Thinking Systemically: A study of course communication and social processes in face-to-face and online courses

Tanya Joosten


Traditionally, research that has examined online courses compared course modes, online and face-to-face (f2f). Studies tend to examine the two modes to determine whether online courses are as effective as online courses by comparing student outcomes, such as student learning and satisfaction. Seldom has research examined how the course communication in online and f2f courses impact student outcomes. Moreover, there is little examination of the relationship between the design of the course and the relationship with social processes, in particular, communication. In this study, t-tests indicated that there were no significant differences between antecedents (technological familiarity and instructional characteristics) and outcomes variables (learning, performance, and satisfaction) between online or face-to-face courses. However, there were significant differences in course communication constructs including richness, social presence, learning community, and active learning behaviors. Multiple regression analyses indicated assessment and evaluation in instructional characteristics explained 36% of the variance in social presence, 42% of the variance in richness, and 27% of the variance in a learning community. Two components in instructional characteristics, organization and instructional design and course support, did not contribute to the model predicting these communication variables. However, they did predict 55% of the variance in engagement. Assessment and evaluation did not contribute to the model for predicting engagement. Assessment and evaluation are key factors in predicting communication variables where organization and instructional design and course support are a key factor in predicting engagement. Finally, multiple regression analyses indicated that 67% of the variance of learning can be predicted by communication variables of social presence, richness, engagement, and learning community, 52% of the variance of performance can be predicted by richness and engagement, 72% of the variance of satisfaction can be predicted by richness, engagement, and presence. Self-reported active learning behaviors did not predict learning, performance, or satisfaction.



Examines how online communication affects student outcomes.
The instrument used in this study focused heavily on academic challenge and
scarcely on the social. This study indicates there was no difference in students’
perceptions of engagement between course mode, F2F or online.

The first part of the descriptive model explored in this study was the relationship
between antecedent variables or input variables of instructional characteristics and social variables. The results indicate that social variables can be predicted based on the instructional characteristics of course design.

Engagement in this study focuses largely on academic challenge
and little on the social construct
The final portion of this study examined the ability of social variables, process, or
throughput variables to predict output or student outcomes. In examining the impact of the throughput variables on student outcomes, results indicated that these variables predict learning, performance, and satisfaction

Students in online courses report that they are learning and performing at the same levels as students in F2F courses. Furthermore, students in online courses are just as satisfied as those in F2F courses potentially indicating that they will be staying in these types of courses and programs at the same rate as F2F programs.

APA Citation

Joosten, T. (2015). Thinking systemically: A study of course communication and social processes in face-to-face and online courses (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

About the Study

Links to Article
Mode Online
Publication Type Dissertation
In Publication Doctoral Dissertation: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Type of Research Quantitative
Research Design Survey research (qualitative or quantitative)
Intervention/Areas of Study Course design
Level of Analysis Student-level
Specific Populations Examined Undergraduates
Peer-Reviewed Yes
Specific Institutional Characteristics of Interest
Specific Course or Program Characteristics
Outcome Variables of Interest Instructional effectiveness, Retention
Student Sample Size 100-199
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