Investigating Virtual Learning Environments

Principal Investigator: Mark Warschauer


  • Di Xu
  • Padhraic Smyth
  • Sarah Eichhorn
  • Teomara Rutherford

Funder: National Science Foundation Education and Human Resources (NSF EHR)

Duration: 2015-2020  


The focal area of this Type III proposal is STEM learning. The project will study 50 flipped, hybrid, and online courses offered in a major research university over a multi-year period. Experimental and quasi-experimental techniques will be used to compare the impact of virtual courses compared to traditional courses taught by the same instructor on students’ attitudes toward STEM study, learning outcomes, and success and persistence in future STEM courses. Quantitative and qualitative indicators of instructional practices and student performance and engagement will be collected to compare and describe practices across course formats and then distilled into recommended best practices. Statistical data mining techniques, including sequence modeling, clustering, text mining, matrix factorization, and high-dimensional predictive modeling will be used on a rich set of institutional data, self-reported survey data, engagement data (logins, video watching, participation in online forums), and outcome data to extract and analyze information about student learning behaviors and their relationship to learning outcomes. An iterative research plan will allow repeat study of the same virtual courses so that they may be revised and improved following feedback from the early iterations in our project, and then be studied again.

Findings from the study are expected to assist higher education administrators, instructors, and course designers to make effective decisions in planning the kinds of virtual learning environments that can best meet the needs of undergraduate STEM students, especially in the vital first two years of college. A major focus of the study will be the impact of virtual learning environments on underrepresented minorities, first-generation college students, students of low-socioeconomic status backgrounds, and women. By understanding the effects of course format on student outcomes and on how these effects may vary depending on course content, student participants, and instructional practices, the proposed study will thus illuminate approaches to virtual learning that can either help or hinder diverse learners’ success in STEM courses and majors.