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Online Higher Education Instruction
September 2017


What does the research say about online higher education instruction and student support services?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Andrade, M. S. (2015). Teaching online: A theory-based approach to student success. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(5), 1–9.

From the Abstract:
"Concerns about a lack of face-to-face contact with students, a focus on grading rather than teaching, and limited expertise with technology or needed pedagogical strategies, may contribute to instructor reluctance to teach online. The interaction between the instructor and learner, and among learners, affects the quality and success of online learning and the learner's ability to master the outcomes associated with the targeted content or skill area as well as the broad outcomes of higher education such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015). Success in distance courses is associated with the learners' ability to take responsibility for controlling the factors that affect learning (Andrade, 2012; Andrade & Bunker, 2011). This paper presents a framework for instructor training for online teaching, and outlines specific strategies for community building and instructor response aimed at developing learner autonomy. The approach is based on the theories of transactional distance—structure, dialogue, and autonomy (Moore, 2013); self-regulated learning—forethought, performance, self-reflection (Zimmerman, 2002); and collaborative control—peer and instructor collaboration to control factors that affect learning (White, 2003). The theories provide a foundation for training and guide instructors in establishing a quality online teaching and learning experience. The approach is illustrated with a teacher training for online English language instructors."

Bawa, P. (2016, January–March). Retention in online courses: Exploring issues and solutions—a literature review. Sage Open, 1–11. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Despite increasing enrollment percentages from earlier years, online courses continue to show receding student retention rates. To reduce attrition and ensure continual growth in online courses, it is important to continue to review current and updated literature to understand the changing behaviors of online learners and faculty in the 21st century and examine how they fit together as a cohesive educational unit. This article reviews literature to ascertain critical reasons for high attrition rates in online classes, as well as explore solutions to boost retention rates. This will help create a starting point and foundation for a more, in-depth research and analysis of retention issues in online courses. Examining these issues is critical to contemporary learning environments."

Bentley, Y., Shegunshi, A., & Scannell, M. (2010). Evaluating the impact of distance learning support systems on the learning experience of MBA students in a global context. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 8(2), 51–62. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This paper reports the findings from an investigation into the distance learning support systems of a UK University's overseas MBA programme. This programme is provided to several countries around the world in alliance with the overseas' local higher educational institutions (HEIs), and is delivered primarily via online courses, but also with periods of face-to-face teaching by both UK and local staff. The aim of the research was to evaluate the learning support mechanisms that are used to deliver this programme overseas, and to determine their impact on the learning experience of the MBA students. The outcomes of this research have not only helped improve the learning support systems and enhanced the quality of this particular programme, but could also help provide guidelines for other HEIs that offer, or intend to offer, blended learning courses globally."

Gray, J. A., & DiLoreto, M. (2016). The effects of student engagement, student satisfaction, and perceived learning in online learning environments. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 11(1).

From the Abstract:
"Studies have shown that course organization and structure, student engagement, learner interaction, and instructor presence have accounted for considerable variance in student satisfaction and perceived learning in online learning environments through a range of pathways, although no research to date has tested the mediational relationship identified. This study expanded upon the existing literature about online learning and the variables that influence student satisfaction and perceived learning. The researchers investigated the relationships among course structure/organization, learner interaction, student engagement, and instructor presence on student satisfaction and perceived learning. The results of this study were intended to inform practice related to increasing retention and improving the quality of online teaching and learning."

Gregory, C. B., & Lampley, J. H. (2016). Community college student success in online versus equivalent face-to-face courses. Journal Of Learning in Higher Education, 12(2), 63–72.

From the Abstract:
"As part of a nationwide effort to increase the postsecondary educational attainment levels of citizens, community colleges have expanded offerings of courses and programs to more effectively meet the needs of students. Online courses offer convenience and flexibility that traditional face-to-face classes do not. These features appeal to students with family and work responsibilities that typically make attending classes on campus difficult. However, many of the students who tend to take courses in this instructional format have characteristics that place them at high-risk for academic failure. Because of the traditional mission of community colleges, they generally serve more students who fit this high-risk profile. Despite the promise and potential of online delivery systems, studies have associated distance education with higher student withdrawal rates. In addition, research has indicated that online students tend to earn lower grades than students in comparable face-to-face classes. The existence of contrasting findings in the literature exposes the need for additional empirical research relative to the overall success of students in online courses, as well as on factors associated with success in distance education. This is especially true for community college students. The purpose of this study was to determine if significant differences existed in student success at the community college level in online courses as compared to face-to-face courses."

He, W., & Yen, C.-J. (2014). The role of delivery methods on the perceived learning performance and satisfaction of IT students in software programming courses. Journal of Information Systems Education, 25(1), 23–33. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"More and more information technology (IT) programs are offering distance learning courses to their students. However, to date, there are a very limited number of published articles in the IT education literature that compare how different methods of delivering distance course relate to undergraduate students' learning outcomes in IT software programming courses taught by the same instructor. Thus, we conducted a case study to assess the predictive relationships between distance course delivery method (face-to-face, satellite broadcasting, and live video-streaming) and students' perceived learning performance and satisfaction in IT software programming courses taught by the same instructor. The results suggested that the choice of delivery method was related to students' satisfaction and programming skill enhancement. However, we did not find a relationship between the delivery method and the students' perceived learning performance. Specifically, the participants in the face-to-face delivery method group were more likely to feel satisfied with the delivery method than the students using the other two delivery methods (i.e., satellite broadcasting and live video streaming)."

Lee, E., Pate, J. A., & Cozart, D. (2015). Autonomy support for online students. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 59(4), 54–61. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Despite the rapid growth of online learning in higher education, the dropout rates for online courses has reached 50 percent. Lack of student engagement ranks as a critical reason for frequent online course dropout. This article discusses autonomy support as a strategy to enhance online students' intrinsic motivation and engagement. Drawing from current theories and research, three guidelines are offered: to provide choices, rationale behind why assignments are designed in particular ways, and flexibility in completing more personally meaningful assignments. Each guideline is accompanied with examples from existing higher education courses. This article is intended for educators and designers of online learning to employ autonomy support strategies to engage students in active participation and successful completion of the course."

Palacios, A. G., & Wood, J. L. (2016). Is online learning the silver bullet for men of color? An institutional-level analysis of the California community college system. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 40(8), 643–655. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The spread of online courses and programs in community colleges across the nation has contributed to a redefinition of open-access education. Accordingly, the growth in online courses has drawn attention to the value of different instructional modalities, particularly with regard to their effectiveness in learning, retention, and success. As a result, this study sought to determine whether or not there were differences in students’ academic success and course retention for community college men by racial/ethnic affiliation. This study used institutional data on men enrolled in California’s community college system to provide greater insight into the effect of online learning on student success. Findings illustrated that Asian, Black, Latino, and White men were more likely to have higher success outcomes when engaged in face-to-face modalities. There were no clear patterns in which online modality was better than others with regards to success, except for Black men. For these men, asynchronous with multimedia was identified as the second most effective online modality pertaining to success. This research has demonstrated the manifold benefits of face-to-face instruction. As such, face-to-face courses seemed to be the best type of modality for community college men. For that reason, careful consideration must be taken when promoting online learning to Asian, Black, Latino, and White men in community colleges, though further research is needed to better understand variation in the presentation of online learning materials and the structure of interactions within online classrooms."

Sun, A., & Chen, X. (2016). Online education and its effective practice: A research review. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 15, 157–190. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Using a qualitative content analysis approach, this study reviewed 47 published studies and research on online teaching and learning since 2008, primarily focusing on how theories, practices and assessments apply to the online learning environment. The purpose of this paper is to provide practical suggestions for those who are planning to develop online courses so that they can make informed decisions in the implementation process. Based on the findings, the authors argued that effective online instruction is dependent upon 1) well-designed course content, motivated interaction between the instructor and learners, well-prepared and fully-supported instructors; 2) creation of a sense of online learning community; and 3) rapid advancement of technology. In doing this, it is hoped that this will stimulate an on-going discussion of effective strategies that can enhance universities and faculty success in transitioning to teach online. Under current debates on the cost and quality of higher education, this study could help for the improvement of higher education and student enrollment and retention."

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2016). A national study of differences between online and classroom-only community college students in time to first associate degree attainment, transfer, and dropout. Online Learning, 20(3), 14–15.

From the Abstract:
"Previous research indicates that online learning at the community college level results in higher rates of withdrawal, failure, and dropout compared to classroom-based education (Xu & Smith Jaggars, 2011; Smith-Jaggars & Xu, 2010). The primary goal of the current study was to examine national data (US Dept. of Ed. Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey, 2004-09) on three outcomes for community college students with and without online education experiences. The outcomes were attainment of first associate degree, transfer, and dropout. In contrast to previous research, compared to exclusively classroom-based students, initial results suggest significantly more students who had engaged in online education had either attained an associate degree at the end of the observation period or transferred to a different institution. These results are interpreted with regard to their implications for policy and practice."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Online, Online learning, Internet, Virtual school, Remote learning

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.