A research paper has been circulating around my institution recently. Published in the September 2017 issue of American Economic Review, the research examined students who had taken online and face-to-face classes at a for-profit institution. Comparing the grades and retention rates of students enrolled in both formats, the authors write:
“We find that taking a course online, instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college. Grades are lower both for the course taken online and in future courses. Students are less likely to remain enrolled at the university.”
This is pretty compelling stuff. Especially considering that the study involved four years of data with over 230,000 students enrolled in 168,000 sections of more than 750 different online classes. That’s a lot of data. The other part that’s novel is that the university offers almost identical coursework in face-to-face and online formats. The classes use the same syllabus, use the same assessments and assignments and have similar class sizes. The big difference is that online participation is mostly through recorded lessons and asynchronous discussion forums while face-to-face involves real time student-student and student-instructor interactions.
Looking at the study from a methodological or analytical perspective, it’s hard to critique it. The study involves thousands of students who self-enrolled in similar face-to-face and online classes. The study is also longitudinal in that it tracks students’ future performance and success over a four-year span. The researchers also wisely remove students from the participant pool who may not have been able to enroll in the face-to-face classes due to distance from the physical locations. The only real criticism that some of my colleagues had was that the research focused on a large for-profit university that some inferred was a predatory institution. Otherwise, it’s a solid study.
I guess what I’m saying is that the findings can’t be easily dismissed from applying a critical perspective. We might be able to question its generalizability to other student populations but we can’t dismiss the big takeaway. This study shows convincingly that online classes negatively impacted student learning and their future success for the student enrolled in this institution.
So, what do we do with this information? Some of my colleagues are seeing this research as evidence that we should do away with online classes. For a lot of financial and cultural reasons, I don’t see this as likely. Rather than dismissing online education outright, the study offers a road map for our institutions to do some self-study. The type of data collected for this study can be easily obtained by almost any institution. But, how many of our campuses have? From my perspective, those are the real questions each of us needs to ask on our respective campuses:
- How are online classes serving our students’ learning needs?
- How can we be doing it better?
It’s easy to answer these in the abstract. Instead, we should use this study to start a larger, evidence-based conversation on our campuses about how we can close any performance gaps that our online students may be experiencing and work institutionally to provide the best online learning environments for them.