UCI School of Education helps students, instructors navigate changing landscape

Already years in the making, the UCI School of Education's Online Learning Research Center launched in March 2020, providing resources to millions across the country when they were needed most.

In 2015, the National Science Foundation awarded UCI School of Education professors Mark Warschauer, Di Xu, and three colleagues a $2.5 million grant – Investigating Virtual Learning Environments – to study 50 online courses at UCI. The abstract cites a “dearth of rigorous research” on the topic of online learning, and a pledge to assist higher education administrators, instructors, and course designers to make effective decisions in planning the kinds of virtual learning environments that can meet the needs of undergraduate students. Fast-forward five years. In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the unprecedented decision of all schools to shift to online learning. At the same time, Warschauer and Xu were ready to support their colleagues, and launched the Online Learning Research Center (OLRC). The center provides evidence-based resources for K-12 and college educators, students and researchers to improve achievement and equality in online learning, and features research and resources borne out of several grants led by Warschauer and Xu that investigated the pitfalls, challenges, and opportunities of remote instruction. “It’s not just a place where we publish and share research, but where instructors and students can evaluate their online teaching and learning,” Warschauer said. “Educators can examine their online courses to see if they’re touching all the bases in terms of what we know about online learning and learn how to improve online courses to make them most effective.” “We really hope to use this website as a bridge between research and practice,” Xu said. “We want to understand the typical challenges faced by instructors and students, and then examine those issues in the research.”


As many experienced firsthand last spring, online instruction can be fraught with difficulties – from annoying technical issues, to the more severe threat of hampering an individual’s learning experience and educational outcomes. Xu cites previous research that shows performance gaps between online learning and traditional face-to-face learning, with the performance gap being substantially larger for underrepresented groups.

“Online learning is likely to exacerbate inequity gaps if the classes and instruction are not intentionally designed to facilitate interaction and student scaffolding,” Xu said. Xu is currently principal investigator on a National Science Foundation CAREER grant that is researching effective strategies to enhance support and services to improve online learning among community college students.

Why is online learning in higher education susceptible to such issues? A lack of schedule is the main reason, Warschauer said, which creates problems in two different ways. First, it demands a greater need for autonomous learning skills, self-regulation, organization, and motivation. Students who are ultimately successful in online classrooms already have those skills. Those who do not are more likely to struggle. Second, students in online classrooms feel the effects of isolation – both from their teachers and peers. Students suffer from a lack of engagement and their sense of community can be compromised when classes are online. Additionally, their communication is strained – it is more difficult to ask questions, immediately receive feedback, and share ideas with peers and instructors.

Though there is less research on student outcomes for online learning among K-12 students, Warschauer posits that the threats and difficulties are even more pronounced than in higher education. For starters, students in a two- or four-year college have already demonstrated the aptitude to be admitted and enroll in college, and they are more familiar with and have better access to technology. Furthermore, K-12 students rely more heavily on the counselors, nurses, and food services that schools offer. “The prototypical successful online student is very motivated, mature, disciplined, and knows how to teach him or herself,” Warschauer said. “There is such a large population of students in K-12 that have special needs, or are English learners, or whose home lives simply aren’t conducive to online learning – through no fault of their own, they face many more challenges in learning online.”


Make no mistake, there are advantages to online learning. Warschauer and Xu list 24/7 access to materials, automated scoring, better tracking of student engagement, and the potential to share resources and develop personalized learning chief among them. In the past, there was a “black box” element to learning sciences – students leave the classroom, go home for the evening, and it is then unknown what is occurring at home or in the dorms. With online learning, the curtain is lifted so educators can see how often students are online, at what times, when they begin their homework, how long they spend on an assignment, and several other statistics. Warschauer, who directs UCI’s Digital Learning Lab and has studied online learning since the time of 28k modems, hopes this past spring awakened many to the potential benefits of online learning. “I don’t want to see in-person education replaced by online learning, but it can play a valuable role in the education ecosystem, and this experience could be a boost toward greater awareness of the challenges and opportunities,” Warschauer said. Warschauer and Xu agree that online learning will improve as more research is conducted and more are exposed to proper classroom setups. The research and tools that improve online learning can be translated to improve face-to-face instruction as well. “The ways in which we improve online instruction could be used to improve teaching and learning in general, and I can see a time in the future where we don’t have a clear-cut definition of an online or face-to-face classroom,” Xu said.


The advantages of online instruction are only realized when classes are intentionally structured. Through their research, Warschauer and Xu created and compiled a swath of resources, now available through the OLRC, to assist educators in achieving this aim. One example is a rubric, researched and designed by Xu and collaborators Qiujie Li, former UCI doctoral student and current postdoctoral scholar at NYU, and fourth-year doctoral student Xuehan Zhou. The rubric provides a theoretical foundation of best practices, the unique challenges of online learning, and specific ways to address each challenge.

Warschauer said the mass migration to online learning last spring is not completely reflective of the potential that online learning affords, as most of it was done under pressing, extenuating circumstances.

“Many faculty have never taught online courses, nor do they know how to design a high-quality online course from scratch, so professional development opportunities would be helpful,” Xu said. “Faculty are experts in their fields, and if we can provide expert support to faculty to help them design online courses, then we are likely to have a series of high-quality resources and courses available.”

At the K-12 level, Warschauer urges schools to find a way to host face-to-face classes, especially for younger students if it can be done safely. It is not necessary to host students for 180 days, six hours a day, he said, but even a schedule of reduced days, alternating day/night, or attending every other week will have significant positive impacts on students’ learning.

Additionally, he hopes schools and districts will create quality online resources and that schools are able to provide technology and other physical resources despite tightened budgets.

“I hope our country is investing in public education, because this is critical to the future of our education system,” Warschauer said. “We already have a large summer learning loss in our country, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, and the traditional three-month gap has already turned into a six-month gap for many students.

“We cannot let this turn into a 12- or 18-month gap without addressing the need for serious remediation, or else we will have left an entire generation of students behind.”

UCI is a national leader in high-quality online instruction. More than 90 percent of students take courses that include online learning opportunities, and the University has also launched a number of highly successful graduate programs that are taken largely or exclusively online. The School of Education - through a multitude of projects, including the Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project - is at the forefront of studying undergraduate student experiences and outcomes.