Online university education: less motivation, less work, same results
Recently, students in Amsterdam demonstrated to call for more face-to-face education. A student petition is circulating online, asking for a refund of their tuition fees because, it is claimed, university education is not of good quality now that it has shifted online due to Covid-19. Do they have a point?
One Thursday in March, Dutch universities heard that they had to close their campuses the following Monday. With surprising speed, this was seized on to move education online. Teachers who previously would have had trouble uploading a Word document to a digital learning environment, made the transition within one week to being well-rounded online lecturers. Assessments were quickly remodelled so that they could be taken remotely, without hundreds of students having to congregate in examination halls. At the time of writing, some classes are again possible on campus, but education continues to be largely online. Therefore, the question remains relevant: is this form of education equal to regular campus-based teaching?
Along with several colleagues, I have studied this for Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in two ways. Firstly, we looked at the results that students achieved during the months that the university campus was closed. Secondly, we conducted a survey among psychology students to find out about their experiences of online education.
To start with the second, we asked students to compare online and before in terms of their appreciation of teaching, motivation, effort, and results. We also asked them to name factors in online education that they found were either motivating or demotivating.
Appreciation and Motivation
Students reported less satisfaction with online education than with normal campus education. They valued online lectures and online working groups less than their physical counterparts, and cited as demotivating factors that online meetings felt dreary and “not like education”. They also rated their motivation as lower than before the closure of the campus – on average about one point on a five-point scale (Cohen’s d 0.67). In their comments, students often mentioned three demotivating factors: technical failure (poor internet connection, recordings with poor sound quality, etc.), the difficulty in sticking with their work at home, and the lack of social contact (both with fellow students and teachers).However, the contact that still exists through online working groups was mentioned as a motivating factor.
The fact that students were on average less motivated does not mean that this was true for all students. There were also students who were more motivated – they appreciated the freedom it gave them, the work tutors put into online education, the time saved by not travelling, and a few even mentioned the loss of social interaction as a relief.
Effort and results
The decrease in motivation was directly related to a decrease in effort. Students indicated that they attended fewer lectures, attended fewer work groups and were less active in those work groups (it should be noted that attendance on campus was mandatory, but this was no longer the case with online tuition). They also estimated the hours they worked per week to be lower after the campus closure than before. When we carried out the research, we expected that less motivation and less effort would translate into a performance drop. However, this turns out not to be the case at all. Students themselves thought that their results would be the same or better. Analyses of grades and credits obtained by students also indicated that if there is any effect of Covid-19 on the results, it would tend be positive (i.e. better results) rather than negative. This surprising result has now also been reported at other institutes of higher education, although so far only in one publication with results from a university in Madrid (also reporting positive effects of campus closure).
How is this possible? Students themselves indicated in their comments that their studies had become much more efficient. This was due to the elimination of travel time, but also because they could plan better and had more freedom in what they chose to do and not do. In addition, the Madrid researchers found indications that their students studied more regularly (i.e. less in spurts), which is a well-known success factor in education.
It should be noted that these results are not achieved without any extra work at all. Surveys indicate that teachers are working harder for education than usual. This may be a temporary effect, but that is not guaranteed. Studies on blended learning suggest that the workload of teachers does not usually decrease by moving some of the teaching online (rather, it increases). 
After the shift to online, students found university education less pleasant. Sometimes due to technical failures or a lack of social interaction, but also other factors. That does not mean the education was bad. In comments, many students expressed appreciation for the visibly high commitment of the lecturers, which is in line with the high work pressure that lecturers themselves say they feel. In the spring of 2020, this led to students achieving the same results as in other years with less effort. Whether this can be maintained throughout the current academic year – by less-motivated students and overworked tutors – is a question that remains to be answered. But there is no indication that university students are currently being offered a deficient education.
 Tynan, B., Ryan, Y., & Lamont‐Mills, A. (2015). Examining workload models in online and blended teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1), 5-15.