‐year (Year 7–12) than early‐school‐year students (Year 1–6), both with a small effect size. Besides, apparent discrepancies can be observed between the usages of TV and paper‐based materials across different school years, that is early‐school‐year students reported more TV usage ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 19,505.08, p <.001), with a small‐to‐medium effect size, Cramer's V  = 0.14( df ∗ = 1). High‐school‐year students (especially Year 10–12) reported more usage of paper‐based materials ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 23,401.64, p < 0.001), with a small‐to‐medium effect size, Cramer's V  = 0.15( df ∗ = 1).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is BJET-52-2038-g002.jpg

Learning media used by students in online learning

Learning approaches

School years is also significantly associated with the different learning approaches students used to tackle difficult concepts during online learning, χ 2 (55, N  = 2,383,751) = 58,030.74, p < 0.001. The strength of this association is weak to moderate as shown by the Cramer's V (0.07, df ∗ = 5; Cohen,  1988 ). When encountering problems related to difficult concepts, students typically chose to “solve independently by searching online” or “rewatch recorded lectures” instead of consulting to their teachers or peers (Figure  3 ). This is probably because, compared to classroom‐based education, it is relatively less convenient and more challenging for students to seek help from others when performing online learning. Besides, compared to high‐school‐year students, early‐school‐year students (Year 1–6), reported much less use of “solve independently by searching online” ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 48,100.15, p <.001), with a small‐to‐medium effect size, Cramer's V  = 0.21 ( df ∗ = 1). Also, among those approaches of seeking help from others, significantly more high‐school‐year students preferred “communicating with other students” than early‐school‐year students ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 81,723.37, p < 0.001), with a medium effect size, Cramer's V  = 0.28 ( df ∗ = 1).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is BJET-52-2038-g003.jpg

Learning approaches used by students in online learning

Perceived benefits and obstacles—RQ2

Perceived benefits.

The association between school years and perceived benefits in online learning is statistically significant, χ 2 (66, N  = 2,716,127) = 29,534.23, p  < 0.001, and the Cramer's V (0.04, df ∗ = 6) indicates a small effect (Cohen,  1988 ). Unsurprisingly, benefits brought by the convenience of online learning are widely recognised by students across all school years (Figure  4 ), that is up to 75% of students reported that it is “more convenient to review course content” and 54% said that they “can learn anytime and anywhere” . Besides, we noticed that about 50% of early‐school‐year students appreciated the “access to courses delivered by famous teachers” and 40%–47% of high‐school‐year students indicated that online learning is “helpful to develop self‐regulation and autonomy” .

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is BJET-52-2038-g005.jpg

Perceived benefits of online learning reported by students

Perceived obstacles

The Chi‐square test shows a significant association between school years and students’ perceived obstacles in online learning, χ 2 (77, N  = 2,699,003) = 31,987.56, p < 0.001. This association is relatively weak as shown by the Cramer's V (0.04, df ∗ = 7; Cohen,  1988 ). As shown in Figure  5 , the biggest obstacles encountered by up to 73% of students were the “eyestrain caused by long staring at screens” . Disengagement caused by nearby disturbance was reported by around 40% of students, especially those of Year 1–3 and 10–12. Technological‐wise, about 50% of students experienced poor Internet connection during their learning process, and around 20% of students reported the “confusion in setting up the platforms” across of school years.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is BJET-52-2038-g001.jpg

Perceived obstacles of online learning reported by students

Expectations for future practices of online learning – RQ3

Online learning activities.

The association between school years and students’ expected online learning activities is significant, χ 2 (66, N  = 2,416,093) = 38,784.81, p < 0.001. The Cramer's V is 0.05 ( df ∗ = 6) which suggests a small effect (Cohen,  1988 ). As shown in Figure  6 , the most expected activity for future online learning is “real‐time interaction with teachers” (55%), followed by “online group discussion and collaboration” (38%). We also observed that more early‐school‐year students expect reflective activities, such as “regular online practice examinations” ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 11,644.98, p < 0.001), with a small effect size, Cramer's V  = 0.11 ( df ∗ = 1). In contrast, more high‐school‐year students expect “intelligent recommendation system …” ( χ 2 (3, N  = 1,048,575) = 15,327.00, p < 0.001), with a small effect size, Cramer's V  = 0.12 ( df ∗ = 1).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is BJET-52-2038-g006.jpg

Students’ expected online learning activities

Regarding students’ learning conditions, substantial differences were observed in learning media, family dependency, and learning approaches adopted in online learning between students in different school years. The finding of more computer and smartphone usage in high‐school‐year than early‐school‐year students can probably be explained by that, with the growing abilities in utilising these media as well as the educational systems and tools which run on these media, high‐school‐year students tend to make better use of these media for online learning practices. Whereas, the differences in paper‐based materials may imply that high‐school‐year students in China have to accomplish a substantial amount of exercise, assignments, and exam papers to prepare for the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE), whose delivery was not entirely digitised due to the sudden transition to online learning. Meanwhile, high‐school‐year students may also have preferred using paper‐based materials for exam practice, as eventually, they would take their NCEE in the paper format. Therefore, these substantial differences in students’ usage of learning media should be addressed by customising the delivery method of online learning for different school years.

Other than these between‐age differences in learning media, the prevalence of smartphone in online learning resonates with Agung et al.’s ( 2020 ) finding on the issues surrounding the availability of compatible learning device. The prevalence of smartphone in K‐12 students is potentially problematic as the majority of the online learning platform and content is designed for computer‐based learning (Berge,  2005 ; Molnar et al.,  2019 ). Whereas learning with smartphones has its own unique challenges. For example, Gikas and Grant ( 2013 ) discovered that students who learn with smartphone experienced frustration with the small screen‐size, especially when trying to type with the tiny keypad. Another challenge relates to the distraction of various social media applications. Although similar distractions exist in computer and web‐based social media, the level of popularity, especially in the young generation, are much higher in mobile‐based social media (Montag et al.,  2018 ). In particular, the message notification function in smartphones could disengage students from learning activities and allure them to social media applications (Gikas & Grant,  2013 ). Given these challenges of learning with smartphones, more research efforts should be devoted to analysing students’ online learning behaviour in the setting of mobile learning to accommodate their needs better.

The differences in learning approaches, once again, illustrated that early‐school‐year students have different needs compared to high‐school‐year students. In particular, the low usage of the independent learning methods in early‐school‐year students may reflect their inability to engage in independent learning. Besides, the differences in help seeking behaviours demonstrated the distinctive needs for communication and interaction between different students, that is early‐school‐year students have a strong reliance on teachers and high‐school‐year students, who are equipped with stronger communication ability, are more inclined to interact with their peers. This finding implies that the design of online learning platforms should take students’ different needs into account. Thus, customisation is urgently needed for the delivery of online learning to different school years.

In terms of the perceived benefits and challenges of online learning, our results resonate with several previous findings. In particular, the benefits of convenience are in line with the flexibility advantages of online learning, which were mentioned in prior works (Appana,  2008 ; Bączek et al.,  2021 ; Barbour,  2013 ; Basuony et al.,  2020 ; Harvey et al.,  2014 ). Early‐school‐year students’ higher appreciation in having “access to courses delivered by famous teachers” and lower appreciation in the independent learning skills developed through online learning are also in line with previous literature (Barbour,  2013 ; Harvey et al.,  2014 ; Oliver et al.,  2009 ). Again, these similar findings may indicate the strong reliance that early‐school‐year students place on teachers, while high‐school‐year students are more capable of adapting to online learning by developing independent learning skills.

Technology‐wise, students’ experience of poor internet connection and confusion in setting up online learning platforms are particularly concerning. The problem of poor internet connection corroborated the findings reported in prior studies (Agung et al.,  2020 ; Barbour,  2013 ; Basuony et al.,  2020 ; Berge,  2005 ; Rice,  2006 ), that is the access issue surrounded the digital divide as one of the main challenges of online learning. In the era of 4G and 5G networks, educational authorities and institutions that deliver online education could fall into the misconception of most students have a stable internet connection at home. The internet issue we observed is particularly vital to students’ online learning experience as most students prefer real‐time communications (Figure  6 ), which rely heavily on stable internet connection. Likewise, the finding of students’ confusion in technology is also consistent with prior studies (Bączek et al.,  2021 ; Muilenburg & Berge,  2005 ; Niemi & Kousa,  2020 ; Song et al.,  2004 ). Students who were unsuccessfully in setting up the online learning platforms could potentially experience declines in confidence and enthusiasm for online learning, which would cause a subsequent unpleasant learning experience. Therefore, both the readiness of internet infrastructure and student technical skills remain as the significant challenges for the mass‐adoption of online learning.

On the other hand, students’ experience of eyestrain from extended screen time provided empirical evidence to support Spitzer’s ( 2001 ) speculation about the potential ergonomic impact of online learning. This negative effect is potentially related to the prevalence of smartphone device and the limited screen size of these devices. This finding not only demonstrates the potential ergonomic issues that would be caused by smartphone‐based online learning but also resonates with the aforementioned necessity of different platforms and content designs for different students.

A less‐mentioned problem in previous studies on online learning experiences is the disengagement caused by nearby disturbance, especially in Year 1–3 and 10–12. It is likely that early‐school‐year students suffered from this problem because of their underdeveloped metacognitive skills to concentrate on online learning without teachers’ guidance. As for high‐school‐year students, the reasons behind their disengagement require further investigation in the future. Especially it would be worthwhile to scrutinise whether this type of disengagement is caused by the substantial amount of coursework they have to undertake and the subsequent a higher level of pressure and a lower level of concentration while learning.

Across age‐level differences are also apparent in terms of students’ expectations of online learning. Although, our results demonstrated students’ needs of gaining social interaction with others during online learning, findings (Bączek et al.,  2021 ; Harvey et al.,  2014 ; Kuo et al.,  2014 ; Liu & Cavanaugh,  2012 ; Yates et al.,  2020 ). This need manifested differently across school years, with early‐school‐year students preferring more teacher interactions and learning regulation support. Once again, this finding may imply that early‐school‐year students are inadequate in engaging with online learning without proper guidance from their teachers. Whereas, high‐school‐year students prefer more peer interactions and recommendation to learning resources. This expectation can probably be explained by the large amount of coursework exposed to them. Thus, high‐school‐year students need further guidance to help them better direct their learning efforts. These differences in students’ expectations for future practices could guide the customisation of online learning delivery.


As shown in our results, improving the delivery of online learning not only requires the efforts of policymakers but also depend on the actions of teachers and parents. The following sub‐sections will provide recommendations for relevant stakeholders and discuss their essential roles in supporting online education.

Technical support

The majority of the students has experienced technical problems during online learning, including the internet lagging and confusion in setting up the learning platforms. These problems with technology could impair students’ learning experience (Kauffman,  2015 ; Muilenburg & Berge,  2005 ). Educational authorities and schools should always provide a thorough guide and assistance for students who are experiencing technical problems with online learning platforms or other related tools. Early screening and detection could also assist schools and teachers to direct their efforts more effectively in helping students with low technology skills (Wilkinson et al.,  2010 ). A potential identification method involves distributing age‐specific surveys that assess students’ Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills at the beginning of online learning. For example, there are empirical validated ICT surveys available for both primary (Aesaert et al.,  2014 ) and high school (Claro et al.,  2012 ) students.

For students who had problems with internet lagging, the delivery of online learning should provide options that require fewer data and bandwidth. Lecture recording is the existing option but fails to address students’ need for real‐time interaction (Clark et al.,  2015 ; Malik & Fatima,  2017 ). A potential alternative involves providing students with the option to learn with digital or physical textbooks and audio‐conferencing, instead of screen sharing and video‐conferencing. This approach significantly reduces the amount of data usage and lowers the requirement of bandwidth for students to engage in smooth online interactions (Cisco,  2018 ). It also requires little additional efforts from teachers as official textbooks are often available for each school year, and thus, they only need to guide students through the materials during audio‐conferencing. Educational authority can further support this approach by making digital textbooks available for teachers and students, especially those in financial hardship. However, the lack of visual and instructor presence could potentially reduce students’ attention, recall of information, and satisfaction in online learning (Wang & Antonenko,  2017 ). Therefore, further research is required to understand whether the combination of digital or physical textbooks and audio‐conferencing is appropriate for students with internet problems. Alternatively, suppose the local technological infrastructure is well developed. In that case, governments and schools can also collaborate with internet providers to issue data and bandwidth vouchers for students who are experiencing internet problems due to financial hardship.

For future adoption of online learning, policymakers should consider the readiness of the local internet infrastructure. This recommendation is particularly important for developing countries, like Bangladesh, where the majority of the students reported the lack of internet infrastructure (Ramij & Sultana,  2020 ). In such environments, online education may become infeasible, and alternative delivery method could be more appropriate, for example, the Telesecundaria program provides TV education for rural areas of Mexico (Calderoni,  1998 ).

Other than technical problems, choosing a suitable online learning platform is also vital for providing students with a better learning experience. Governments and schools should choose an online learning platform that is customised for smartphone‐based learning, as the majority of students could be using smartphones for online learning. This recommendation is highly relevant for situations where students are forced or involuntarily engaged in online learning, like during the COVID‐19 pandemic, as they might not have access to a personal computer (Molnar et al.,  2019 ).

Customisation of delivery methods

Customising the delivery of online learning for students in different school years is the theme that appeared consistently across our findings. This customisation process is vital for making online learning an opportunity for students to develop independent learning skills, which could help prepare them for tertiary education and lifelong learning. However, the pedagogical design of K‐12 online learning programs should be differentiated from adult‐orientated programs as these programs are designed for independent learners, which is rarely the case for students in K‐12 education (Barbour & Reeves,  2009 ).

For early‐school‐year students, especially Year 1–3 students, providing them with sufficient guidance from both teachers and parents should be the priority as these students often lack the ability to monitor and reflect on learning progress. In particular, these students would prefer more real‐time interaction with teachers, tutoring from parents, and regular online practice examinations. These forms of guidance could help early‐school‐year students to cope with involuntary online learning, and potentially enhance their experience in future online learning. It should be noted that, early‐school‐year students demonstrated interest in intelligent monitoring and feedback systems for learning. Additional research is required to understand whether these young children are capable of understanding and using learning analytics that relay information on their learning progress. Similarly, future research should also investigate whether young children can communicate effectively through digital tools as potential inability could hinder student learning in online group activities. Therefore, the design of online learning for early‐school‐year students should focus less on independent learning but ensuring that students are learning effective under the guidance of teachers and parents.

In contrast, group learning and peer interaction are essential for older children and adolescents. The delivery of online learning for these students should focus on providing them with more opportunities to communicate with each other and engage in collaborative learning. Potential methods to achieve this goal involve assigning or encouraging students to form study groups (Lee et al.,  2011 ), directing students to use social media for peer communication (Dabbagh & Kitsantas,  2012 ), and providing students with online group assignments (Bickle & Rucker,  2018 ).

Special attention should be paid to students enrolled in high schools. For high‐school‐year students, in particular, students in Year 10–12, we also recommend to provide them with sufficient access to paper‐based learning materials, such as revision booklet and practice exam papers, so they remain familiar with paper‐based examinations. This recommendation applies to any students who engage in online learning but has to take their final examination in paper format. It is also imperative to assist high‐school‐year students who are facing examinations to direct their learning efforts better. Teachers can fulfil this need by sharing useful learning resources on the learning management system, if it is available, or through social media groups. Alternatively, students are interested in intelligent recommendation systems for learning resources, which are emerging in the literature (Corbi & Solans,  2014 ; Shishehchi et al.,  2010 ). These systems could provide personalised recommendations based on a series of evaluation on learners’ knowledge. Although it is infeasible for situations where the transformation to online learning happened rapidly (i.e., during the COVID‐19 pandemic), policymakers can consider embedding such systems in future online education.


The current findings are limited to primary and secondary Chinese students who were involuntarily engaged in online learning during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Despite the large sample size, the population may not be representative as participants are all from a single province. Also, information about the quality of online learning platforms, teaching contents, and pedagogy approaches were missing because of the large scale of our study. It is likely that the infrastructures of online learning in China, such as learning platforms, instructional designs, and teachers’ knowledge about online pedagogy, were underprepared for the sudden transition. Thus, our findings may not represent the experience of students who voluntarily participated in well‐prepared online learning programs, in particular, the virtual school programs in America and Canada (Barbour & LaBonte,  2017 ; Molnar et al.,  2019 ). Lastly, the survey was only evaluated and validated by teachers but not students. Therefore, students with the lowest reading comprehension levels might have a different understanding of the items’ meaning, especially terminologies that involve abstract contracts like self‐regulation and autonomy in item Q17.

In conclusion, we identified across‐year differences between primary and secondary school students’ online learning experience during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Several recommendations were made for the future practice and research of online learning in the K‐12 student population. First, educational authorities and schools should provide sufficient technical support to help students to overcome potential internet and technical problems, as well as choosing online learning platforms that have been customised for smartphones. Second, customising the online pedagogy design for students in different school years, in particular, focusing on providing sufficient guidance for young children, more online collaborative opportunity for older children and adolescent, and additional learning resource for senior students who are facing final examinations.


There is no potential conflict of interest in this study.


The data are collected by the Department of Education of the Guangdong Province who also has the authority to approve research studies in K12 education in the province.

Supporting information

Supplementary Material


This work is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (62077028, 61877029), the Science and Technology Planning Project of Guangdong (2020B0909030005, 2020B1212030003, 2020ZDZX3013, 2019B1515120010, 2018KTSCX016, 2019A050510024), the Science and Technology Planning Project of Guangzhou (201902010041), and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (21617408, 21619404).


Yan, L , Whitelock‐Wainwright, A , Guan, Q , Wen, G , Gašević, D , & Chen, G . Students’ experience of online learning during the COVID‐19 pandemic: A province‐wide survey study . Br J Educ Technol . 2021; 52 :2038–2057. 10.1111/bjet.13102 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]


  • Aesaert, K. , Van Nijlen, D. , Vanderlinde, R. , & van Braak, J. (2014). Direct measures of digital information processing and communication skills in primary education: Using item response theory for the development and validation of an ICT competence scale . Computers & Education , 76 , 168–181. 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.03.013 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Agung, A. S. N. , Surtikanti, M. W. , & Quinones, C. A. (2020). Students’ perception of online learning during COVID‐19 pandemic: A case study on the English students of STKIP Pamane Talino . SOSHUM: Jurnal Sosial Dan Humaniora , 10 ( 2 ), 225–235. 10.31940/soshum.v10i2.1316 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction . The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning , 4 ( 2 ). 10.19173/irrodl.v4i2.149 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Appana, S. (2008). A review of benefits and limitations of online learning in the context of the student, the instructor and the tenured faculty . International Journal on E‐learning , 7 ( 1 ), 5–22. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Bączek, M. , Zagańczyk‐Bączek, M. , Szpringer, M. , Jaroszyński, A. , & Wożakowska‐Kapłon, B. (2021). Students’ perception of online learning during the COVID‐19 pandemic: A survey study of Polish medical students . Medicine , 100 ( 7 ), e24821. 10.1097/MD.0000000000024821 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Barbour, M. K. (2013). The landscape of k‐12 online learning: Examining what is known . Handbook of Distance Education , 3 , 574–593. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Barbour, M. , Huerta, L. , & Miron, G. (2018). Virtual schools in the US: Case studies of policy, performance and research evidence. In Society for information technology & teacher education international conference (pp. 672–677). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). [ Google Scholar ]
  • Barbour, M. K. , & LaBonte, R. (2017). State of the nation: K‐12 e‐learning in Canada, 2017 edition .‐content/uploads/2018/02/StateNation17.pdf [ Google Scholar ]
  • Barbour, M. K. , & Reeves, T. C. (2009). The reality of virtual schools: A review of the literature . Computers & Education , 52 ( 2 ), 402–416. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Basuony, M. A. K. , EmadEldeen, R. , Farghaly, M. , El‐Bassiouny, N. , & Mohamed, E. K. A. (2020). The factors affecting student satisfaction with online education during the COVID‐19 pandemic: An empirical study of an emerging Muslim country . Journal of Islamic Marketing . 10.1108/JIMA-09-2020-0301 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Berge, Z. L. (2005). Virtual schools: Planning for success . Teachers College Press, Columbia University. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Bickle, M. C. , & Rucker, R. (2018). Student‐to‐student interaction: Humanizing the online classroom using technology and group assignments . Quarterly Review of Distance Education , 19 ( 1 ), 1–56. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Broadbent, J. , & Poon, W. L. (2015). Self‐regulated learning strategies & academic achievement in online higher education learning environments: A systematic review . The Internet and Higher Education , 27 , 1–13. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Calderoni, J. (1998). Telesecundaria: Using TV to bring education to rural Mexico (Tech. Rep.). The World Bank. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Cisco . (2018). Bandwidth requirements for meetings with cisco Webex and collaboration meeting rooms white paper . [ Google Scholar ]
  • Cisco . (2019). Cisco digital readiness 2019 .‐social‐responsibility/research‐resources/digital‐readiness‐index.html#/ (Library Catalog: [ Google Scholar ]
  • Clark, C. , Strudler, N. , & Grove, K. (2015). Comparing asynchronous and synchronous video vs. text based discussions in an online teacher education course . Online Learning , 19 ( 3 ), 48–69. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Claro, M. , Preiss, D. D. , San Martín, E. , Jara, I. , Hinostroza, J. E. , Valenzuela, S. , Cortes, F. , & Nussbaum, M. (2012). Assessment of 21st century ICT skills in Chile: Test design and results from high school level students . Computers & Education , 59 ( 3 ), 1042–1053. 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.04.004 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences . Routledge Academic. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Corbi, A. , & Solans, D. B. (2014). Review of current student‐monitoring techniques used in elearning‐focused recommender systems and learning analytics: The experience API & LIME model case study . IJIMAI , 2 ( 7 ), 44–52. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Dabbagh, N. , & Kitsantas, A. (2012). Personal learning environments, social media, and self‐regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning . The Internet and Higher Education , 15 ( 1 ), 3–8. 10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.06.002 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Garrison, D. R. , Cleveland‐Innes, M. , & Fung, T. S. (2010). Exploring causal relationships among teaching, cognitive and social presence: Student perceptions of the community of inquiry framework . The Internet and Higher Education , 13 ( 1–2 ), 31–36. 10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.10.002 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Gašević, D. , Adesope, O. , Joksimović, S. , & Kovanović, V. (2015). Externally‐facilitated regulation scaffolding and role assignment to develop cognitive presence in asynchronous online discussions . The Internet and Higher Education , 24 , 53–65. 10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.09.006 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Gašević, D. , Zouaq, A. , & Janzen, R. (2013). “Choose your classmates, your GPA is at stake!” The association of cross‐class social ties and academic performance . American Behavioral Scientist , 57 ( 10 ), 1460–1479. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Gikas, J. , & Grant, M. M. (2013). Mobile computing devices in higher education: Student perspectives on learning with cellphones, smartphones & social media . The Internet and Higher Education , 19 , 18–26. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Harvey, D. , Greer, D. , Basham, J. , & Hu, B. (2014). From the student perspective: Experiences of middle and high school students in online learning . American Journal of Distance Education , 28 ( 1 ), 14–26. 10.1080/08923647.2014.868739 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Kauffman, H. (2015). A review of predictive factors of student success in and satisfaction with online learning . Research in Learning Technology , 23 . 10.3402/rlt.v23.26507 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Kuo, Y.‐C. , Walker, A. E. , Belland, B. R. , Schroder, K. E. , & Kuo, Y.‐T. (2014). A case study of integrating interwise: Interaction, internet self‐efficacy, and satisfaction in synchronous online learning environments . International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning , 15 ( 1 ), 161–181. 10.19173/irrodl.v15i1.1664 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Lee, S. J. , Srinivasan, S. , Trail, T. , Lewis, D. , & Lopez, S. (2011). Examining the relationship among student perception of support, course satisfaction, and learning outcomes in online learning . The Internet and Higher Education , 14 ( 3 ), 158–163. 10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.04.001 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Liu, F. , & Cavanaugh, C. (2012). Factors influencing student academic performance in online high school algebra . Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e‐Learning , 27 ( 2 ), 149–167. 10.1080/02680513.2012.678613 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Lou, Y. , Bernard, R. M. , & Abrami, P. C. (2006). Media and pedagogy in undergraduate distance education: A theory‐based meta‐analysis of empirical literature . Educational Technology Research and Development , 54 ( 2 ), 141–176. 10.1007/s11423-006-8252-x [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Malik, M. , & Fatima, G. (2017). E‐learning: Students’ perspectives about asynchronous and synchronous resources at higher education level . Bulletin of Education and Research , 39 ( 2 ), 183–195. [ Google Scholar ]
  • McInnerney, J. M. , & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Online learning: Social interaction and the creation of a sense of community . Journal of Educational Technology & Society , 7 ( 3 ), 73–81. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Molnar, A. , Miron, G. , Elgeberi, N. , Barbour, M. K. , Huerta, L. , Shafer, S. R. , & Rice, J. K. (2019). Virtual schools in the US 2019 . National Education Policy Center. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Montague, M. , & Rinaldi, C. (2001). Classroom dynamics and children at risk: A followup . Learning Disability Quarterly , 24 ( 2 ), 75–83. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Montag, C. , Becker, B. , & Gan, C. (2018). The multipurpose application Wechat: A review on recent research . Frontiers in Psychology , 9 , 2247. 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02247 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction . American Journal of Distance Education , 3 ( 2 ), 1–7. 10.1080/08923648909526659 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muilenburg, L. Y. , & Berge, Z. L. (2005). Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study . Distance Education , 26 ( 1 ), 29–48. 10.1080/01587910500081269 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muirhead, B. , & Juwah, C. (2004). Interactivity in computer‐mediated college and university education: A recent review of the literature . Journal of Educational Technology & Society , 7 ( 1 ), 12–20. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Niemi, H. M. , & Kousa, P. (2020). A case study of students’ and teachers’ perceptions in a finnish high school during the COVID pandemic . International Journal of Technology in Education and Science , 4 ( 4 ), 352–369. 10.46328/ijtes.v4i4.167 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oliver, K. , Osborne, J. , & Brady, K. (2009). What are secondary students’ expectations for teachers in virtual school environments? Distance Education , 30 ( 1 ), 23–45. 10.1080/01587910902845923 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Pardo, A. , Jovanovic, J. , Dawson, S. , Gašević, D. , & Mirriahi, N. (2019). Using learning analytics to scale the provision of personalised feedback . British Journal of Educational Technology , 50 ( 1 ), 128–138. 10.1111/bjet.12592 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Ramij, M. , & Sultana, A. (2020). Preparedness of online classes in developing countries amid covid‐19 outbreak: A perspective from Bangladesh. Afrin, Preparedness of Online Classes in Developing Countries amid COVID‐19 Outbreak: A Perspective from Bangladesh (June 29, 2020) .
  • Rice, K. L. (2006). A comprehensive look at distance education in the k–12 context . Journal of Research on Technology in Education , 38 ( 4 ), 425–448. 10.1080/15391523.2006.10782468 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Shishehchi, S. , Banihashem, S. Y. , & Zin, N. A. M. (2010). A proposed semantic recommendation system for elearning: A rule and ontology based e‐learning recommendation system. In 2010 international symposium on information technology (Vol. 1, pp. 1–5).
  • Song, L. , Singleton, E. S. , Hill, J. R. , & Koh, M. H. (2004). Improving online learning: Student perceptions of useful and challenging characteristics . The Internet and Higher Education , 7 ( 1 ), 59–70. 10.1016/j.iheduc.2003.11.003 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Spitzer, D. R. (2001). Don’t forget the high‐touch with the high‐tech in distance learning . Educational Technology , 41 ( 2 ), 51–55. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Thomas, R. M. (2000). Comparing theories of child development. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2020, March). Education: From disruption to recovery . (Library Catalog:
  • Uttal, D. H. , & Cohen, C. A. (2012). Spatial thinking and stem education: When, why, and how? In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 57 , pp. 147–181). Elsevier. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Van Lancker, W. , & Parolin, Z. (2020). Covid‐19, school closures, and child poverty: A social crisis in the making . The Lancet Public Health , 5 ( 5 ), e243–e244. 10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30084-0 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Wang, C.‐H. , Shannon, D. M. , & Ross, M. E. (2013). Students’ characteristics, self‐regulated learning, technology self‐efficacy, and course outcomes in online learning . Distance Education , 34 ( 3 ), 302–323. 10.1080/01587919.2013.835779 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Wang, J. , & Antonenko, P. D. (2017). Instructor presence in instructional video: Effects on visual attention, recall, and perceived learning . Computers in Human Behavior , 71 , 79–89. 10.1016/j.chb.2017.01.049 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Wilkinson, A. , Roberts, J. , & While, A. E. (2010). Construction of an instrument to measure student information and communication technology skills, experience and attitudes to e‐learning . Computers in Human Behavior , 26 ( 6 ), 1369–1376. 10.1016/j.chb.2010.04.010 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • World Health Organization . (2020, July). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19): Situation Report‐164 (Situation Report No. 164).‐source/coronaviruse/situation‐reports/20200702‐covid‐19‐sitrep‐164.pdf?sfvrsn$=$ac074f58$_$2
  • Yates, A. , Starkey, L. , Egerton, B. , & Flueggen, F. (2020). High school students’ experience of online learning during Covid‐19: The influence of technology and pedagogy . Technology, Pedagogy and Education , 9 , 1–15. 10.1080/1475939X.2020.1854337 [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Open access
  • Published: 16 September 2021

Online learning during COVID-19 produced equivalent or better student course performance as compared with pre-pandemic: empirical evidence from a school-wide comparative study

  • Meixun Zheng 1 ,
  • Daniel Bender 1 &
  • Cindy Lyon 1  

BMC Medical Education volume  21 , Article number:  495 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

212k Accesses

80 Citations

115 Altmetric

Metrics details

The COVID-19 pandemic forced dental schools to close their campuses and move didactic instruction online. The abrupt transition to online learning, however, has raised several issues that have not been resolved. While several studies have investigated dental students’ attitude towards online learning during the pandemic, mixed results have been reported. Additionally, little research has been conducted to identify and understand factors, especially pedagogical factors, that impacted students’ acceptance of online learning during campus closure. Furthermore, how online learning during the pandemic impacted students’ learning performance has not been empirically investigated. In March 2020, the dental school studied here moved didactic instruction online in response to government issued stay-at-home orders. This first-of-its-kind comparative study examined students’ perceived effectiveness of online courses during summer quarter 2020, explored pedagogical factors impacting their acceptance of online courses, and empirically evaluated the impact of online learning on students’ course performance, during the pandemic.

The study employed a quasi-experimental design. Participants were 482 pre-doctoral students in a U.S dental school. Students’ perceived effectiveness of online courses during the pandemic was assessed with a survey. Students’ course grades for online courses during summer quarter 2020 were compared with that of a control group who received face-to-face instruction for the same courses before the pandemic in summer quarter 2019.

Survey results revealed that most online courses were well accepted by the students, and 80 % of them wanted to continue with some online instruction post pandemic. Regression analyses revealed that students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates predicted their perceived effectiveness of the online course. More notably, Chi Square tests demonstrated that in 16 out of the 17 courses compared, the online cohort during summer quarter 2020 was equally or more likely to get an A course grade than the analogous face-to-face cohort during summer quarter 2019.


This is the first empirical study in dental education to demonstrate that online courses during the pandemic could achieve equivalent or better student course performance than the same pre-pandemic in-person courses. The findings fill in gaps in literature and may inform online learning design moving forward.

Peer Review reports


Research across disciplines has demonstrated that well-designed online learning can lead to students’ enhanced motivation, satisfaction, and learning [ 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 ]. A report by the U.S. Department of Education [ 8 ], based on examinations of comparative studies of online and face-to-face versions of the same course from 1996 to 2008, concluded that online learning could produce learning outcomes equivalent to or better than face-to-face learning. The more recent systematic review by Pei and Wu [ 9 ] provided additional evidence that online learning is at least as effective as face-to-face learning for undergraduate medical students.

To take advantage of the opportunities presented by online learning, thought leaders in dental education in the U.S. have advocated for the adoption of online learning in the nation’s dental schools [ 10 , 11 , 12 ]. However, digital innovation has been a slow process in academic dentistry [ 13 , 14 , 15 ]. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented disruption to dental education by necessitating the need for online learning. In accordance with stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the virus, dental schools around the world closed their campuses and moved didactic instruction online.

The abrupt transition to online learning, however, has raised several concerns and question. First, while several studies have examined dental students’ online learning satisfaction during the pandemic, mixed results have been reported. Some studies have reported students’ positive attitude towards online learning [ 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 ]. Sadid-Zadeh et al. [ 18 ] found that 99 % of the surveyed dental students at University of Buffalo, in the U.S., were satisfied with live web-based lectures during the pandemic. Schlenz et al. [ 15 ] reported that students in a German dental school had a favorable attitude towards online learning and wanted to continue with online instruction in their future curriculum. Other studies, however, have reported students’ negative online learning experience during the pandemic [ 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 ]. For instance, dental students at Harvard University felt that learning during the pandemic had worsened and engagement had decreased [ 23 , 24 ]. In a study with medical and dental students in Pakistan, Abbasi et al. [ 21 ] found that 77 % of the students had negative perceptions about online learning and 84 % reported reduced student-instructor interactions.

In addition to these mixed results, little attention has been given to factors affecting students’ acceptance of online learning during the pandemic. With the likelihood that online learning will persist post pandemic [ 27 ], research in this area is warranted to inform online course design moving forward. In particular, prior research has demonstrated that one of the most important factors influencing students’ performance in any learning environment is a sense of belonging, the feeling of being connected with and supported by the instructor and classmates [ 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 ]. Unfortunately, this aspect of the classroom experience has suffered during school closure. While educational events can be held using a video conferencing system, virtual peer interaction on such platforms has been perceived by medical trainees to be not as easy and personal as physical interaction [ 32 ]. The pandemic highlights the need to examine instructional strategies most suited to the current situation to support students’ engagement with faculty and classmates.

Furthermore, there is considerable concern from the academic community about the quality of online learning. Pre-pandemic, some faculty and students were already skeptical about the value of online learning [ 33 ]. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more they may question the value of online education, asking: Can online learning during the pandemic produce learning outcomes that are similar to face-to-face learning before the pandemic? Despite the documented benefits of online learning prior to the pandemic, the actual impact of online learning during the pandemic on students’ academic performance is still unknown due to reasons outlined below.

On one hand, several factors beyond the technology used could influence the effectiveness of online learning, one of which is the teaching context [ 34 ]. The sudden transition to online learning has posed many challenges to faculty and students. Faculty may not have had adequate time to carefully design online courses to take full advantage of the possibilities of the online format. Some faculty may not have had prior online teaching experience and experienced a deeper learning curve when it came to adopting online teaching methods [ 35 ]. Students may have been at the risk of increased anxiety due to concerns about contracting the virus, on time graduation, finances, and employment [ 36 , 37 ], which may have negatively impacted learning performance [ 38 ]. Therefore, whether online learning during the pandemic could produce learning outcomes similar to those of online learning implemented during more normal times remains to be determined.

Most existing studies on online learning in dental education during the pandemic have only reported students’ satisfaction. The actual impact of the online format on academic performance has not been empirically investigated. The few studies that have examined students’ learning outcomes have only used students’ self-reported data from surveys and focus groups. According to Kaczmarek et al. [ 24 ], 50 % of the participating dental faculty at Harvard University perceived student learning to have worsened during the pandemic and 70 % of the students felt the same. Abbasi et al. [ 21 ] reported that 86 % of medical and dental students in a Pakistan college felt that they learned less online. While student opinions are important, research has demonstrated a poor correlation between students’ perceived learning and actual learning gains [ 39 ]. As we continue to navigate the “new normal” in teaching, students’ learning performance needs to be empirically evaluated to help institutions gauge the impact of this grand online learning experiment.

Research purposes

In March 2020, the University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, in the U.S., moved didactic instruction online to ensure the continuity of education during building closure. This study examined students’ acceptance of online learning during the pandemic and its impacting factors, focusing on instructional practices pertaining to students’ engagement/interaction with faculty and classmates. Another purpose of this study was to empirically evaluate the impact of online learning during the pandemic on students’ actual course performance by comparing it with that of a pre-pandemic cohort. To understand the broader impact of the institutional-wide online learning effort, we examined all online courses offered in summer quarter 2020 (July to September) that had a didactic component.

This is the first empirical study in dental education to evaluate students’ learning performance during the pandemic. The study aimed to answer the following three questions.

How well was online learning accepted by students, during the summer quarter 2020 pandemic interruption?

How did instructional strategies, centered around students’ engagement with faculty and classmates, impact their acceptance of online learning?

How did online learning during summer quarter 2020 impact students’ course performance as compared with a previous analogous cohort who received face-to-face instruction in summer quarter 2019?

This study employed a quasi-experimental design. The study was approved by the university’s institutional review board (#2020-68).

Study context and participants

The study was conducted at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, University of the Pacific. The program runs on a quarter system. It offers a 3-year accelerated Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) program and a 2-year International Dental Studies (IDS) program for international dentists who have obtained a doctoral degree in dentistry from a country outside the U.S. and want to practice in the U.S. Students advance throughout the program in cohorts. IDS students take some courses together with their DDS peers. All three DDS classes (D1/DDS 2023, D2/DDS 2022, and D3/DDS 2021) and both IDS classes (I1/IDS 2022 and I2/IDS 2021) were invited to participate in the study. The number of students in each class was: D1 = 145, D2 = 143, D3 = 143, I1 = 26, and I2 = 25. This resulted in a total of 482 student participants.

During campus closure, faculty delivered remote instruction in various ways, including live online classes via Zoom @  [ 40 ], self-paced online modules on the school’s learning management system Canvas @  [ 41 ], or a combination of live and self-paced delivery. For self-paced modules, students studied assigned readings and/or viewings such as videos and pre-recorded slide presentations. Some faculty also developed self-paced online lessons with SoftChalk @  [ 42 ], a cloud-based platform that supports the inclusion of gamified learning by insertion of various mini learning activities. The SoftChalk lessons were integrated with Canvas @  [ 41 ] and faculty could monitor students’ progress. After students completed the pre-assigned online materials, some faculty held virtual office hours or live online discussion sessions for students to ask questions and discuss key concepts.

Data collection and analysis

Student survey.

Students’ perceived effectiveness of summer quarter 2020 online courses was evaluated by the school’s Office of Academic Affairs in lieu of the regular course evaluation process. A total of 19 courses for DDS students and 10 courses for IDS students were evaluated. An 8-question survey developed by the researchers (Additional file 1 ) was administered online in the last week of summer quarter 2020. Course directors invited student to take the survey during live online classes. The survey introduction stated that taking the survey was voluntary and that their anonymous responses would be reported in aggregated form for research purposes. Students were invited to continue with the survey if they chose to participate; otherwise, they could exit the survey. The number of students in each class who took the survey was as follows: D1 ( n  = 142; 98 %), D2 ( n  = 133; 93 %), D3 ( n  = 61; 43 %), I1 ( n  = 23; 88 %), and I2 ( n  = 20; 80 %). This resulted in a total of 379 (79 %) respondents across all classes.

The survey questions were on a 4-point scale, ranging from Strongly Disagree (1 point), Disagree (2 points), Agree (3 points), and Strongly Agree (4 points). Students were asked to rate each online course by responding to four statements: “ I could fully engage with the instructor and classmates in this course”; “The online format of this course supported my learning”; “Overall this online course is effective.”, and “ I would have preferred face-to-face instruction for this course ”. For the first three survey questions, a higher mean score indicated a more positive attitude toward the online course. For the fourth question “ I would have preferred face-to-face instruction for this course ”, a higher mean score indicated that more students would have preferred face-to-face instruction for the course. Two additional survey questions asked students to select their preferred online delivery method for fully online courses during the pandemic from three given choices (synchronous online/live, asynchronous online/self-paced, and a combination of both), and to report whether they wanted to continue with some online instruction post pandemic. Finally, two open-ended questions at the end of the survey allowed students to comment on the aspects of online format that they found to be helpful and to provide suggestion for improvement. For the purpose of this study, we focused on the quantitative data from the Likert-scale questions.

Descriptive data such as the mean scores were reported for each course. Regression analyses were conducted to examine the relationship between instructional strategies focusing on students’ engagement with faculty and classmates, and their overall perceived effectiveness of the online course. The independent variable was student responses to the question “ I could fully engage with the instructor and classmates in this course ”, and the dependent variable was their answer to the question “ Overall, this online course is effective .”

Student course grades

Using Chi-square tests, student course grade distributions (A, B, C, D, and F) for summer quarter 2020 online courses were compared with that of a previous cohort who received face-to-face instruction for the same course in summer quarter 2019. Note that as a result of the school’s pre-doctoral curriculum redesign implemented in July 2019, not all courses offered in summer quarter 2020 were offered in the previous year in summer quarter 2019. In other words, some of the courses offered in summer quarter 2020 were new courses offered for the first time. Because these new courses did not have a previous face-to-face version to compare to, they were excluded from data analysis. For some other courses, while course content remained the same between 2019 and 2020, the sequence of course topics within the course had changed. These courses were also excluded from data analysis.

After excluding the aforementioned courses, it resulted in a total of 17 “comparable” courses that were included in data analysis (see the subsequent section). For these courses, the instructor, course content, and course goals were the same in both 2019 and 2020. The assessment methods and grading policies also remained the same through both years. For exams and quizzes, multiple choice questions were the dominating format for both years. While some exam questions in 2020 were different from 2019, faculty reported that the overall exam difficulty level was similar. The main difference in assessment was testing conditions. The 2019 cohort took computer-based exams in the physical classroom with faculty proctoring, and the 2020 cohort took exams at home with remote proctoring to ensure exam integrity. The remote proctoring software monitored the student during the exam through a web camera on their computer/laptop. The recorded video file flags suspicious activities for faculty review after exam completion.

Students’ perceived effectiveness of online learning

Table  1 summarized data on DDS students’ perceived effectiveness of each online course during summer quarter 2020. For the survey question “ Overall, this online course is effective ”, the majority of courses received a mean score that was approaching or over 3 points on the 4-point scale, suggesting that online learning was generally well accepted by students. Despite overall positive online course experiences, for many of the courses examined, there was an equal split in student responses to the question “ I would have preferred face-to-face instruction for this course .” Additionally, for students’ preferred online delivery method for fully online courses, about half of the students in each class preferred a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online learning (see Fig.  1 ). Finally, the majority of students wanted faculty to continue with some online instruction post pandemic: D1class (110; 78.60 %), D2 class (104; 80 %), and D3 class (49; 83.10 %).

While most online courses received favorable ratings, some variations did exist among courses. For D1 courses, “ Anatomy & Histology ” received lower ratings than others. This could be explained by its lab component, which didn’t lend itself as well to the online format. For D2 courses, several of them received lower ratings than others, especially for the survey question on students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates.

figure 1

DDS students’ preferred online delivery method for fully online courses

Table  2 summarized IDS students’ perceived effectiveness of each online course during summer quarter 2020. For the survey question “ Overall, this online course is effective ”, all courses received a mean score that was approaching or over 3 points on a 4-point scale, suggesting that online learning was well accepted by students. For the survey question “ I would have preferred face-to-face instruction for this course ”, for most online courses examined, the percentage of students who would have preferred face-to-face instruction was similar to that of students who preferred online instruction for the course. Like their DDS peers, about half of the IDS students in each class also preferred a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online delivery for fully online courses (See Fig.  2 ). Finally, the majority of IDS students (I1, n = 18, 81.80 %; I2, n = 16, 84.20 %) wanted to continue with some online learning after the pandemic is over.

figure 2

IDS students’ preferred online delivery method for fully online courses

Factors impacting students’ acceptance of online learning

For all 19 online courses taken by DDS students, regression analyses indicated that there was a significantly positive relationship between students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates and their perceived effectiveness of the course. P value was 0.00 across all courses. The ranges of effect size (r 2 ) were: D1 courses (0.26 to 0.50), D2 courses (0.39 to 0.650), and D3 courses (0.22 to 0.44), indicating moderate to high correlations across courses.

For 9 out of the 10 online courses taken by IDS students, there was a positive relationship between students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates and their perceived effectiveness of the course. P value was 0.00 across courses. The ranges of effect size were: I1 courses (0.35 to 0.77) and I2 courses (0.47 to 0.63), indicating consistently high correlations across courses. The only course in which students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates didn’t predict perceived effective of the course was “ Integrated Clinical Science III (ICS III) ”, which the I2 class took together with their D3 peers.

Impact of online learning on students’ course performance

Chi square test results (Table  3 ) indicated that in 4 out of the 17 courses compared, the online cohort during summer quarter 2020 was more likely to receive an A grade than the face-to-face cohort during summer quarter 2019. In 12 of the courses, the online cohort were equally likely to receive an A grade as the face-to-face cohort. In the remaining one course, the online cohort was less likely to receive an A grade than the face-to-face cohort.

Students’ acceptance of online learning during the pandemic

Survey results revealed that students had generally positive perceptions about online learning during the pandemic and the majority of them wanted to continue with some online learning post pandemic. Overall, our findings supported several other studies in dental [ 18 , 20 ], medical [ 43 , 44 ], and nursing [ 45 ] education that have also reported students’ positive attitudes towards online learning during the pandemic. In their written comments in the survey, students cited enhanced flexibility as one of the greatest benefits of online learning. Some students also commented that typing questions in the chat box during live online classes was less intimidating than speaking in class. Others explicitly stated that not having to commute to/from school provided more time for sleep, which helped with self-care and mental health. Our findings are in line with previous studies which have also demonstrated that online learning offered higher flexibility [ 46 , 47 ]. Meanwhile, consistent with findings of other researchers [ 19 , 21 , 46 ], our students felt difficulty engaging with faculty and classmates in several online courses.

There were some variations among individual courses in students’ acceptance of the online format. One factor that could partially account for the observed differences was instructional strategies. In particular, our regression analysis results demonstrated a positive correlation between students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates and their perceived overall effectiveness of the online course. Other aspects of course design might also have influenced students’ overall rating of the online course. For instance, some D2 students commented that the requirements of the course “ Integrated Case-based Seminars (ICS II) ” were not clear and that assessment did not align with lecture materials. It is important to remember that communicating course requirements clearly and aligning course content and assessment are principles that should be applied in any course, whether face-to-face or online. Our results highlighted the importance of providing faculty training on basic educational design principles and online learning design strategies. Furthermore, the nature of the course might also have impacted student ratings. For example, D1 course “ Anatomy and Histology ” had a lab component, which did not lend itself as well to the online format. Many students reported that it was difficult to see faculty’s live demonstration during Zoom lectures, which may have resulted in a lower student satisfaction rating.

As for students’ preferred online delivery method for fully online courses during the pandemic, about half of them preferred a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online learning. In light of this finding, as we continue with remote learning until public health directives allow a return to campus, we will encourage faculty to integrate these two online delivery modalities. Finally, in view of the result that over 80 % of the students wanted to continue with some online instruction after the pandemic, the school will advocate for blended learning in the post-pandemic world [ 48 ]. For future face-to-face courses on campus after the pandemic, faculty are encouraged to deliver some content online to reduce classroom seat time and make learning more flexible. Taken together, our findings not only add to the overall picture of the current situation but may inform learning design moving forward.

Role of online engagement and interaction

To reiterate, we found that students’ perceived engagement with faculty and classmates predicted their perceived overall effectiveness of the online course. This aligns with the larger literature on best practices in online learning design. Extensive research prior to the pandemic has confirmed that the effectiveness of online learning is determined by a number of factors beyond the tools used, including students’ interactions with the instructor and classmates [ 49 , 50 , 51 , 52 ]. Online students may feel isolated due to reduced or lack of interaction [ 53 , 54 ]. Therefore, in designing online learning experiences, it is important to remember that learning is a social process [ 55 ]. Faculty’s role is not only to transmit content but also to promote the different types of interactions that are an integral part of the online learning process [ 33 ]. The online teaching model in which faculty uploads materials online but teach it in the same way as in the physical classroom, without special effort to engage students, doesn’t make the best use of the online format. Putting the “sage on the screen” during a live class meeting on a video conferencing system is not different from “sage on the stage” in the physical classroom - both provide limited space for engagement. Such one-way monologue devalues the potentials that online learning presents.

In light of the critical role that social interaction plays in online learning, faculty are encouraged to use the interactive features of online learning platforms to provide clear channels for student-instructor and student-student interactions. In the open-ended comments, students highlighted several instructional strategies that they perceived to be helpful for learning. For live online classes, these included conducting breakout room activities, using the chat box to facilitate discussions, polling, and integrating gameplay with apps such as Kahoot! @  [ 56 ]. For self-paced classes, students appreciated that faculty held virtual office hours or subsequent live online discussion sessions to reinforce understanding of the pre-assigned materials.

Quality of online education during the pandemic

This study provided empirical evidence in dental education that it was possible to ensure the continuity of education without sacrificing the quality of education provided to students during forced migration to distance learning upon building closure. To reiterate, in all but one online course offered in summer quarter 2020, students were equally or more likely to get an A grade than the face-to-face cohort from summer quarter 2019. Even for courses that had less student support for the online format (e.g., the D1 course “ Anatomy and Histology ”), there was a significant increase in the number of students who earned an A grade in 2020 as compared with the previous year. The reduced capacity for technical training during the pandemic may have resulted in more study time for didactic content. Overall, our results resonate with several studies in health sciences education before the pandemic that the quality of learning is comparable in face-to-face and online formats [ 9 , 57 , 58 ]. For the only course ( Integrated Case-based Seminars ICS II) in which the online cohort had inferior performance than the face-to-face cohort, as mentioned earlier, students reported that assessment was not aligned with course materials and that course expectations were not clear. This might explain why students’ course performance was not as strong as expected.


This study used a pre-existing control group from the previous year. There may have been individual differences between students in the online and the face-to-face cohorts, such as motivation, learning style, and prior knowledge, that could have impacted the observed outcomes. Additionally, even though course content and assessment methods were largely the same in 2019 and 2020, changes in other aspects of the course could have impacted students’ course performance. Some faculty may have been more compassionate with grading (e.g., more flexible with assignment deadlines) in summer quarter 2020 given the hardship students experienced during the pandemic. On the other hand, remote proctoring in summer quarter 2020 may have heightened some students’ exam anxiety knowing that they were being monitored through a webcam. The existence and magnitude of effect of these factors needs to be further investigated.

This present study only examined the correlation between students’ perceived online engagement and their perceived overall effectiveness of the online course. Other factors that might impact their acceptance of the online format need to be further researched in future studies. Another future direction is to examine how students’ perceived online engagement correlates with their actual course performance. Because the survey data collected for our present study are anonymous, we cannot match students’ perceived online engagement data with their course grades to run this additional analysis. It should also be noted that this study was focused on didactic online instruction. Future studies might examine how technical training was impacted during the COVID building closure. It was also out of the scope of this study to examine how student characteristics, especially high and low academic performance as reflected by individual grades, affects their online learning experience and performance. We plan to conduct a follow-up study to examine which group of students are most impacted by the online format. Finally, this study was conducted in a single dental school, and so the findings may not be generalizable to other schools and disciplines. Future studies could be conducted in another school or disciplines to compare results.

This study revealed that dental students had generally favorable attitudes towards online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and that their perceived engagement with faculty and classmates predicted their acceptance of the online course. Most notably, this is the first study in dental education to demonstrate that online learning during the pandemic could achieve similar or better learning outcomes than face-to-face learning before the pandemic. Findings of our study could contribute significantly to the literature on online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in health sciences education. The results could also inform future online learning design as we re-envision the future of online learning.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Bello G, Pennisi MA, Maviglia R, Maggiore SM, Bocci MG, Montini L, et al. Online vs live methods for teaching difficult airway management to anesthesiology residents. Intensive Care Med. 2005; 31 (4): 547–552.

Article   Google Scholar  

Ruiz JG, Mintzer MJ, Leipzig RM. The impact of e-learning in medical education. Acad Med. 2006; 81(3): 207–12.

Kavadella A, Tsiklakis K, Vougiouklakis G, Lionarakis A. Evaluation of a blended learning course for teaching oral radiology to undergraduate dental students. Eur J Dent Educ. 2012; 16(1): 88–95.

de Jong N, Verstegen DL, Tan FS, O’Connor SJ. A comparison of classroom and online asynchronous problem-based learning for students undertaking statistics training as part of a public health master’s degree. Adv Health Sci Educ. 2013; 18(2):245–64.

Hegeman JS. Using instructor-generated video lectures in online mathematics coursesimproves student learning. Online Learn. 2015;19(3):70–87.

Gaupp R, Körner M, Fabry G. Effects of a case-based interactive e-learning course on knowledge and attitudes about patient safety: a quasi-experimental study with third-year medical students. BMC Med Educ. 2016; 16(1):172.

Zheng M, Bender D, Reid L, Milani J. An interactive online approach to teaching evidence-based dentistry with Web 2.0 technology. J Dent Educ. 2017; 81(8): 995–1003.

Means B, Toyama Y, Murphy R, Bakia M, Jones K. Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. Washington D.C. 2009.

Google Scholar  

Pei L, Wu H. Does online learning work better than offline learning in undergraduate medical education? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Med Educ Online. 2019; 24(1):1666538.

Andrews KG, Demps EL. Distance education in the U.S. and Canadian undergraduate dental curriculum. J Dent Educ. 2003; 67(4):427–38.

Kassebaum DK, Hendricson WD, Taft T, Haden NK. The dental curriculum at North American dental institutions in 2002–03: a survey of current structure, recent innovations, and planned changes. J Dent Educ. 2004; 68(9):914–931.

Haden NK, Hendricson WD, Kassebaum DK, Ranney RR, Weinstein G, Anderson EL, et al. Curriculum changes in dental education, 2003–09. J Dent Educ. 2010; 74(5):539–57.

DeBate RD, Cragun D, Severson HH, Shaw T, Christiansen S, Koerber A, et al. Factors for increasing adoption of e-courses among dental and dental hygiene faculty members. J Dent Educ. 2011; 75 (5): 589–597.

Saeed SG, Bain J, Khoo E, Siqueira WL. COVID-19: Finding silver linings for dental education. J Dent Educ. 2020; 84(10):1060–1063.

Schlenz MA, Schmidt A, Wöstmann B, Krämer N, Schulz-Weidner N. Students’ and lecturers’ perspective on the implementation of online learning in dental education due to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19): a cross-sectional study. BMC Med Educ. 2020;20(1):1–7.

Donn J, Scott JA, Binnie V, Bell A. A pilot of a virtual Objective Structured Clinical Examination in dental education. A response to COVID-19. Eur J Dent Educ. 2020;

Hung M, Licari FW, Hon ES, Lauren E, Su S, Birmingham WC, Wadsworth LL, Lassetter JH, Graff TC, Harman W, et al. In an era of uncertainty: impact of COVID-19 on dental education. J Dent Educ. 2020; 85 (2): 148–156.

Sadid-Zadeh R, Wee A, Li R, Somogyi‐Ganss E. Audience and presenter comparison of live web‐based lectures and traditional classroom lectures during the COVID‐19 pandemic. J Prosthodont. 2020. doi:

Wang K, Zhang L, Ye L. A nationwide survey of online teaching strategies in dental education in China. J Dent Educ. 2020; 85 (2): 128–134.

Rad FA, Otaki F, Baqain Z, Zary N, Al-Halabi M. Rapid transition to distance learning due to COVID-19: Perceptions of postgraduate dental learners and instructors. PLoS One. 2021; 16(2): e0246584.

Abbasi S, Ayoob T, Malik A, Memon SI. Perceptions of students regarding E-learning during Covid-19 at a private medical college. Pak J Med Sci. 2020; 3 6 : 57–61.

Al-Azzam N, Elsalem L, Gombedza F. A cross-sectional study to determine factors affecting dental and medical students’ preference for virtual learning during the COVID-19 outbreak. Heliyon. 6(12). 2020. doi:

Chen E, Kaczmarek K, Ohyama H. Student perceptions of distance learning strategies during COVID-19. J Dent Educ. 2020. doi:

Kaczmarek K, Chen E, Ohyama H. Distance learning in the COVID-19 era: Comparison of student and faculty perceptions. J Dent Educ. 2020.

Sarwar H, Akhtar H, Naeem MM, Khan JA, Waraich K, Shabbir S, et al. Self-reported effectiveness of e-learning classes during COVID-19 pandemic: A nation-wide survey of Pakistani undergraduate dentistry students. Eur J Dent. 2020; 14 (S01): S34-S43.

Al-Taweel FB, Abdulkareem AA, Gul SS, Alshami ML. Evaluation of technology‐based learning by dental students during the pandemic outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019. Eur J Dent Educ. 2021; 25(1): 183–190.

Elangovan S, Mahrous A, Marchini L. Disruptions during a pandemic: Gaps identified and lessons learned. J Dent Educ. 2020; 84 (11): 1270–1274.

Goodenow C. Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships to motivation and achievement. J Early Adolesc.1993; 13(1): 21–43.

Goodenow C. The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychol Sch. 1993; 30(1): 79–90.

St-Amand J, Girard S, Smith J. Sense of belonging at school: Defining attributes, determinants, and sustaining strategies. IAFOR Journal of Education. 2017; 5(2):105–19.

Peacock S, Cowan J. Promoting sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry at accredited courses. Online Learn. 2019; 23(2): 67–81.

Chan GM, Kanneganti A, Yasin N, Ismail-Pratt I, Logan SJ. Well‐being, obstetrics and gynecology and COVID‐19: Leaving no trainee behind. Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol. 2020; 60(6): 983–986.

Hodges C, Moore S, Lockee B, Trust T, Bond A. The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. 2020; 2 7 , 1–12.

Means B, Bakia M, Murphy R. Learning online: What research tells us about whether, when and how. Routledge. 2014.

Iyer P, Aziz K, Ojcius DM. Impact of COVID-19 on dental education in the United States. J Dent Educ. 2020; 84(6): 718–722.

Machado RA, Bonan PRF, Perez DEDC, Martelli JÚnior H. 2020. COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on dental education: Discussing current and future perspectives. Braz Oral Res. 2020; 34: e083.

Wu DT, Wu KY, Nguyen TT, Tran SD. The impact of COVID-19 on dental education in North America-Where do we go next? Eur J Dent Educ. 2020; 24(4): 825–827.

de Oliveira Araújo FJ, de Lima LSA, Cidade PIM, Nobre CB, Neto MLR. Impact of Sars-Cov-2 and its reverberation in global higher education and mental health. Psychiatry Res. 2020; 288:112977. doi:

Persky AM, Lee E, Schlesselman LS. Perception of learning versus performance as outcome measures of educational research. Am J Pharm Educ. 2020; 8 4 (7): ajpe7782.

Zoom @ . Zoom Video Communications , San Jose, CA, USA.

Canvas @ . Instructure, INC. Salt Lake City, UT, USA.

SoftChalk @ . SoftChalk LLC . San Antonio, TX, USA.

Agarwal S, Kaushik JS. Student’s perception of online learning during COVID pandemic. Indian J Pediatr. 2020; 87: 554–554.

Khalil R, Mansour AE, Fadda WA, Almisnid K, Aldamegh M, Al-Nafeesah A, et al. The sudden transition to synchronized online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Saudi Arabia: a qualitative study exploring medical students’ perspectives. BMC Med Educ. 2020; 20(1): 1–10.

Riley E, Capps N, Ward N, McCormack L, Staley J. Maintaining academic performance and student satisfaction during the remote transition of a nursing obstetrics course to online instruction. Online Learn. 2021; 25(1), 220–229.

Amir LR, Tanti I, Maharani DA, Wimardhani YS, Julia V, Sulijaya B, et al. Student perspective of classroom and distance learning during COVID-19 pandemic in the undergraduate dental study program Universitas Indonesia. BMC Med Educ. 2020; 20(1):1–8.

Dost S, Hossain A, Shehab M, Abdelwahed A, Al-Nusair L. Perceptions of medical students towards online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic: a national cross-sectional survey of 2721 UK medical students. BMJ Open. 2020; 10(11).

Graham CR, Woodfield W, Harrison JB. A framework for institutional adoption and implementation of blended learning in higher education. Internet High Educ. 2013; 18 : 4–14.

Sing C, Khine M. An analysis of interaction and participation patterns in online community. J Educ Techno Soc. 2006; 9(1): 250–261.

Bernard RM, Abrami PC, Borokhovski E, Wade CA, Tamim RM, Surkes MA, et al. A meta-analysis of three types of interaction treatments in distance education. Rev Educ Res. 2009; 79(3): 1243–1289.

Fedynich L, Bradley KS, Bradley J. Graduate students’ perceptions of online learning. Res High Educ. 2015; 27.

Tanis CJ. The seven principles of online learning: Feedback from faculty and alumni on its importance for teaching and learning. Res Learn Technol. 2020; 28 .

Dixson MD. Measuring student engagement in the online course: The Online Student Engagement scale (OSE). Online Learn. 2015; 19 (4).

Kwary DA, Fauzie S. Students’ achievement and opinions on the implementation of e-learning for phonetics and phonology lectures at Airlangga University. Educ Pesqui. 2018; 44 .

Vygotsky LS. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press. 1978.

Kahoot! @ . Oslo, Norway.

Davis J, Chryssafidou E, Zamora J, Davies D, Khan K, Coomarasamy A. Computer-based teaching is as good as face to face lecture-based teaching of evidence-based medicine: a randomised controlled trial. BMC Med Educ. 2007; 7(1): 1–6.

Davis J, Crabb S, Rogers E, Zamora J, Khan K. Computer-based teaching is as good as face to face lecture-based teaching of evidence-based medicine: a randomized controlled trial. Med Teach. 2008; 30(3): 302–307.

Download references


Not applicable.

Authors’ information

MZ is an Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Senior Instructional Designer at School of Dentistry, University of the Pacific. She has a PhD in Education, with a specialty on learning sciences and technology. She has dedicated her entire career to conducting research on online learning, learning technology, and faculty development. Her research has resulted in several peer-reviewed publications in medical, dental, and educational technology journals. MZ has also presented regularly at national conferences.

DB is an Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at School of Dentistry, University of the Pacific. He has an EdD degree in education, with a concentration on learning and instruction. Over the past decades, DB has been overseeing and delivering faculty pedagogical development programs to dental faculty. His research interest lies in educational leadership and instructional innovation. DB has co-authored several peer-reviewed publications in health sciences education and presented regularly at national conferences.

CL is Associate Dean of Oral Healthcare Education, School of Dentistry, University of the Pacific. She has a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree and an EdD degree with a focus on educational leadership. Her professional interest lies in educational leadership, oral healthcare education innovation, and faculty development. CL has co-authored several publications in peer-reviewed journals in health sciences education and presented regularly at national conferences.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

Office of Academic Affairs, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, University of the Pacific, CA, San Francisco, USA

Meixun Zheng, Daniel Bender & Cindy Lyon

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar


MZ analyzed the data and wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. DB and CL both provided assistance with research design, data collection, and reviewed and edited the manuscript. The author(s) read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Meixun Zheng .

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate.

The study was approved by the institutional review board at University of the Pacific in the U.S. (#2020-68). Informed consent was obtained from all participants. All methods were carried out in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations.

Consent for publication

Competing interests.

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note.

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Additional file 1:.

Survey of online courses during COVID-19 pandemic.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit . The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( ) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article.

Zheng, M., Bender, D. & Lyon, C. Online learning during COVID-19 produced equivalent or better student course performance as compared with pre-pandemic: empirical evidence from a school-wide comparative study. BMC Med Educ 21 , 495 (2021).

Download citation

Received : 31 March 2021

Accepted : 26 August 2021

Published : 16 September 2021


Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Dental education
  • Online learning
  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Instructional strategies
  • Interaction
  • Learning performance

BMC Medical Education

ISSN: 1472-6920

research paper about online learning chapter 1

Research on the Contributing Factors of Postgraduate Students’ Online Learning Experience

  • Conference paper
  • First Online: 02 February 2023
  • Cite this conference paper

research paper about online learning chapter 1

  • Mengjie Zhang 6 &
  • Feng Liu 6  

Part of the book series: Educational Communications and Technology Yearbook ((ECTY))

Included in the following conference series:

  • Annual conference of Hong Kong Association for Educational, Communications and Technology

In recent years, online learning has become a hot research issue in higher education. In order to gain insight into the actual situation of online learning for postgraduates, and explore the important factors that affect their online learning perceptions, this study adopts qualitative research methods and selects 13 graduate students of Chinese University as interview subjects, using the grounded theory to process and analyze the interview data. Research results show that the online learning experience of graduate students is jointly affected by the internal factors of the subject and external factors. Specifically, it mainly includes 11 key factors, which are teachers’ online teaching ability, teachers’ familiarity with technology, online course design, social interaction, network conditions, platform functions, assessment methods, course workload, intrinsic learning motivation, self-monitoring ability, and self-learning ability. Based on the research findings, we put forward four suggestions to improve the online learning experience of postgraduates.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
  • Durable hardcover edition

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others

research paper about online learning chapter 1

A Study of the Potential of Online Learning of Kasetsart University Faculty Members

research paper about online learning chapter 1

“I Feel Like I Am Teaching Myself” - An Exploratory Study of the Factors and Implications of Online Learning

research paper about online learning chapter 1

Unveiling the perceived benefits of online learning among management undergraduates: a study in a Sri Lankan government-owned university

Chen, W., Jia, W.: Study on contributing factors of college students’ online learning experience. J. East China Normal Univ. 38 (07) , 42–53 (2020).

Glaser, B.G., Strauss, A.L.: Discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Routledge (2017).

Article   Google Scholar  

He, C., Wang, Z., Lu, X.: Investigation and research on the learning experience of Chinese college students’ MOOCs. Distance Educ. China (11) , 42–49 (2016). CNKI:SUN:DDJY.0.2014-11-009

Google Scholar  

Hu, Y., Zhao, F.: Theoretical analysis model and measurement of online learning effectiveness. E-Educ. Res. 36 (10), 37–45 (2015). CNKI:SUN:DHJY.0.2015-10-008

Jiang, Y., Bai, X, Wu, W., Luo, X.: Analysis on the structural relationship of contributing factors of online learning experience. Modern Distance Educ. (01) , 27–36 (2019). NKI:SUN:YUAN.0.2019-01-004

Khalil, H., Ebner, M.: MOOCs completion rates and possible methods to improve retention - a literature review. In: Viteli, J., Leikomaa, M. (eds.) Proceedings of EdMedia 2014--World Conference on Educational Media and Technology, pp. 1305–1313. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), Tampere (2014).

Li, Y.: Experience: a discourse of pedagogy. Theory Pract. Educ. (12) , 1–5 (2001). CNKI:SUN:JYLL.0.2001-12-000

Liu, B., Zhang, W., Jiang, Y.: Online course learning experience: connotation, development and influencing factors. China Educ. Technol. (10), 90–96 (2016).

Liu, S.: Research on online learning platform experience from the perspective of users. E-Educ. Res. (10) , 47–52 (2019).

Murders, M.R.: A phenomenological study of the online education experiences of college students with learning disabilities. Doctoral dissertation, University of Arkansas. University of Arkansas ProQuest (2017).

Paechter, M., Maier, B., Macher, D.: Students’ expectations of, and experiences in e-learning: their relation to learning achievements and course satisfaction. Comput. Educ. 54 (1), 222–229 (2010).

Shan, F., Liu, J.: Analysis of influencing factors of online learning experience of art courses. Technol. Educ. (1), 34–39 (2018). NKI:SUN:XJJS.0.2018-S1008

Udo, G.J., Bagchi, K.K., Kirs, P.J.: Using SERVQUAL to assess the quality of e-learning experience. Comput. Hum. Behav. 27 (3), 1272–1283 (2011).

Yang, X., Zhou, H., Zhou, X., Hao, Z.: A review of domestic online course quality certification research. E-Educ. Res. 40 (06) , 50–57 (2019).

Young, B.J.: Gender differences in student attitudes toward computers. J. Res. Comput. Educ. 33 (2), 204–216 (2000).

Zhang Pengcheng, L., Jiamei.: The definition and discrimination of the concept of experience. Psychol. Explor. 6 , 489–493 (2012).

Download references


This work is very grateful for the cooperation of graduate students from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications. Because of them, this research can collect effective data and be able to carry out research. At the same time, I also want to thank my mentor and classmates for their help, who assisted me in the design and implementation of the interview during my research.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Nanjing, China

Mengjie Zhang & Feng Liu

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mengjie Zhang .

Editor information

Editors and affiliations.

HKAECT, Hong Kong, China

Anna Wing Bo TSO

Ming-Ai (London) Institute, London, UK

Steven Kwan Keung NG

Faculty of Arts, Centre for Applied English Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Pok Fu Lam, Hong Kong

The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Tiffany Shurui BAI

Interview questions

1. What do you think is the difference between the online learning environment and the offline course environment?

2. Can the online learning environment meet your learning needs?

3. Can you talk about your feelings about participating in online course learning activities?

4. What kind of experience did you get through online courses?

5. What aspects do you think will affect your online course learning experience?

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.

About this paper

Cite this paper.

Zhang, M., Liu, F. (2023). Research on the Contributing Factors of Postgraduate Students’ Online Learning Experience. In: TSO, A.W.B., NG, S.K.K., LAW, L., BAI, T.S. (eds) The Post-pandemic Landscape of Education and Beyond: Innovation and Transformation. HKAECT 2022. Educational Communications and Technology Yearbook. Springer, Singapore.

Download citation


Published : 02 February 2023

Publisher Name : Springer, Singapore

Print ISBN : 978-981-19-9216-2

Online ISBN : 978-981-19-9217-9

eBook Packages : Education Education (R0)

Share this paper

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Publish with us

Policies and ethics

  • Find a journal
  • Track your research

Help | Advanced Search

Computer Science > Machine Learning

Title: rlhf workflow: from reward modeling to online rlhf.

Abstract: We present the workflow of Online Iterative Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) in this technical report, which is widely reported to outperform its offline counterpart by a large margin in the recent large language model (LLM) literature. However, existing open-source RLHF projects are still largely confined to the offline learning setting. In this technical report, we aim to fill in this gap and provide a detailed recipe that is easy to reproduce for online iterative RLHF. In particular, since online human feedback is usually infeasible for open-source communities with limited resources, we start by constructing preference models using a diverse set of open-source datasets and use the constructed proxy preference model to approximate human feedback. Then, we discuss the theoretical insights and algorithmic principles behind online iterative RLHF, followed by a detailed practical implementation. Our trained LLM, SFR-Iterative-DPO-LLaMA-3-8B-R, achieves impressive performance on LLM chatbot benchmarks, including AlpacaEval-2, Arena-Hard, and MT-Bench, as well as other academic benchmarks such as HumanEval and TruthfulQA. We have shown that supervised fine-tuning (SFT) and iterative RLHF can obtain state-of-the-art performance with fully open-source datasets. Further, we have made our models, curated datasets, and comprehensive step-by-step code guidebooks publicly available. Please refer to this https URL and this https URL for more detailed information.

Submission history

Access paper:.

  • HTML (experimental)
  • Other Formats

References & Citations

  • Google Scholar
  • Semantic Scholar

BibTeX formatted citation

BibSonomy logo

Bibliographic and Citation Tools

Code, data and media associated with this article, recommenders and search tools.

  • Institution

arXivLabs: experimental projects with community collaborators

arXivLabs is a framework that allows collaborators to develop and share new arXiv features directly on our website.

Both individuals and organizations that work with arXivLabs have embraced and accepted our values of openness, community, excellence, and user data privacy. arXiv is committed to these values and only works with partners that adhere to them.

Have an idea for a project that will add value for arXiv's community? Learn more about arXivLabs .


  1. chapter 2 research paper

    research paper about online learning chapter 1

  2. Research Paper Format

    research paper about online learning chapter 1

  3. Research Paper Chapter 1 To 5

    research paper about online learning chapter 1

  4. 😂 Format of research paper example. How to Write a Research Introduction (with Sample Intros

    research paper about online learning chapter 1


    research paper about online learning chapter 1

  6. essay write my marketing research paper

    research paper about online learning chapter 1


  1. Free Online Proof reader for Research Paper|Grammar Checker |Spelling checker

  2. What is Online Learning?

  3. Introduction to Real Analysis

  4. Online Learning: Pros and Cons for Students

  5. Scientific Learning| Chapter 1| Part 2 #ashikashakya #lousieno #teachingbyashika

  6. 1 Hour Online Training: Systematic Literature Review: Method & Case Study


  1. A Qualitative Case Study of Students' Perceptions of Their Experiences

    1 CHAPTER 1 Introduction The terms online education, online learning and distance education have been ... working paper to review whether online education can be leveraged to increase the progression and academic success of underprepared and disadvantaged students, Jaggars ... The research of online learning has focused primarily on

  2. PDF Students' Perceptions towards the Quality of Online Education: A

    Yi Yang Linda F. Cornelius Mississippi State University. Abstract. How to ensure the quality of online learning in institutions of higher education has been a growing concern during the past several years. While several studies have focused on the perceptions of faculty and administrators, there has been a paucity of research conducted on ...

  3. Chapter 1 Effect of E-Learning on the English ...

    Effect of E-Learning on the English Achievement of Students. Kenneth P. De la Piedra. Chapter 1. Introduction to the Study. This chapter is composed of five parts: (1) Background. and Theoretical ...

  4. (Pdf) Research on Online Learning

    This paper analyzes the difficulties faced by the students and teachers in online teaching learning process during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online learning is an alternative platform that replaced ...

  5. The Impact of Online Learning on Student's Academic Performance

    The spread of online learning has grown exponentially at every academic level and in many. countries in our COVID-19 world. Due to the relatively new nature of such widespread use of. online learning, little analysis or studies have been conducted on whether student performance.

  6. The effects of online education on academic success: A meta ...

    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 ...

  7. (PDF) The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant

    Nashville, TN 3720 3 USA. t [email protected]. Abstract. The physical "brick and mortar" classroom is starting to lose its monopoly as the place of. learning. The Internet has made ...

  8. PDF The Effectiveness of E-Learning: An Explorative and Integrative Review

    1. Introduction Research examining the effectiveness of e-Learning has increased in recent years. This is primarily due to the increased possibilities for IT and learning as well as increased political and organisational attention to 'what works' in learning. Figure 1a shows the 761 papers relevant to this research, and Figure 1b shows 111

  9. PDF The Effectiveness and Challenges of Online Learning for Secondary ...

    online learning allows students to study in a "safe" environment, without experiencing embarrassment about asking questions. According to Harrison (2018), young children can access pictures and videos, navigate 'Youtube', and interact and participate in games and digital applications that are suited to their age.

  10. A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from

    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 ...

  11. PDF Online Education and Its Effective Practice: A Research Review

    Based on the findings, the authors ar-gued that effective online instruction is dependent upon 1) well-designed course content, motivat-ed interaction between the instructor and learners, well-prepared and fully-supported instructors; 2) creation of a sense of online learning community; and 3) rapid advancement of technology.

  12. PDF Online student engagement: perceptions of the impact on student

    1 . ONLINE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT: PERCEPTIONS OF THE IMPACT ON STUDENT LEARNING AND EFFECTIVE PRACTICES . A thesis presented . by . Cynthia Lynne Parker . to . The School of Education . In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of . Doctor of Education . in the field of . Education . College of Professional Studies . Northeastern ...

  13. COVID-19's impacts on the scope, effectiveness, and ...

    The COVID-19 outbreak brought online learning to the forefront of education. Scholars have conducted many studies on online learning during the pandemic, but only a few have performed quantitative comparative analyses of students' online learning behavior before and after the outbreak. We collected review data from China's massive open online course platform called icourse.163 and ...

  14. Online Learning: A Panacea in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis

    Rapid developments in technology have made distance education easy (McBrien et al., 2009).). "Most of the terms (online learning, open learning, web-based learning, computer-mediated learning, blended learning, m-learning, for ex.) have in common the ability to use a computer connected to a network, that offers the possibility to learn from anywhere, anytime, in any rhythm, with any means ...

  15. Exploring the Factors Affecting Student Academic Performance in Online

    Online education has been receiving an increasing interest as it has become the most popular distance-learning method due to its flexibility and availability (Al-Azawei & Lundqist, 2015).Students have the choice to attend courses from a great number of programs offered by many universities, as long as they have access to the Internet, interacting with the educational material via different ...


    It shows that on the pre-test majority of the. respondents had a low range score in Endurance Dimension of AQ® (49 or. 27.07%) and the rest got a below average score (61 or 33.70%), 47 or 25.97%. got an average score, 19 or 10.48% got an above average score and 5 or 2.76%. got a high score.

  17. Online and face‐to‐face learning: Evidence from students' performance

    1.1. Related literature. Online learning is a form of distance education which mainly involves internet‐based education where courses are offered synchronously (i.e. live sessions online) and/or asynchronously (i.e. students access course materials online in their own time, which is associated with the more traditional distance education).

  18. Integrating students' perspectives about online learning: a hierarchy

    This article reports on a large-scale (n = 987), exploratory factor analysis study incorporating various concepts identified in the literature as critical success factors for online learning from the students' perspective, and then determines their hierarchical significance. Seven factors--Basic Online Modality, Instructional Support, Teaching Presence, Cognitive Presence, Online Social ...

  19. Impact of online classes on the satisfaction and performance of

    The aim of the study is to identify the factors affecting students' satisfaction and performance regarding online classes during the pandemic period of COVID-19 and to establish the relationship between these variables. The study is quantitative in nature, and the data were collected from 544 respondents through online survey who were studying the business management (B.B.A or M.B.A) or ...

  20. Students' experience of online learning during the COVID‐19 pandemic: A

    Even though online learning research has been advancing in uncovering student experiences in various settings (i.e., tertiary, adult, and professional education), very little progress has been achieved in understanding the experience of the K‐12 student population, especially when narrowed down to different school‐year segments (i.e ...

  21. Minnesota State University Moorhead RED: a Repository of Digital

    A Quantitative Study of an Online Learning Platform's Impact on High School Students' Engagement, Academic Achievement, and Student Satisfaction in a Mathematics Class Mariah Minkkinen [email protected] Follow this and additional works at: Part of the Mathematics Commons

  22. Online learning during COVID-19 produced equivalent or better student

    Research across disciplines has demonstrated that well-designed online learning can lead to students' enhanced motivation, satisfaction, and learning [1,2,3,4,5,6,7].]. A report by the U.S. Department of Education [], based on examinations of comparative studies of online and face-to-face versions of the same course from 1996 to 2008, concluded that online learning could produce learning ...

  23. Research on the Contributing Factors of Postgraduate Students' Online

    In recent years, online learning has become a hot research issue in higher education. In order to gain insight into the actual situation of online learning for postgraduates, and explore the important factors that affect their online learning perceptions, this study adopts qualitative research methods and selects 13 graduate students of Chinese University as interview subjects, using the ...

  24. The contribution of students' learning styles to competences

    Introduction. Students fail to successfully assimilate and understand new concepts through traditional teaching-learning strategies (Troussas et al., Citation 2023), so teachers are forced to seek new and more effective approaches that involve the use of new technologies.Some studies have highlighted the relationship between students' learning styles and the use of digital games in the ...

  25. [2405.07863] RLHF Workflow: From Reward Modeling to Online RLHF

    We present the workflow of Online Iterative Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) in this technical report, which is widely reported to outperform its offline counterpart by a large margin in the recent large language model (LLM) literature. However, existing open-source RLHF projects are still largely confined to the offline learning setting. In this technical report, we aim to ...

  26. Optimizing Metro Passenger Flow Prediction: Integrating Machine

    Accurate passenger flow forecasting is crucial in urban areas with growing transit demand. In this paper, we propose a method that combines advanced machine learning with rigorous time series analysis to improve prediction accuracy by integrating different datasets, providing a prescriptive example for passenger flow prediction in urban rail transit systems.