Dr. DeBoer is supported by NSF CAREER: Assessing and Improving Online Learning Spaces for Diverse and High-Attrition Engineering Students - Award#1454558 http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1454558

Evaluating and Improving Online Courses For Engineering Undergraduates from Diverse Backgrounds

Increasing the retention and achievement of women, minorities, and high attrition groups in engineering is of paramount national strategic interest, and online learning has emerged as a popular strategy for expanding access. However, there is limited evidence that online courses work for the diverse groups of students in engineering classes. In fact, early findings from other disciplines suggest that virtual instruction exacerbates achievement gaps. This proposal pushes research and practice to better serve all of the varieties of engineering students in three major ways. First, it analyzes underrepresented or high attrition student groups independently, rather than studying average effects for a whole class. Second, it tracks individual student behaviors to better explain differences in student success and better recommend support systems that are tailored to unique students. And, third, it studies undergraduate online and blended learning in five widely varying contexts, including two international sites, to greatly expand the spectrum of tools that can inform undergraduate engineering in the United States, in particular, in a large public university setting. This is achieved through the investigator's study of and collaboration with four introductory engineering courses at diverse institutions. Enhancing digital educational tools to better support unique groups of students, especially those that have high rates of attrition, can fulfill the nation's growing need for a highly qualified and diverse engineering workforce.

Online learning as a policy tool for access to STEM education has abounded - despite the fact that there is minimal or contradictory evidence that online learning, as currently practiced, is an effective instrument for increasing access, equity, or achievement. Research efforts to estimate differential effects are few, and few studies focus on online learning for high attrition post-secondary students in the high need discipline of engineering. The primary goals of this proposal are, first, to carefully examine in situ the implementation, behaviors, and experiences of diverse sub-groups, in particular, high-attrition students, in online/blended environments in undergraduate engineering classes; and, second, to critically evaluate the assertion that online/blended structures are significantly related to achievement for these important sub-groups. This leads to four research questions: (1) Are the estimated quantitative effects of online and blended learning tools and structures (e.g., MOOCs, flipped classrooms) persistent for high attrition learner demographics?, (2) What online structures and behaviors significantly (practically and statistically) predict higher achievement for these students?, (3) What differences in student behaviors and outcomes might be related to or mediated by the institutional context in which instruction is taking place?, and (4) What are the implications for future research design and educational policy? These questions will be answered using a cross-national multi-case approach, applying quasi-experimental methods to four online courses from diverse institutional contexts. In each study, advanced regression techniques are applied to understand how individual students' backgrounds, access of materials, and online behaviors predict achievement. Background study with nationally-and internationally-representative secondary data will contextualize course-specific findings. Qualitative interviews will complement quantitative findings. Results will inform iterative improvements of the four study courses and the PI's first-year engineering course at Purdue over the five-year project lifecycle.