Study finds on-line education beats classroom, but what does that mean?

We are not quite ready to abandon classroom learning in favor of on-line education.
We're not quite ready to abandon classroom learning in favor of on-line education.

A recent study for the Department of Education (NY Times piece; full 93-page PDF report) performed a meta-analysis of 99 students over the past 12 years, and found that students in on-line courses did slightly, but statistically significantly, better than those in traditional classrooms.

It’s an interesting study, and likely to spur a whole new slew of interest in on-line courses, but it’s really not clear what it means. I’m sure there are a zillion ways I could pull together data showing an education advantage of X over Y, for a zillion Xs and Ys, but one would have to be very careful in the interpretation. I’m willing to bet that most of my colleagues here at UMM would teach better in English than Chinese, and most faculty in China would teach more effectively in Chinese than English, but that hardly means one is a better teaching language than the other. Context is everything, and it’s not clear (at least in the survey study) what the contexts are.

A few possible issues:

  • 12 years is an eternity in the history of the web and web-based teaching. Are the studies from 12 years ago even talking about the same things as those now?
  • What are we actually comparing? Face-to-face courses have all kinds of variance, and their effectiveness changes with the instructor, the students in a particular running of the course, and external events. Presumably on-line courses will as well. Are we comparing the best to the best? The median to the median? I can easily imagine that an on-line course of a few dozen people can be a vastly better experience than a huge lecture hall of 800 students, even if the latter is still called “face-to-face” instruction. Similarly, one person struggling to manage 150 on-line students is not likely to look good compared to an energetic classroom discussion section of 12 people. The meta-survey doesn’t make it easy to see clearly what the comparisons are in the individual surveys, and I suspect that they probably vary widely, ranging from the pretty reasonable to apples-vs-kumquats.
  • How much of this is simply a function of novelty, both in faculty putting a lot of effort into a cool new thing, and students being impressed by the shiny new toy?

Etc., etc., etc.

I think the question isn’t, and can’t ever be, whether on-line is better than the classroom. In the end it’s about finding a way for a particular instructor and a particular student (or group of students) to work well together, and that’s going to depend on an awful lot of things and almost certainly change over time as teachers, students, and the world changes. On-line education and classroom education augmented with on-line components are clearly going to be an important (and probably increasing) part of that, but there will probably always be circumstances where a group of people are better served by some face time than by an on-line experience.

This study also looks at courses as isolated experiences. At a residential university like ours, the courses are crucial, but hardly the whole picture. Students learn a ton from simply living together, eating, doing laundry, volunteering, going to the movies, dating, being in clubs, and generally making all sorts of vital transitions as they move from 18 to 22 (give or take). Look at the important differences between someone’s who’s 16 and someone who’s 26, and an awful lot of that has nothing do to with courses. A good university experience can play a critical role both in and beyond the classroom, and a heck of a lot of that is tied up in physical presence.

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2 thoughts on “Study finds on-line education beats classroom, but what does that mean?”

  1. Being in higher ed myself, and on the fielding end of a lot of phone calls wondering if the institution I work at accepts on-line credits, I am intrigued as well about the findings of this study. My biggest question would be the subjects being taught for comparison. The major issue over here is lab sciences. On-line students simply lack the facilities to complete lab sciences the same way they would in a classroom.

    I think you have a very good point about college being about more than just classes. For me personally, I recall much more learned about personel management than I do about various class room theory.

  2. I think there has to be consideration of the question, what is education for? So much discussion seems to be about its utilitarian purposes rather than the idea of developing oneself as a well rounded decent human being.

    If all we see education for is creating the cogs in the giant wheel of capitalism we’ve set the bar really really low.

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