Negative Result for Online Instruction

A group of researchers at Stanford University led by Eric Bettinger have a new study comparing the effects of online versus in-person university instruction.  There is obvious appeal and lower cost associated with online courses, but rigorous evidence on its educational effectiveness has been limited.

Bettinger and his colleagues examine outcomes for a large number of students at DeVry University who took courses online or in person.  They take advantage of the fact that in-person classes are only offered in certain semesters and students have different distances to travel to get those in-person classes to obtain an exogenous estimate of the effect of online classes.

Here is what they found:

Online college courses are a rapidly expanding feature of higher education, yet little research identifies their effects. Using an instrumental variables approach and data from DeVry University, this study finds that, on average, online course-taking reduces student learning by one-third to one-quarter of a standard deviation compared to conventional in-person classes. Taking a course online also reduces student learning in future courses and persistence in college.

The bright digital future in education may not as sunny as we’ve been told.  Perhaps students are better motivated to learn by a human being in front of them in class than they are by digital methods of instruction.  If so, there may be substantial trade-offs in lost learning in exchange for the lower cost of online instruction.

8 Responses to Negative Result for Online Instruction

  1. Negative result for online university instruction ….But what about High School?

    Some rural schools are eliminating teaching positions and inserting Streaming Videos and online courses like A+ Learning.

    This year in Lund, NV grades 6 through 12 have no math teacher on site. … Not only no teacher but a slow internet connection. Several students have gone to live with relatives elsewhere as a result of this change in program.

    This has the look of an experiment in seeing if a district can violate a small rural school student’s right to an adequate education in Nevada.

    A math teacher needs to be NCLB Highly Qualified. The White Pine County School District plan for Lund School was for no math teacher. No social studies teacher either. Just two teachers for grades 6 through 12.

    I wonder how NV Gov. Sandoval sees this? Could you get a comment from the NV State Board of Education?

    The following is from the State Board of Education:

    The State Board of Education is composed of eleven members. Four members are elected from the four congressional districts in Nevada, and seven members are appointed. …


    All Nevadans ready for success in the 21st Century.


    To improve student achievement and educator effectiveness by ensuring opportunities, facilitating learning, and promoting excellence.

    State Board Goals

    Goal 1 – All students are proficient in reading by the end of 3rd grade.

    Goal 2 – All students enter high school with the skills necessary to succeed.

    Goal 3 – All students graduate college and career ready.

    Goal 4 – Effective educators serving students at all levels.

    Goal 5 – Efficient and effective use of public funds to achieve the highest return on educational investment.

    blah blah blah … NV has an incredibly low high school graduation rate… so who cares?

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Perhaps it’s just DeVry.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      That’s what I was thinking. The results should be sobering, but let’s not read too much into it. It could be that DeVry was not very competent at putting together online courses. It could also be that the students are, on average, not the most motivated, whereas online courses could work very well for motivated students.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      For example, I bet if the Ed Reform department at the University of Arkansas tried online courses, they’d have a much higher rate of success. If anyone wants to give it a shot, I offer myself as a guinea pig.

  3. […] Source: Negative Result for Online Instruction | Jay P. Greene’s Blog […]

  4. allena says:

    Wilbur Wright admitted that in 1901 he had predicted man wouldn’t fly for fifty years. Two years later…

    A worthwhile goal is quite often imagined long before it becomes practical and technology in education’s no exception. At some point the technological and political stars will align to allow, or rather require, technology to overturn the current paradigms. It’s happened in every other area of human endeavor. It’ll happen in education.

    • allena,
      So what happens to the NV kids now?
      Are they to be cryogenically frozen now and at some point thawed and educated when the technology has been perfected?

      • allen says:

        Yup, cryogenic freezing is just what I was going for.

        As for what can be done while waiting for the technological puzzle pieces to fall into place, that’s obvious – parental choice. Parental choices alters the relationship between parents and education professionals/elective officials.

        Whereas in the district system expertise is assumed to be a function of the appropriate degrees, never to be questioned by the unwashed in a parental choice environment degrees may have some value but only if they produce the results required by parents.

        Notice how in a district environment the indifference to results undermines the value of technology – if you don’t care whether the teachers can teach you don’t care whether there are tools that make their job easier/cheaper/better and you sure don’t care whether there are tools that obviate the need for some teachers.

        A parental choice environment introduces the element of competition which means there’s no resting on laurels. You’re only as good, and as viable, as your competitive position. If a school down the street introduces an idea that cuts costs, improves results or both the motivation to emulate is self-evident because the penalty for a failure to respond is extinction.

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