Kameshwari Shankar watched for years as college and university courses were online learning instead of face-to-face, but without a definitive way of understanding which students benefited the most from them or what, if anything, they learned.
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As an associate professor of economics at City College in New York, Dr Shankar knew that one of the most important requirements of scientific research was often missing from studies of the effectiveness of online higher education: a control group.
So when she set out to study the issue herself, she included one. Dr Shankar and her colleagues compared the outcomes of more than 2,000 students who took an online statistics course over two semesters with those of a similar group who took the same period in person.
The results, published this month in the Economics of Education Review, found that students who took the online version of the course performed just as well on a final exam as those who took it in person.
But the study also found that students who took the online course were more likely to fail or withdraw from the class than those who took it in person. And students who took the online course were less likely to say they would take another online course in the future.
“This is not a ringing endorsement of online learning,” Dr Shankar said. “Let’s take a breath and see what worked and didn’t.”
The study is one of the first to use a randomised controlled trial, the gold standard of scientific research, to compare the effectiveness of online and in-person college courses.
While previous research has found that online courses can be effective, it has been limited by its inability to compare students who took the same approach online with those who took it in person.
Without a control group, it is impossible to know whether the students who did well in an online course would have done just as well if they had taken it in person. And without a control group, it is also impossible to know whether the students who did poorly in an online course would have done better if they had taken the course in person.
The City College study is the latest in a growing body of research beginning to provide a more nuanced understanding of online learning.
Other studies have found that online courses can be more effective than in-person courses for some students but less effective for others. And while some students may prefer taking classes online, others may find them more difficult and less engaging.
“There’s this notion that online learning is somehow better or worse, and it’s just not that simple,” said Nicholas Carnes, a professor of public policy at Duke University. He has studied the effectiveness of online learning.
The challenge for educators, Dr Carnes said, is to figure out which students do better in which type of learning environment.
“Online learning promises that it can be tailored to the individual needs of students,” he said. “But we’re not there yet.”
In the City College study, Dr Shankar and her colleagues found that students who took the online course were more likely to be older, have lower grades, and work full-time than those who took the course in person. They were also more likely to say they took the system because it was convenient or preferred not to take classes in person.
The researchers did not find evidence that students who took the online course learned less than those who took the course in person. But they did find that students who took the online course were less likely to say they would take another online course in the future.
What do you think of online learning?