Higher education’s embrace of online courses could hurt the performance of some groups of students, according to a study that contradicts the findings of a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) showing that online students perform as well, or better, than their peers in face-to-face settings on average.
Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that males, Hispanics, and low-performing students might fare worse in web-based classes than they do in the traditional classroom—a problem exacerbated by the high rate of online course adoption at community colleges and “less selective institutions,” where these three groups are most likely to attend.
The rush to make online courses widely available and save colleges money in difficult economic times might be “inadvertently … harming a significant portion of their student body,” according to the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and ED.
The NBER’s research tracked the progress of 312 undergraduate students enrolled in a microeconomics course at a state university, which remained unnamed at the school’s request. The course’s grading was based on three tests: two midterm exams and a final.
Hispanic students who took the microeconomics class online finished the semester a full grade lower than Hispanic students who learned in a face-to-face environment. Males who watched lectures and studied online were half a letter grade behind males who learned in the classroom, as were low-performing students—those who had a grade point average below the university’s mean GPA.
NBER’s findings vary from a 2009 study that many online education advocates saw as vindication for internet-based learning.
The 2009 analysis, conducted by SRI International for ED, examined 99 studies that have compared online learning to face-to-face learning and found students who do some or all of their class work online score in the 59th percentile in test performances. Classroom-based students scored in the 50th percentile.
The positive findings of 2009’s online education report seem “likely only to accelerate” higher education’s mass adoption of internet classes that might prompt students to never attend class, except to take exams, the NBER study said.
“The results of our experimental, apples-to-apples comparison indicate that a rush to online education may come at more of a cost than educators may suspect, given [ED’s] report,” the NBER researchers wrote in their own study’s conclusion.
NBER’s researchers pushed for a closer look at the comparison of online and traditional learning environments and how the settings affect different groups of students.
The researchers cautioned that their results are not “definitive,” partly because they relied on voluntary participation throughout the study.
They added: “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. While online instruction may be more economical to deliver than live instruction, our results indicate that … the lunch may be less free than many might believe.”
Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s learning sciences and technology program, said success in classes conducted entirely online often depends on the type of access students have to a reliable internet connection—a factor that wasn’t explored in the NBER study.
“Students with non-high-speed connections will not experience a seamless video feed, but lectures will be choppy [and] annoying to watch,” said Greenhow. “Students who don’t own their own internet-connected computer or laptop will experience more hurdles getting online, and watching lectures on small, portable handheld devices [is] a decidedly different experience than on a good-size screen with high-quality audio and visuals.”
Greenhow added that the average test-score gap between groups that fared worse in the NBER study and their peers was “slightly statistically significant but not practically significant.”
Still, it’s something to consider as educators prepare courses for online delivery.
The NBER study, conducted during the spring 2007 semester, showed small variations in overall test scores for online students and live-learning students.
Classroom students scored an average of 84.5 percent on the first exam in the microeconomics course, and online students scored 83.3 percent on average. Online students outscored their classroom-based peers by three-tenths of a percentage on the second exam, and classroom students scored about 1.5 percentage points higher than web-based students on the final exam.
NBER researchers wrote that in 2006, “public four-year colleges and universities relied on tuition for over 37 percent of their total revenues for the first time in modern history, and the recent financial crisis has surely further increased the fiscal constraints faced by public and private universities alike.”
The Instructional Technology Council conducted a study that showed distance learning enrollment in American community colleges jumped by 22 percent during the 2008-09 academic year, which followed an 11-percent increase from the 2007-08 school year.
The survey also highlighted the closing gap in course completion rates among online learners, which traditionally has lagged behind that of traditional face-to-face students.
Seventy-two percent of web-based community college students completed their class last year, compared with 76 percent of on-campus students.
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