Online Courses May Not Be the Way of the Future

Ed reformers, including path-breaking scholars Terry Moe and Paul Peterson, championed digital instruction as the way of the future.  Teaching courses online has enormous potential appeal.  Instruction could be better customized to match student needs, abilities, and learning-speed.  Online courses could achieve greater economies of scale, producing desperately needed efficiencies.  Online instruction could address critical shortages in quality teachers, substituting capital for labor.  And online instruction could politically circumvent and undermine the teacher unions and their allies by opening the door to multiple, competing education providers for each student.

Some of these benefits may hold true, at least for some students, but the dream of revolutionizing education with online instruction appears to have over-stated its prospects.  The edtechnophiles may have missed the central task in education: motivating students to learn by creating social communities in which failure to learn would disappoint people with whom students have authentic relationships.  The problem of learning is not how to provide information to students.  Almost all of human knowledge is available to students at virtually no cost — it’s called the internet.  Students could look up and learn anything they want right now.  The trick is motivating students to acquire that knowledge.

Online courses appear to be less effective in getting the average student to learn and I suspect the problem is that teaching online is less able to create social communities and authentic relationships that are necessary to motivate students.  Having a human being in front of students who would be disappointed if students did not learn the material seems important and something that online instruction has not been able to simulate.  Students appear to be better motivated to learn when they have an in-person, authentic relationship with a teacher and when they try to please that teacher by working hard to learn.  Digital instruction or a human being on the other side of the internet may not be able to create that same relationship and motivation.

There has been a fairly consistent string of studies with disappointing results from online instruction.  The most of these studies, which also contains a useful literature review of past research, is by   Cassandra M.D. Hart, Elizabeth Friedmann, and Michael Hill at the University of California, Davis. They examine the effects of online course-taking in California’s Community College system. Rather than summarize, I’ll let them describe their results:

Using a series of fixed effects techniques, we find patterns that are strikingly similar to those found in past literature. We find that online course-taking is negatively associated with contemporaneous course performance in terms of course completion, course passing, and the likelihood of receiving an A or a B. We subject our analyses to several novel tests to determine whether selection into online courses biases these fixed effect estimates, and find that the results are likely not biased….

We find that contemporaneous student performance in online courses is generally weaker than in [Face to Face] FtF classes. The results hold whether we use college-course fixed effects, student fixed effects, or instructor fixed effects. Our results are consistent across multiple ways of measuring student performance, for students with different characteristics, and across different subject Online Course-taking and Student Outcomes 29 areas. The consistency of these results across different methods of specification and for different groups adds credence to our findings. Our results are close in magnitude to results from similar studies conducted in multiple states (Xu & Jaggars, 2011; Xu & Jaggars, 2013; Johnson & Cuellar Mejia, 2014). In addition, the coefficients’ stability and the fact that the coefficients become more negative as we add controls suggests that the degree of selection on unobservables (Altonji, Elder, Taber, 2005; Oster, 2013) would have to be substantial and in the opposite direction from selection on observables to invalidate the fixed-effect results for our contemporaneous course-taking outcomes….

We find more modest evidence that online course-taking is associated with some negative downstream outcomes as well. Our findings that online course-taking is positively associated with course repetition and negatively associated with subject persistence are stable across a number of estimation techniques; like the contemporaneous course performance results, these are consistent whether we use student, college-course, or instructor fixed effects. The subject persistence results are largely stable across student subtypes, but are non-significant for AfricanAmerican students. There is more heterogeneity across subject types; while subject persistence gaps are negative for math, humanities, and social science classes, the gap is non-significant for business classes and is actually positive for information technology courses. In all cases, however, the subject persistence gaps are much smaller in magnitude than the estimates for the contemporaneous outcomes.

6 Responses to Online Courses May Not Be the Way of the Future

  1. matthewladner says:

    Yup they may not be- but take a look at this article about the pace of technological change:

    So it often doesn’t obey our predictions, but it keeps grinding away. Recall the bubble and subsequent backlash when people ridiculed the idea that the web was going to transform life. No one in the retail, music, taxi or newspaper business are laughing now. It happened, but not in the way people believe it would in 1999, nor at the pace that NASDAQ investors would have preferred 🙂

    Time will tell how this works out. The good news is that we have people experimenting with it.

    • Greg Forster says:

      On the other hand, notice that those sectors (retail, music, taxi and newspaper) involve purely transactional businesses. Nobody expects pastors, doctors, counselors or lawyers to be replaced by net-based services at anything like scale. Education is a lot more like them than it is like catching a taxi.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    Online Learning Is Learning Along The Way

    For all the right reasons it’s worth persisting to follow the online learning story — successes, failures and cautions. Relating to his Delta Airlines Fiasco reference, Matthew points out that we learn from both boosters and alarmists. “The good news is that we have people experimenting with it.”

    Good News: Joanne Jacobs has a post today on Virtual Competence

    “All online schooling is growing in popularity, despite weak performance by students, writes Hechinger’s Chris Berdik in WIRED.

    However, New Hampshire’s self-paced Virtual Learning Academy Charter School is an online success story, he writes. With a ‘focus on building strong student-teacher relationships,’ VLACS boasts full-time virtual students who do as well or better than the New Hampshire average in reading and math and on the SAT.”

    Here is the article by Chris Berdick (2 titles: Blended Learning: Has New Hampshire found the secret to online education that works? in Hechinger, and “Inside the online school that could radically change how kids learn everywhere” in WIRED [I was blocked in this second one])

    Joanne closes her post with a link to three recommendations for improving online charter schools —

  3. Jason Bedrick says:

    They might be getting a lot wrong now, and they might be missing key ingredients, but I suspect that there will be edu-preneurs who learn from these mistakes, figure out more effective methods to improve learning outcomes, and that those organizations will scale up and be copied by others.

    I could be wrong, but I think Matt’s comparison is apt.

  4. Tony says:

    Hi, Thanks for sharing the information. Now a days online education is very important to every one and these information will really help us a lot..Thanks once again for these lovely post..

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