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.