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.