Does Online Education Actually Work? (Opinion)

Ann McClure's picture

Conventional wisdom states that the future of higher education lies online. However, few studies tell us whether this is necessarily a good thing. Indeed, both the detractors and supporters of online education tend to rely on anecdotes rather than data. So a recent report by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, Kelly Lack, and Thomas Nygren of Ithaka S+R, a non-profit organization devoted to furthering online education, is a welcome addition to the discussion.

The report, "Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials," summarizes the results of an experiment the team conducted to rigorously compare Interactive Learning Online (ILO), with traditional classroom-based learning (CBL). Bowen et. al. randomly assigned students wanting to take introductory statistics into two groups. The first enrolled in a traditional classroom-based course, while the second took a prototype ILO course developed at Carnegie Mellon University and met face-to-face once a week. Both groups were subsequently tested for their mastery of the material.

The study found that there was no statistically significant difference in outcomes for students in their sample overall, and none for any particular subgroup (by gender, ethnicity, language spoken at home, year in college, or income level). It appears that students learned just as well from ILO as from CBL. When you consider how inexpensive ILO is (or is likely to be in the future) compared to CBL, this is a major finding. If confirmed, it means that ILO is likely to be far more productive.

We should commend Bowen et al for using rigorous tests to discover what actually works in higher education. While randomized control group experiments are the norm in medical research, they are uncommon in educational research. One of the chief reasons I tend to be skeptical of "great new innovations" in education is that they are rarely rigorously tested. On the college level, I've seen the "audio-visual age" come and go, followed by the "computer-assisted instruction age." And over the decades I've dealt with the results of educational "reforms" such as the New Math, the New New Math, Bilingual Education, and the "whole word" approach to reading in my own classes.

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