As tightening budgets paired with ubiquitous technologies push the world’s higher education institutions towards online learning, one group of US researchers has uncovered evidence the transition may not come without an educational cost.
David Figlio, Mark Rush and Lu Yin from the University of Chicago have published the results of what they claim is the first rigorous test of the effects of live versus online instruction on student performance.
The study was driven by an “explosion” in online tuition over the past decade they said.
“Today virtually every institution with more than 15,000 students offers online classes,” the authors wrote in the October edition of The Journal of Labor Economics.
A number of these universities have taken digital learning to the next level, signing thousands of global candidates up for Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Roughly 160,000 people opted in to a recent Stanford University MOOC on artificial intelligence, and the trend is beginning to reach into Australia too.
The Chicago uni team looked at the exam results of students enrolled in a single microeconomics unit at a “large selective doctorate-granting university,” to gauge whether 215 candidates exclusively watching lectures online did any better or any worse than 97 of their classmates turning up in person.
Their analysis showed that the difference was small but suggestive – live lecture attendees averaged scores between two and three percentage points higher on exams than their computer-bound classmates.
“At the least, our ﬁndings indicate that much more experimentation is necessary before one can credibly declare that online education is peer to traditional live classroom instruction, let alone superior to live instruction,” the researchers concluded.
When it comes to the promise of economies of scale promised by Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) and their ilk, “the lunch may be less free than many might believe,” they said.
When the team drilled down into the performances of select groups within the data, they found the trend was even more significant.
Hispanic students showed by far the greatest positive difference in improvement under physical learning conditions, while males and students from low socio-economic backgrounds also tended to perform better when they attended live classes.