Investigating Virtual Learning Environments

Mark Warschauer, University of California, Irvine, School of Education
Di Xu, University of California, Irvine, School of Education
Padhraic Smyth, University of California, Irvine, UCI Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences
Sarah Eichhorn, Associate Dean of UC Irvine Distance Learning Center
Teomara Rutherford, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Counselor Education

Fernando Rodriguez, University of California, Irvine, School of Education
Mariela Rivas, University of California, Irvine, School of Education
Bianca Cung, University of California, Irvine, School of Education

Funding Source:
NSF Grant Number 1535300, 2015-2020

With 69% of higher education institutions stating that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy and 32% of higher education students taking at least one course online (Allen & Seaman, 2013), new forms of virtual learning are raising the specter of radically transformed undergraduate education. This is particularly true for lower-division courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which disproportionately rely on large lectures. The possibilities of providing lecture material online, as is done through the popular Khan Academy and new massive online open courses (MOOCs), suggest to many that virtual learning may have the potential to serve as a comparable or even advantageous alternative to traditional in person lectures. Debates on this issue highlight both the high hopes and potential pitfalls. To date, few rigorous studies have convincingly demonstrated the effects of virtual learning. There have been a number of studies, including some meta-analyses, that have found benefits linked with virtual learning; however, only a handful have used rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental methods to identify causal effects (e.g., Figlio, Rush, & Yin, 2010; Xu & Jaggars, 2013).

In sum, despite their increasingly important role and fast growth in the national education landscape, the field has limited information about the impacts of different course delivery formats on student learning outcomes and on potential strategies to improve their effectiveness. To fill this research gap, the project intends to systematically explore the effectiveness of virtual learning in the particular setting of STEM courses in large research universities. This setting offers the means to test moderation hypotheses regarding student populations, course content, and instructional practices within a context that plays a special role in the STEM pipeline to graduate study and advanced careers. In keeping with the theory of affordances (see Warschauer, 2003) in which we set our work, by conducting both experiments and observations across a broad swath of courses, we aim to flesh out the heterogeneous effects of virtual learning environments and identify what kinds of environments and instructional techniques are most potent for aiding diverse learners.

This project thus has three major goals:

1) to explore how different types of virtual learning environments affect teaching and learning processes, outcomes, and attitudes toward STEM, both in general and for particular groups of underrepresented learners

2) to examine how variation in instructional practices is associated with student learning gains for the purposes of distilling potential strategies to design high-quality virtual learning environments and improve student learning;

3) to understand the student experience of learning within virtual learning environments through investigation of learning behaviors and the ways in which these behaviors relate to student outcomes

For more information contact Mark Warschauer at


He, W., Holton, A., Farkas, G., & Warschauer, M. (2016). The effects of flipped instruction on out-of-class study time, exam performance, and student perceptions. Learning and Instruction, 45, 61-71.


Conference Presentations

Park, J., Denaro, K., Rodriguez, F., Smyth, P., & Warschauer, M. (2017). Detecting changes in student behavior from clickstream data. Paper to be presented at the annual Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Best Paper Nominee.

[Code] [Paper]

Baker, R., Evans, B., Li, Q.; & Cung, B.  (2017). Nudging students to better academic outcomes: A randomized control trial of a scheduling intervention to improve persistence and performance in online postsecondary courses. Paper to be presented at annual Association for Education Finance Conference. Washington, DC.

McPartland, P., Rutherford, P., Rodriguez, F., Shaffer, J. (2017, August). Modality motivation: Assessing motivational differences in online and face-to-face students. Poster to be presented at  the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association Conference. Washington, DC.

Rivas, M., Rodriguez, F., Rutherford, T., & Warschauer, M. (2017). Comparing student motivation and performance between a flipped and traditional college class. Poster to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association. San Antonio, TX.

Kunze, A. & Rutherford, T. (2017, August). Listening to their views: Student perceptions of instruction in online and face-to-face environments. Poster to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.

Software Products

Accessing Canvas API