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Online or Face-to-Face: A Survey of Student Preferences

by Martha Lindberg

I teach Introduction to Microcomputers, COMS 101, at Minnesota State University, Mankato. The three course sections meet three times weekly for lectures. One of our learning outcomes is competency in Microsoft Office software. This can be a problem, since the course has no scheduled lab. No class time is available for students to work on software applications and get help in person. Students see a few software demonstrations in class, and they can get help from me and from tutors outside of class, but they must basically learn the software on their own, by working through illustrated exercises in a textbook.

Each of the 340 students in my course must complete 12 lessons in software applications. I rely heavily on Ucompass, the MSU online course management system, to manage this large number of student grades and to communicate with students. I post the class syllabus, assignment due dates and directions, lecture note outlines, and grades on Ucompass. I communicate through regular Ucompass course announcements and group e-mail. The students upload their assignments to their course folders on Ucompass for grading, instead of turning in paper copies. They receive grades and comments on their work online.

Although COMS 101 is officially a face-to-face course, I duplicate so much of the course online that it is more like a hybrid course. A hybrid course is between a traditional lecture course and a completely online course in terms of the percentage of class time conducted online. Theoretically, my students learn in our scheduled lectures, but in reality, about one-third of the class requirements are accomplished with little or no instruction from an in-person teacher. This is not so much due to the online content, but instead to the requirement of learning software applications without benefit of a scheduled lab session.

As my students have experience attending a de facto hybrid course, I posted a survey in Ucompass to see which learning style they prefer. I have summarized a few of the results below. 259 students participated in the survey.

Although 78 respondents said they would prefer an entirely online format, only 25 believed that they would learn the material better if it were taught complete online, while 98 indicated that they wanted a lab session with an instructor present. This may mean that, while the idea of not attending class appeals to them, they achieve the course goals better with some in-person advice.




The survey also included open-ended questions for students to express their opinions about course delivery methods. My students could find advantages in all three types of course presentation—online, hybrid and face-to-face. Only nine students indicated that they wanted no online content. More of them (172) preferred the hybrid model, because they liked having material always available, but they also appreciated in-person relationships with a teacher. These students may prefer the hybrid model because it best suits the COMS 101 course content. On the other hand, maybe the students like it because that is what they have come to expect from a Computer Science course.

In conclusion, about two-thirds of the students would prefer a hybrid course for COMS 101 rather than an entirely online course or a course with no online content. The online content is convenient, but they value some face-to-face contact with the instructor.