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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Studies: Online Ed Not Better or Worse Than Traditional Classes

Does online learning work? Do college students learn better, or at least as well, from computer instruction as they do from a human teacher? reports U.S. News & World Report.

More than 5 million college students took an online class during the 2013-14 school year. 
Photo: U.S. News & World Report  

That’s a question asked over and over by not only students, parents and professors, but also by academic researchers. It’s especially important because universities are offering more and more of their courses online. Almost 5.3 million university students took at least one course online in the 2013-14 academic year, a 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to a Babson Survey Research Group report citing federal data.*

A new paper sheds some light on this question. The author sorted through the best studies on online university courses published in the past couple years, and concluded that online education, or partial online instruction, is neither worse nor better than traditional face-to-face instruction.

“Students are achieving the same outcomes in either format,” online or in person, said Martin Kurzweil, director of policy at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research and consulting organization that published Online Learning in Postsecondary Education: A Review of the Empirical Literature (2013–2014)” on March 11, 2015.

The problem, however, is that this conclusion is a based on a total of three studies. In each case, the course studied was an introductory economics or statistics class. And the new paper lumps together hybrid learning, where students learn from a combination of both human teachers and software instruction, with purely online learning.

None of these three studies employed educational software that was at the cutting edge of so-called “adaptive learning,” where algorithms can tailor instruction for each student, as a personal tutor would. Essentially, the same content was taught to all the same students through interactive videos and work sheets. If a student got a question wrong, the computer system could help the student review what they didn’t understand.

The main message of this paper is that a lot more research is needed to figure out what kinds of online learning work, which types of students learn better or worse this way and whether online instruction saves any money.

Still, it’s important to see that independent scientific research, reviewed by peers, shows a far humbler picture for online learning than the purported learning gains touted by software vendors to university administrators and professors. “When a vendor cites evidence of impact and it’s based on their own analysis, you always have to take that with a grain of salt,” said Kurzweil. “Online learning providers aren’t special [in this]. Textbook publishers do the same. It’s based on research that hasn’t been validated.”
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* Babson Research Group ceased its independent count of the number of students taking online university courses with its most recent report, released Feb. 2015, and is now using federal data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

** Further complicating matters is that Figlio’s face-to-face control group used some supplemental online materials. “Face-to-face plus” is how Figlio describes it. Others might call that hybrid, and argue that Figlio’s study proves that hybrid is marginally superior to online instruction for low-achieving students. Now that hybrid or so-called “blended” learning is becoming more popular, it’s going to be tough to study it properly.

Source: U.S. News & World Report 

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