Yesterday, I blogged about a new study by Matt Chingos and Marty West about pension reform in Florida. Now I see that Matt has struck again with a great study about on-line learning in the current issue of Education Next. Matt, along with co-authors William Bowen, Kelly Lack and Thomas Nygren, conducted a random assignment evaluation of an online statistics course that was offered at six universities.
Students were assigned by lottery either to a traditional course or a course where the bulk of the instruction was provided by inter-active software supplemented by weekly discussion sections. The bottom line is that students did no better or worse in measured learning outcomes regardless of whether they received the course in the traditional way or via the internet. The authors suggest that these results should temper wild claims about improved learning from online instruction as well as wild accusations that online fails to deliver. They seem to be equally effective. But the authors add that online delivery has significant potential to reduce the cost of delivering education and may have significant benefits for retention of students.
In the case of online learning, where millions of dollars are being invested by a wide variety of entities, we should perhaps expect that there will be inflated claims of spectacular successes. The findings in this study warn against too much hype. To the best of our knowledge, there is no compelling evidence that online learning systems available today—not even highly interactive systems, which are very few in number—can in fact deliver improved educational outcomes across the board, at scale, on campuses other than the one where the system was born, and on a sustainable basis….
We do not mean to suggest that ILO systems are a panacea for this country’s deep-seated education problems. Many claims about “online learning” (especially about simpler variants in their present state of development) are likely to be exaggerated. But it is important not to go to the other extreme and accept equally unfounded assertions that adoption of online systems invariably leads to inferior learning outcomes and puts students at risk. We are persuaded that well-designed interactive systems in higher education have the potential to achieve at least equivalent educational outcomes while opening up the possibility of freeing up significant resources that could be redeployed more productively.
Extrapolating the results of our study to K–12 education is hardly straightforward. College students are expected to have a degree of self-motivation and self-discipline that younger students may not yet have achieved. But the variation among students within any given age cohort is probably much greater than the differences from one age group to the next. At the very least, one could expect that online learning for students planning to enter the higher-education system would be an appropriate experience, especially if colleges and universities continue to expand their online offerings. It is not too soon to seek ways to test experimentally the potential of online learning in secondary schools as well.
You can read the full article here.
[Edited to correct omitted co-author and for clarity]