Latest journal of Educational Technology – does asynchronous contact on VLEs increase grades?

Some interesting articles in the most recent issue of British Journal of Educational Technology.

One article suggests that student coursework grades are higher when they use a VLE supported by synchronous contact and advice with tutors. Interesting result but I am a little unsure of the methodology. These are the findings (with my comments in brackets):
1. Before students had access to the Backboard VLE their coursework grades were lower. (But this could be an order effect – students didn’t understand the subject as well last year as they did in their second year.)
2. Students who never used Blackboard had significantly lower grades on the assignment than the students who had used it. (This is very likely to be due to keen students bothering to use the VLE whereas weaker and less engaged students do not. So the presence of the VLE itself isn’t the cause of the difference, it just correlates with it.)
3. There was a positive relationship between the number of online discussion messages read and the grade achieved on the assignment. (Again, the keener students are more interested, read more, and thus do better.)
4. Both the students who asked questions and those who just read the questions and answers (‘lurkers’) ended up with significantly better grades than they had done before Blackboard was introduced. (This is interesting, because it illustrates that you don’t have to contribute to discussions – good students can be lurkers!)

With a lot of educational research it is difficult if not impossible to design a truly robust experimental design. This means that order effects (such as point 1 above) and confusion between correlation and causation often confound the data and can confuse the reader. So it’s always worth reading research findings with a little bit of caution. With the above, the VLE may well be causing a positive difference, but it’s important to be realistic about other ‘confounding variables’ as well.