The COVID-19 global pandemic of 2020 imposed a unique natural experiment on Regent University MBA students and professors. In this study we consider two research issues.
- First, the COVID -19 experience provided practical insight for professors teaching students directly affected by a crisis. We found all students, whether initially registered on campus or online, perform best online when provided focused instruction, minimal mid-course content enhancements and instructor- and administration-demonstrated compassion.
- Second, the COVID-19 event provides institutions an indication as to whether online courses can accommodate students who would have preferred to take the courses on campus. Student grades did not show any statistical difference between on-campus students in the prior two years and those who registered for on-campus in Spring 2020 but were transitioned to take corporate finance and managerial economics online. Student satisfaction survey scores for all students were higher in the COVID term than in previous years, suggesting that added effort and attention by professors was perceived and appreciated.
Insight for Teaching in a Crisis
Regent’s School of Business and Leadership (SBL) fall, spring and summer terms include two eight-week sessions offered in series. The second spring term in 2020 began on March 16 and ended on May 9. Two core MBA program classes, managerial economics and corporate finance, were scheduled to be offered concurrently on campus and online in the second spring 2020 term. COVID-19 caused Regent to shift all campus classes to online. For the authors’ two courses, that shift was accomplished by enrolling the 36 on-campus students as separate discussion groups, joining the 83 online students in the two courses.
Although Regent SBL professors were not faced with the challenge of developing new online courses for COVID or of teaching online when expecting to teach only on campus, they did face the challenge of satisfying on-campus, registered students who were transitioned to online courses. On-campus students prefer and expect face-to-face instruction and interaction. Professors were also sensitized to working with students as they and their families dealt with the impact of COVID. Some students in our classes lost jobs during the term. Others were forced to work from home and simultaneously learn to deal with family cooped up in the house and some with a sudden challenge of home schooling. A few students or their family members became ill with COVID. Stay-at-home orders prevented students from visiting sick relatives, some of whom died during the term.
Although Regent SBL online classes were already well-developed to deliver the stated learning objectives, we made several adjustments. The purpose was to address anxieties of students preferring on-campus course delivery and the anxieties of all students because of COVID-19. Five adjustments are notable:
- We provided more detailed instructions for on-campus managerial economics and corporate finance students. On-campus students can handle some ambiguous written directions because the instructor is present to answer questions and reassure them. Ambiguity is anathema to online students. We have made a habit of providing detailed, consistent directions to online students; however, we increased our attention to this issue for the COVID-19 term.
- Both classes added to their existing pre-recorded content and assignment explanations.
- We presented a step-by-step process for each week of the class, two weeks in advance.
- Corporate finance added seven additional live online class sessions to the usual four. In contrast, managerial economics maintained its usual eight weekly sessions.
- In managerial economics, rather than force a change in student Blackboard Collaborate habits we added voluntary Zoom calls with video. The purpose of the calls was more personalized, focusing on non-academic issues such as health, job, and family challenges.
The motivation of the five adjustments, which added content-oriented instruction and personal contact during the COVID-19 term, was to maintain or improve student outcomes.
H1: Additional professor contact and content during a crisis will enhance student outcomes.
Effectiveness of Online Delivery Historically
Regent University School of Business and Leadership’s value proposition includes an outstanding asynchronous learning experience and faculty engagement. Technology is an important driver of asynchronous learning in general and at Regent in particular (Allen, Bourhis, Burrell & Mabry, 2002). Asynchronous MBA learning is a high potential way to continue to grow the industry pie in the face of changing student demands (Goodman, Melkers & Pallais, 2016).
Regent SBL has 30 years of experience with MBA distance education. Over the decades we have fine-tuned our course design and delivery to produce the same learning outcomes regardless of online or on-campus delivery. Overall, on-campus student sections achieve slightly higher average grades (by 2 percentage points). This may be attributable to online sections ease of enrollment. The lower cost to enroll online may encourage program sampling rather than all-in commitment from day one. The actual difficulty for online students is high as professional MBA learners must juggle school, work, and other life challenges. Student evaluations indicate the satisfaction of online sections is slightly higher than for on-campus sections. On-campus students are sometimes less satisfied than online students, perhaps due to higher time cost of attending eight three-hour lectures and concomitant higher expectations. On-campus students are not shy about pointing out perceived deficiencies. Online students, whose expectations of instructor interaction time are lower, generally seem pleasantly surprised by the quality and touch of the Regent SBL online courses. H2: On-campus student outcomes are not negatively influenced by a COVID-19 crisis-induced switch to online.
Research Design, Results and Discussion
We collected grade and student survey data from Regent University corporate finance, managerial economics and data analysis classes. Each class is taught online and on campus by Dr. John Mulford or Dr. Andrew Root. The data is available from fall 2017 through spring 2020. In addition to student grades we consider student satisfaction ratings and qualitative data from one-on-one interaction with students and from open-ended responses on student surveys. Summary statistics are presented in table 1 (see below). Additional data is available in an electronic appendix upon request.
Hypothesis one is partly supported. During the COVID-19 term overall grades were slightly higher than during non-COVID terms. Although we don’t put much weight on the statistically insignificant two percentage point difference, the fact that the grades did not drop suggest that our interventions helped students stay focused and learn the material despite challenges from the pandemic. Student satisfaction results also support H1. Overall satisfaction during the COVID-19 term was slightly higher than during the previous two years.
Hypothesis two is partly supported. Before COVID-19, on campus students’ grades averaged about 2.5 percentage points higher than those of online students. During the COVID-19 term, that difference narrowed to 0.2 percentage points—that is, the on-campus advantage disappeared. This is due entirely to a 1.5 percentage point underperformance of the on-campus section in managerial economics. In corporate finance, the on-campus outperformance remained constant at 2.1 percentage points. It is possible that on-campus students in managerial economics, which is typically taken near the beginning of a student’s program, were less able to cope with the COVID-19 crisis than the corporate finance students who have been in the program longer, and are familiar with Regent University MBA course procedures.
Professor contact appeared to enhance student outcomes but not additional course content. Managerial economics student survey results increased. Although not statistically significant, the satisfaction data for the COVID-19 affected term was markedly higher—on-campus increased from 4.21 to 4.89 (out of 5); online increased from 4.53 to 4.82. By contrast, corporate finance on-campus section satisfaction declined in 2020, to 4.39 (out of 5) from an average of 4.82 in the prior two years. Qualitative feedback indicated that the almost tripling of live teaching sessions in corporate finance confused rather than clarified. For managerial economics, additional personal interaction with the professor through Zoom calls enhanced satisfaction.
Despite the data limitations in our study, the exogenous nature of the COVID-19 shock and Regent SBL long experience teaching simultaneously online and on-campus lead us to arrive at important conclusions. Students do not appear to benefit from more content in a crisis. Students benefit from more care, more personalized instruction and contact with the professor. We also believe the crisis showed educational institutions and MBA students can have confidence that learning outcomes will be consistent when taking classes online or on campus at an institution where professors regularly teach online. Said differently, experienced multi-modal MBA professors are able to teach online and on campus in such a way that students perform to their potential in either setting.
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Goodman, J., Melkers, J. E., & Pallais, A. (2016). Does Online Delivery Increase Access to Education?.