Grad Student Corner (April 2020): Changes to Graduate Education Due to COVID-19

By Megan Welsh posted 04-13-2020 06:16


SGhosh.jpgSattik Ghosh, UC Davis

Hello! I hope everyone is staying safe and staying sane in these challenging times. I feel that now, more than ever, is a good time for us to ensure that we’re all engaging consciously and abundantly in self-care. This looks different for every person, but as a reminder, here are some common methods of self-care:

  • Get enough sleep every night
  • Engage in spiritual activities and/or meditation
  • Read for fun
  • Get into a new TV show
  • Take a little time every day to do something not work- or school-related
  • Spend time with friends/family (even if you feel this must be done remotely!)
  • Exercise
  • Nurture your hobbies

With that said, I’d like to get into the topic of this post: the pandemic-driven mass migration of university coursework from face-to-face formats to online formats. Lots of college campuses across the country, including mine, have announced that all courses for the remainder of the school year will be conducted online. While the circumstances driving this push toward online coursework are less than ideal, I’ve been wondering – are there rich, unique research opportunities here?

In recent years, higher education institutions have been offering more and more options to take courses online. Historically, though, it has been difficult to measure differences in outcomes between online and face-to-face course formats. For starters, students typically register for online courses voluntarily via their school’s normal course registration process. It is very rare that students are randomly assigned to online courses. This creates a selection issue – are the students who choose some online courses fundamentally the same as students who choose only face-to-face courses? Is it possible to identify and account for these differences meaningfully? Without clear answers to these questions, it becomes hard to tell whether any observed differences in outcomes between online and face-to-face formats are due to the course format or due to the students who sort themselves into each format. With all courses being forced online, selection effects are mitigated. It may be fruitful to design studies around comparisons between outcomes in the upcoming online courses and in their analogous counterparts from previous years.

This also addresses another issue that has caused trouble for research in online coursework; not all online courses have directly analogous face-to-face counterparts. Comparing an online and face-to-face version of any given course is difficult if the courses have different combinations of instructors, syllabi, assessments, and course materials. Almost all of the courses moving online during this time period, however, will have directly analogous face-to-face counterparts from previous years.

I think that this massive influx of analogous online and face-to-face courses might help us hone in on interesting measurement questions as well. Each instructor’s transition to an online format is going to be different, and they have to answer a lot of questions – for example, are all the assessments going to be the same? Will the same material be covered? How will lectures be delivered? Will students have access to all of the materials they normally would to study for exams? Will assessments be written and formatted in the same way? If not, what is different? A possible research topic may be to pick a course, characterize the similarities and differences between its online version and its face-to-face version, and draw a line between these differences and the psychometric characteristics of the course’s assessments. For example, do the assessments’ reliability coefficients appreciably change in the online format? Are there now instances of DIF in some assessments that were not present in the face-to-face format? Does performance on assessments predict future performance in the course in the same way?

These are just some possible directions that I’ve been thinking research could take – I’m willing to bet you can come up with many, many more. I believe it’s quite important for us as measurement researchers, and more broadly as education researchers, to try to understand the various effects this shift is going to have on student learning. This is a unique opportunity to test all aspects of the viability of online courses. I know that this is a difficult time for everyone mentally, emotionally, and financially, but there might be some silver linings in it.

Thank you for reading!