Saturday, December 21, 2013

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland II – Virtual Motivations

The first presentation I attended at the Sloan Conference focused on the motivations for taking and teaching online courses. “Measuring Motivation: What Drives Students and Faculty Participation in Online Education” was presented by Ruth Johnson of the University of Houston. The summary of the presentation and a link to the powerpoint presented can be found here:

Johnson laid out the findings of a study that she and UH colleague Cindy Stewart had conducted of online students and faculty at their own university. The team sought to test the degree to which motivation for taking and teaching online was intrinsic or extrinsic to the course and the student taking it as well as the faculty member teaching it. 

A Higher Quality of Engagement and Resulting Performance

The study began with a template first articulated by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester. Their studies of self-determination theory had shown that

People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.  Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.  These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts.

[Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, “About the Theory,” . n.d. Dec. 20, 2013.]

While everyone is motivated by extrinsic factors in varying degrees, the research supporting Self-Determination Theory found that “[c]onditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.”

An intrinsically motivated student who engages an educational opportunity because they want to gain an understanding of the subject matter is likely to have a higher quality of engagement and resulting performance in any educational venture regardless of its format. Conversely, a student who is driven by considerations extrinsic to the learning process is likely to have a lower quality learning experience and resulting understanding of the subject.

Johnson and Stewart sought to determine the dominant motivation of instructors and students in both online and face-to-face (F2F) courses at the University of Houston.   They hypothesized that an intrinsic motivation for taking and teaching online courses would result in such students taking more online courses and intrinsically motivated instructors teaching more online courses. To test their hypothesis they surveyed 235 students at the University of Houston and 104 of the instructors teaching there using questions which revealed demographics and measured motivation.

Of course, such a premise is completely reasonable. It makes perfect sense to believe that students would take classes in a format they are drawn to engage and that faculty would teach in the format they find most likely to result in a higher quality of engagement and resulting performance among their students.


Such proved not to be the case.

Among students, Johnson and Stewart’s results showed that the number of online classes taken was determined mostly by extrinsic motivations. Online extrinsic motivations included how well classes coordinated with work schedules which were the student’s primary concern. It also included creating schedules which could accommodate demands arising from the home (child, elderly relative care) with school and whether courses required commuting to campus.

Students who reported considerations extrinsic to the course itself as the determining factors in their choosing an online format were three times as likely to have taken online courses as their fellow online students reporting intrinsic motivations centered in the course itself. Such intrinsic motivations included enjoying online format, seeing online courses as easier and a way to make better grades as well as a means of being more responsible to the educational process itself.

Essentially, online students took their courses online primarily for non-educational reasons. Perhaps more telling, the extrinsically motivated online students surveyed were 10 times more likely to have taken other online courses than face-to-face students who took their face-to-face courses based upon intrinsic motivations regarding those classes. Those students reported taking face-to-face classes out of enjoyment and the opportunities for interaction with fellow students and professors. Intrinsic face-to-face students reported feeling more motivated and responsible in such formats and finding it an easier format in which to succeed.

Among faculty, the findings were even more pointed. Faculty who reported being intrinsically motivated to teach online because they enjoyed that format, who believed their students could be more responsible and learn more in that format, were only slightly more inclined (+.01) to have taught online than their colleagues. Similarly, extrinsically motivated face-to-face instructors who were drawn to teach online by the appeal of flexible schedules and no requirement to commute were slightly more inclined (+.01) to have taught online than their colleagues.

While it would seem logical that concerns for being able to work from home and create one’s own schedule would result in more online courses being taught by extrinsically motivated online faculty, in fact there was a slight negative relationship among those professors in the number of online classes taught (-.02). However, that negative relationship ballooned among faculty with face-to-face intrinsic motivation (-.29) who saw in-person formats as easier to teach, providing a greater opportunity for student learning and desired face-to-face interaction. Not surprisingly they had taught the fewest online courses in the past. While the faculty results are not quite as clear cut as for their students, intrinsic concerns for the courses themselves appear to be strong predictors against teaching online.

What’s the Bottom Line?

These findings are hardly surprising to me. It has been my experience that strategic and surface learning approaches have long since supplanted any desire for deep learning in most students I encounter. This is true of both online and face-to-face students but is particularly observable among those online. Extrinsic motivations are strongly related to strategic approaches (What must I do to get the grade/credit/degree I seek? What is the bottom line, the least I can do for the maximum return?) and surface approaches (What must I do to avoid failing? What is the least I must do and still make a passing grade?)

Strategic learners often have trouble being fully present in their current courses regardless of format. They worry about admissions to graduate school, getting into their chosen professions once out of school and getting jobs that will provide them with the maximum pay and status to allow them to feel good about themselves (or so they tell themselves). Surface learners often are in college for extrinsic reasons to begin with– they had nothing else to do, everyone else was going to college, their parents forced them to go. In either case, there is limited intrinsic motivation or resulting joy from being immersed in an educational process.

So, it is hardly a surprise to me that the motivations for both taking and teaching courses online tend to be largely extrinsic to a concern for learning on the part of the students and their faculty. Indeed, I know in my own case that my primary motivations for teaching online – which currently means all four of the classes I will teach at the university next semester -  are precisely those reported by Johnson:  the flexibility of my own schedule apart from teaching, my ability to do things I actually want to do and being freed of the daily endurance test of commuting with thousands of my most intimate friends to campus 20 minutes from my home.

In all fairness, I have discovered that I am able to get into some fairly decent one-on-one discussions with students online about both the course material as well as some of the aspects of their own lives that instructors usually discover in face-to-face contact.  I find I do come to like a number of them or at least the virtual persona which they portray online. And I suspect that a very small number of painfully shy students might find online contexts easier to endure than face-to-face contexts.

But I weary of the quibbling over content quiz questions from students who clearly are cheating on those quizzes by using their texts and the internet to find answers. I dread the expectable loss of up to 1/4 of the class who simply will not take the course schedule seriously. And I also have little patience left for students who whine about a work load well below the Carnegie Unit requirements (2 hours prep/1 hour class) to begin with who have additionally been excused from 1/3 of the course requirements by not having to attend class.

I should hasten to add here that I don’t entirely blame the students for these responses. They were sold this bill of goods starting in elementary school where minimalistic pedagogies reduced learning to Pavlovian standardized testing programs in the name of accountability. Students learned how to adequately play the test game so they could get passing scores, their school could get As and so their funding didn’t get funneled to private religious schools.

Moreover, extrinsic motivators are uncritically extolled by everyone from the President to the incessant pounding of the private online diploma mill ads on television to the student orientation team at the university – if you want to get a good job, you have to get a degree. An actual education is optional

Troubling Questions

This leaves me pondering some deeply troubling questions. Are students really willing to settle for less? Is an online approach driven largely by extrinsic motivations simply good enough for most of them? Do they really have a choice? And, if so, is that a conscious, informed choice made with an understanding of the possible consequences or have they simply drunk the kool-aid of education understood only in the instrumentalist, extrinsic terms they have had drilled into them?

I take up those questions in my next post.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies, Humanities, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes

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