Having already written a defense of the lecture this week, I’m going to take the risk of seeming like a complete curmudgeon and share these findings about online education, from a new study coming out of Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA): (H/T L.D. Burnett)
…online courses do less to promote student learning and progression than do in-person courses for students at the margin. Taking a course online reduces student achievement by about one-quarter to one-third of a standard deviation, as measured by course grades, and reduces the probability of remaining enrolled by three to ten percentage points (over a base of 68 percent). Taking a course online also reduces student grade point average in the next term by more than one-tenth of a standard deviation. Additionally, we find that student achievement outcomes are more variable in online classes. The variation of course grades increases by as much as one-fifth in online sections, and the variance in student grade point average in the next term increases by more than one-tenth. By contrast, we find that the variation in professors’ contributions to student achievement and persistence are smaller in online classes than in-person classes.
Authors Eric Bettinger, Lindsay Fox, and Susanna Loeb of Stanford and Eric Taylor of Harvard studied online and face-to-face (F2F) courses at DeVry University, where about one-third of courses are taught F2F and two-thirds are online. Why DeVry?
DeVry University’s approach to online education creates an intuitive, clear counterfactual. Each DeVry course is offered both online and in-person, and each student enrolls in either an online section or an in-person section. Online and in-person sections are identical in most ways: both follow the same syllabus and use the same textbook; class sizes are the same; both use the same assignments, quizzes, tests, and grading rubrics. The contrast between online and in-person sections is primarily the mode of communication. In online sections all interaction—lecturing, class discussion, group projects—occurs in online discussion boards, and much of the professor’s “lecturing” role is replaced with standardized videos. In online sections participation is often asynchronous while in-person sections meet on campus at scheduled times.
I suppose that last factor might lead online advocates to push back, or at least ask the effect of synchronous discussion on online learning. The authors acknowledge that “online asynchronous interactions change the implicit constraints and expectations on academic conversations….students may feel less oversight from their professors and less concern about their responsibilities to their professors or classmates in the online setting.” (My own limited experience has made me quite dissatisfied with asynchronous discussion and curious to explore alternatives.)
Still, this research seems like a significant challenge to the “no significant difference” claims regularly offered by advocates of online education. And it only adds to the mounting concern about the quality and integrity of for-profit schools like DeVry.
You can read the full paper here. Or watch Bettinger’s presentation below: