Communication Currents

Instructor’s Corner: Measuring the Online Learning Climate

April 1, 2016
Instructional Communication

With the ever-increasing popularity of online learning in higher education, Renee Kaufmann of Indiana University East, Deanna D. Sellnow of the University of Central Florida, and Brandi N. Frisby of the University of Kentucky recognized the need to examine student perceptions of the climate in computer-mediated classrooms.

Professors who have transitioned from teaching face-to-face classes to teaching online courses may have noticed stark differences in their interactions with students. “I realized that my attempts to connect and build climate with my online students were failing,” explains Kaufmann. “My usually successful face-to-face efforts were not translating well to my online students. I started wondering how the traditional classroom instructional communication literature would translate into this mediated setting.”

What is the online classroom climate and why does it matter? Online classroom climate may be described as a perceived connection, rapport, or affinity amongst teacher and students within a mediated online class. According to past research, climate building is important for student learning and success. Face-to-face classroom climate has been studied in detail, and tools exist to evaluate in-person class climate. However, no tools had been developed to evaluate the climate of computer-mediated classrooms. Consequently, Kaufmann, Sellnow, and Frisby set out to create the Online Learning Climate Scale (OLCS), a tool that can measure classroom climate in online settings.

To develop the tool, the researchers conducted two studies. In the first, they created an initial list of 47 items related to scales previously created by Instructional Communication scholars, such as theClassroom Communication Connectedness Inventory (CCCI) and the Classroom Climate Scale (CCS). The full list included items that focused on students’ perceptions of one another. The list also included questions that examined course-specific items, including course structure, design, and construction. Finally, items examined student perceptions of instructor behaviors, such as out-of-class communication, immediacy behaviors, and the amount of engaging content or lectures, all of which commonly influence face-to-face classroom climate.

The researchers then gathered a panel of doctoral degree-holding scholars from the fields of Education, Communication, and Library Science who had conducted research on the online classroom, developed online courses, and/or taught graduate courses on online course development and pedagogy. With their comments and revisions, the authors removed 15 items from the list, altered five items, retained 29 items in their original form, and added seven items. To solicit input from students and online course designers/instructors, Kaufmann, Sellnow, and Frisby convened two focus groups: one with students and another with instructors who design and teach online courses.

Students suggested including “I” focused statements, shorter items, and scale directions. Faculty participants suggested adding items that focused on the students’ perception of self within the course. They also suggested adding items that would gauge student perceptions of instructor behaviors such as timeliness with grading assignments, providing feedback, or responding to email.  

Conclusions from the first study confirmed several elements of classroom climate proposed in previous studies and extended them to explain perceptions about the instructor, students, and course in an online context.

The second study sought preliminary validation of the OLCS. The authors selected the final 15 items to appear on the OLCS. They hypothesized that the proposed OLCS would associate positively with both the CCS and the CCCI. To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 236 undergraduate students who had completed one or more online courses to complete a 15-minute survey. The student participants were encouraged to think about their most recent experience with an online course with regard to all of the measures.  Results from the survey confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis and showed that OLCS is a scale that performs as expected.  The authors conclude that the OLCS is a valid and reliable instrument for measuring the different dimensions of online classroom climate. However, they recommend additional testing and validation for this scale in various educational contexts (e.g., for-profit institutions, community colleges, technical schools, K-12 settings).

One of the most interesting conclusions from the two-part study is that the role of the instructor is just as critical to the construction of positive online classroom climate in online settings as is the case in in-person classrooms. 

About the author (s)

Renee Kaufmann

Indiana University East

Assistant Professor

Deanna D. Sellnow

University of Central Florida


Brandi N. Frisby

University of Kentucky

Associate Professor