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New Study: Online Classes Just as Good

On Tuesday Via Meadia reported that the Coursera program for online education has just expanded its offerings. Along with programs like MIT’s EdX and Stanford’s Udacity, Coursera offers lectures from professors presented in video format, supplemented by online coursework and reading materials. Other institutions are looking to offer hybrid coursework, in which online classes are supplemented by semi-regular meetings with professors or tutors of some sort, to minimize the time required of professional staff while retaining the advantage of face time with an instructor.

Yet for all the fanfare, many people, particularly professors and students, are not yet convinced. Can a set of online videos and computer programs really be as effective as actual professors? According to a new and purportedly rigorous study comparing test results of students taking the same course online and in person, the answer may be yes. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a carefully crafted, foundation-funded experiment that has received less attention than it deserves, Ithaka S+R, a higher-education think tank, enticed 605 undergraduates at six public-university campuses in New York and Maryland to agree to be assigned randomly to one of two courses. Half took a conventional introductory statistics course that met three hours a week. The other half took a computer-assisted course that met once a week and relied on an interactive, online statistics course developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Online Learning Initiative.

To compare outcomes, researchers had students take a standardized statistics test and a final exam that had some of the same questions.

The statistically sound result: Students in the online course did just as well as those who took the conventional course. No better, no worse.

These results are heartening. The more such studies proliferate, the more likely universities are to experiment with new programs.

This also serves as a reminder that even though the American university system sometimes seems full of obstructionists and slow to move, it’s actually moving much faster than most of its rivals overseas. What’s more, these changes tend to accelerate once they get under way.

If this happens with online learning, the United States will end up with a reformed and much more efficient higher-ed system while overseas university systems are still arguing over whether it’s a good idea to try. This is looking like a textbook case of how the United States reinvents itself faster than its competitors in response to technological and social changes.

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  • Corlyss

    “Can a set of online videos and computer programs really be as effective as actual professors?”

    Probably not if one of two conditions apply:
    1) you signed up for theatrics a prof is famous for;
    2) you signed up for a name.

    But they’re probably vastly superior to the TA who does the actual teaching and grading. Classes are about two things: information/knowledge transfer; and punching the ticket. Those two can be handled just as well via computer as on site.

  • Marcus V

    Since I was the one decrying the over-hype surrounding CourseRA, Udacity, and EdX the other day, I feel compelled to point out that neither CourseRA nor Udacity work in the way that the paper above outlines.

    The study above is about hybrid classes: Some content on-line, some content off-line, but with the opportunity for some meaningful amount of personal interaction between the student and the professor. Hybrid classes have long pedigrees– some universities even in the previous decade were webcasting and archiving lectures to make the classes more attractive to students with busy schedules who found commuting to be a burden, or time-shifting to be a benefit. And even in the decade before that, some universities kept videotape archives of lectures of important, upper-level, but low-enrollment courses; that way, even though a university might require enrollment of (say) ten students before classroom resources would be allocated, one or two students could still take the classes on tape and then interact with the professor for personalized homework grading, office hours, mentoring, etc.

    I find these types of classes to be far more effective, and wouldn’t bat an eyelash about putting them on a transcript, resume or CV. Shifting the balance from (say) three hours of instruction and traditional pencil and paper homework, to one hour of traditional instruction (or even non-traditional instruction) and more detailed, carefully designed homework– especially if the homework is administered by a computer that can helpfully highlight where the student is going wrong or needs more work– doesn’t seem like a credibility breaker to me.

    But that’s because this sort of system is unlikely to reach the 100,000+ student/class ratio that Udacity likes to brag about. There is still some personal accountability on the part of the university toward the students, and it shows since those are classes being offered for actual credit in exchange for actual money.

    If this helps ease the burden of education in any way– reduction of tuition, more students, more time for university research– then I am enthusiastically for it.

    (That said, I’m not even permanently, irrevocably down on Udacity and CourseRA. I loves them, I do, and they or their successors may well surprise me. But today is not that day, and next year is not that year.)

    (Also, Corlyss, don’t diss the grad students too much. Yeah, some of them are horrific and shouldn’t be let anywhere near undergraduates. Some of us took our time and tried to do right by our undergrads.)

  • JCP Brown

    Experimentation of this sort doesn’t (yet) exist in France. Most officials and academics here don’t even know there’s a crisis in US higher ed, or that there are such endeavors as EdX or Coursera. E-learning, blended, flipped classrooms are very rare in French higher ed. For sure, the problems (and there are many) aren’t all the same, but for now the main innovative approach (UnivCloud in Paris) views the cloud-based capabilities as a sort of back-office or clearinghouse to offload administrative procedures meant to handle the mass of full-time students attending lecture-hall style courses. Technology innovations aren’t viewed as revolutionary or game-changers; rather, its viewed as something to make the very “Blue”-like university bureaucracy function more efficiently.

  • Chris Nolan

    Accelerating?? You have seen nothing yet. Wait until someone creates a credential that one can earn via on-line courses that is rigorous and recognized by employers as a valid alternative to a traditional college. To accomplish this, teaching and testing will be done by separate institutions with the credential awarding agency testing its candidates. This is the model used in awarding the Charted Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. Adopting this to higher education is inevitable (due to economics if nothing else) and will be highly disruptive to the education industry

  • Richard Treitel

    If nothing else (yet), online or video courses should be a cheap and efficient way for students to find out whether a course is right for them.

  • ttall

    I expect to graduate this year in an online MS Statistics program. I participated by video/audio on the web. I took 3 years compared to a two year full time on campus program. (I work full time too). Tests were proctored and the grade distribution between on and (on line) campus students was not different. I thought that at the higher levels of mathmatics I was at a disadvantage in learning, as an on campus student can drop by the profs office for a better experience than can be had in disconected email.

    I would suggest a required weekly phone call. In summary, I thought I was just going after a credential but got my eyes opened to a world that I did not know existed. I thought I was bright but met the best in the house.

  • Kris

    Interesting article on universities using data mining ans related techniques.

  • Russell Riediger

    I started a Masters Degree program in Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Univ. in 1991. I took the whole 7 years to complete because I was working full time as an airline pilot. Many students and professors were working professionals in airline/aerospace management, air traffic control, international aviation regulation bodies, etc. Exams were proctored, papers graded the traditional way. I had video professors and assigned professors who were sometimes the same person. They were always happy to pick up the phone if I had a question I could have “networked” with them or fellow students on the weekly discussion forum had I chosen to do so.

    Unless you are running an ivy league school designed to establish lifelong relationships for the children of society’s elites, I don’t see why transferring knowledge requires expensive buildings, parking lots, student health centers and a huge halls for 10 or 100 people to all sit together to hear a lecture.

  • electrical courses

    very good article , thanks for sharing the information 🙂

  • Mike Gebert

    “I don’t see why transferring knowledge requires expensive buildings, parking lots, student health centers and a huge halls for 10 or 100 people to all sit together to hear a lecture.”

    Or… a sybaritic lifestyle. Which is obviously a large part of the appeal (hey, I’m glad I got to enjoy it), but it’s hard to rationally explain the parts of college that are more like a Sandals resort than learning.

  • Bruno Behrend

    If this revolution doesn’t result in MASSIVE layoffs of the army of administrators, and the reallocation of teaching labor OUT of the classroom and into the tutoring carrel, it won’t be a revolution.

    We need to do to P-22 employment what Priceline did to travel agents.

    If we don’t do that, we a) aren’t serious, and b) won’t have the revolution.

  • spotty

    I’ve done a variety of graduate level distance courses and the demands they place upon the student vary a great deal. Re: the crisis in US higher ed. The crisis is financial, not educational. Problems exist, to be sure. But “the problem” has less to do with education/classrooms/media than interest rates, predatory lending, lack of options and pedigrees over performance. The last, I’ll allow is a pedagogical/education issue.

    Computers are mighty useful devices when the desired outcome is interacting with computers. Interacting with people is a very different proposition. I’ll be teaching graduate students this fall in a state-of-the-art classroom with all the bells and high-tech whistles. None of which I plan to use, which seems a waste. Many of us have returned to pencil, eraser, and the B-5 notebook as a means of reducing the possibility of plagiarism.

    The university is about the life of the mind. Purpose driven education is wonderful. However, I much prefer to be able to study and teach what interests me most. The utility of the exercise is rarely a concern.

    I don’t need much money or many bells and whistles to do my work. I’d much prefer to see libraries and archives properly funded. One of my colleagues at a very good state school reported a 20% reduction in salary over the last 3 years. The writing is on the wall, but outsourcing to HAL isn’t the solution.

  • Michael W. Perry

    I can see another benefit of online learning, including the mentorless Khan Academy sort.

    I went through college doing work-study, working one quarter and studying the next. It would have been helpful to preview my next quarter’s classes during my work quarter. Simply becoming familiar with the concepts in advance would have been a big plus. Saving time with one course would have let me devote more time to another.

    Those not in work-study programs might do the same between quarters/semesters and over their summer vacation.

  • Jim

    “The university is about the life of the mind. Purpose driven education is wonderful. However, I much prefer to be able to study and teach what interests me most. The utility of the exercise is rarely a concern.” This person is a disgrace to the teaching profession and should be fired immediately.

  • Karl K

    I do some university teaching (in the old fashion classroom way) and also run a communication training business where we teach knowledge workers how to write and present.

    I have also done on-line videos about key communication concepts.

    I think disciplines where knowledge acquisition is the key (biology, statistics, math in general) are ripe for the transformative on-iine delivery platform. Think large lecture classes — on line solves the problem of scale.

    However, disciplines where SKILL acquisition is key will never see (and should never see) a pure on-line delivery platform. Hybrid may work, but unless a student gets personalized attention and experiences the dynamic of group interaction, skill acquisition will not occur.

    In my consulting business, we have done some on line training (group calls, basecamp sharing) but it is in my view MUCH less effective than a traditional small group classroom setting where on the spot team writing, peer review, instant changes based on methodology are presented to the group. On-line interactions should theoretically work, but in my experiece, they are not as effective.

    But if you want to understand the concept of a null set, or the Capital Asset Pricing Model? On line is great.

  • Sidney Raphael

    When I was in grad school in psychology in the 1960s the Next Big Thing was programmed texts. BF Skinner and his followers had ‘proven’ every statistical way from Sunday that programmed texts would replace the old kind of textbooks at just about every level of education. Their numbers were impressive, if you bothered to read their ‘scientific’ studies.

    When was the last time you saw a programmed text? When was the last time you heard of a programmed text? Sometimes ‘scientific’ studies don’t survive reality.

  • Jerry Cave

    Why are we paying the ever escalating exorbitant costs of college tuition for expensive bricks and mortar if all we need are laptops?

  • Brian

    I took an online class and it was a complete joke. I got an A and I never opened the book. I would have gained so much more if I had to attend a lecture. Also class dialoge and discussions play a great role in classroom learning.

  • Andrew M

    What I want to know about the experiment that Mead describes is how hard the test and exam questions given to the students were. If they were rather easy, then it would be no surprise if the two delivery methods came out as equally effective. But it might still be that with more challenging questions the version of the course with more class meetings would come out ahead.

  • susan

    I did half my graduate studies (in education) online and the other half in the classrooms at the university. The quality of the online classes depended partly on the instructor and how accessible he/she was. For the most part, the classes were just as challenging, perhaps even more because we were required to respond directly to questions. Many of the actual classes I attended had students who never said a word and could’ve been doing work for another class at the same time.
    I did have one instructor who communicated with me twice, once to remind the entire class of an upcoming midterm paper that was due, and then to me, individually, after the semester was over, giving me feedback on the project I’d turned in. She told me to redo portions of it. I told her that my semester was over, sent documentation that she’d ignored repeated requests for clarification, and then reported her to the dean.
    She was the exception. My other online professors were excellent.

  • Richard Treitel

    Jim@14, I do study and teach (a little) the things that interest me most. I think they also interest the people who learn from me.

    But no money changes hands. Like many others on this thread, I have a day job.

    Would you rather have teachers teaching things that don’t interest even them? Or did I miss the self-parody in your post?

  • SDN

    “This is looking like a textbook case of how the United States reinvents itself faster than its competitors in response to technological and social changes.”

    Not if our army of [contributor name deleted] has their way. Lefties need the indoctrination centers and the army of educrats and teacher’s union parasites that staff them. Look for regulatory barriers as fast as they can create them.

  • teapartydoc

    SDN has a point. Bureaucracies have ways of defending themselves that are downright destructive of society.

  • Ben Lima

    As a college professor, I think the impact of these new technologies can be summed up in a word: unbundling. More here:

  • Thailand Villa

    Online study is much better and at a easy cost .The all you need to have the better internet connection and the laptop to study at any time u feel interesting Isn’t it a better option?.

  • Van Piercy

    Depends on the course. Convergent disciplines can manage well with the course in a can: I teach tech writing sometimes and find that online is superb for that sort of format focused, rule based information. There really isn’t a lot to talk about that isn’t in the textbook: This is the form of a proposal; these are the main rules of usage that are often breached and which should be learned. Teaching a literature course is a different matter, partly because there is so much that can be known and partly because there are different ways to teach the course, different texts one can read, different approaches to the texts, to the canon, to interpretation, to discussion. Unless one teaches just the Cliff Notes version of the course and its texts (to keep things simple and multiple choice friendly), or some mandated list of texts and themes (mandated by the state? by a college administration? by a department chair? by a department?)–at which point what exactly are we teaching students about learning? That there is just one way to learn and one set of facts to learn even in the most informationally rich and divergent of disciplines? I can imagine reasons, though not many acceptable ones, for controlling learning that way, especially in economically marginal disciplines like philosophy, art, literature, history.

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