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  • Writer's pictureJason Ferrell

Teaching My First Online Statistics Course

I have been teaching statistics since 2010. Every couple of years somebody was chatting with me about trying an online statistics course. It was Dr. Shelly Wells, Professor and Chair of Nursing at NWOSU, who convinced me that we need to make it happen. The nursing students needed access to an online stats course. Those students were taking an online stats course from outside our university because we did not offer one.

I had a background in managing online courses including some innovative work in online education. However, I realized that creating an asynchronous online stats course that maintained rigor while providing personalized student instruction would be difficult to do. Indeed, many of my colleagues said this simply could not be done effectively. Throughout the history of online education, and in my experiences in trying new and innovative approaches to online education (well, anything in education), the “that cannot be done effectively” hurdle is often thrown out too easily.

My goal was to create an online stats course that mostly mirrored what happens in my in-person stats course. Every week would include 2.5 hours of lecture*, lots of discussion, and an assignment. Also, mid-term exams throughout the semester. Most of the lecture videos were not static pre-recorded lectures. Instead, I created them in real-time because I wanted to integrate the previous week’s discussions, questions, and misconceptions into the current week’s videos. That allowed personalized instruction in an asynchronous way. In fact, as I reviewed everything from the previous week, I took notes of things I would address in the follow week’s videos; and I would often recognize students by name in my videos as they brought important issues to discussion.

*screenshot from one of the class videos (showing off my scribbly handwriting!)

There were weekly required discussions as you might expect in an online course. However, the students could discuss any concepts from that week they found fitting. My goal here was to foster an environment similar to an in-person class, where they could discuss stats concepts in a casual way with their peers and me. Additionally, I created a “Coffee Shop” discussion forum, where they could discuss anything they wanted to. One of my surprises was learning that the students really engaged in the Coffee Shop. They would share their experiences in stressing about the assignment, upcoming exam, or frustration in learning new software. Some students would comment about shared experiences. Other students would comment with problem solving strategies—sharing what they learned that had been helpful. They also shared music. In reflection, all this online discussion was a safe place for students to lean on each other, and to learn from one another. It was fabulous!

There was another component of this online stats course that, together with the discussion board insight, has me thinking this could be a more effective way to learn stats than a typical in-person class. Throughout the semester, student after student, a theme emerged in students reporting that the most helpful thing for them was the ability to re-watch the lecture videos multiple times. I first noticed this during the week we covered variance, standard deviation, and z-scores. Other students made comments about the helpfulness of re-watching lecture videos when they were trying to learn statistics software. This was highlighted again in discussion when we covered the complex relationships between sample sizes, effect sizes, p-values, power, and Type I and II errors. One student posted, “Dr. Ferrell, thank you for making these videos for this class. I watched the video about power and errors 4 times before it clicked. If this was an in-person class I would have never got it.”

My original goal was to create an online stats course that would equal an in-person stats course in rigor, personalized instruction, and learned concepts. The Spring 2021 online stats course started with about 40 students enrolled. 34 completed it. With everything considered it turned out better than I expected. I think the rigor was equal to an in-person course, as the students had to do the same things required of students in the in-person course. I think the personalized instruction was different, but at least equal. Because all students have to post discussions, many of these received personalized responses that they likely would not have in an in-person class (because many students do not voice those questions and misconceptions in person). The personalized approach to the lecture videos was similar to a personalized approach in person, although that feedback in video is delayed compared to being immediate in person. There is literature in support of increased learning for both delayed and immediate feedback, so I think the answer here is “it depends”; and I do not know how effective/ineffective the delayed feedback was in video.

Contrary to what I predicted before this course started, I think the advantage of learned concepts is in the online course. The discussion board forced every student to discuss their questions and confusions. In most cases, either another student addressed those, I did in discussion, or I did in the next set of videos. The required discussions—along with the Coffee Shop discussions—were the heart of the class. These discussions provided a visible meter about everyone indicating what was or was not making sense, where any confusion or misconception was, and how we were thinking and feeling about the class (or life in general). From the professor’s perspective it was never any clearer to me where I needed to help or focus more explanation. I have not said this about an asynchronous online course before, but I think this online stats course was more effective than its in-person version.

I plan to research the components of this online stats course and its outcomes more closely in future courses. I am also interested in experiences from others that have taught stats online. My initial reflection from teaching my first online stats course is that I am now re-thinking what “in-person” really means when it comes to learning statistics. In some ways this stats class was more in-person and effective than my in-person class.

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