Critics of online learning claim that students are exposed to an inferior education when compared to traditional in-class instruction, but a recent study from Ithaka S+R, a strategic consulting and research nonprofit, questions this notion.
The report, "Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials," notes that students who utilize interactive online learning—or hybrid learning—produce equivalent, or better, results than students participating in face-to-face education.
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Monitoring 605 college students taking the same introductory statistics course at six public universities—including the University at Albany—SUNY, SUNY Institute of Technology—Utica/Rome, the University of Maryland—Baltimore County, Towson University, CUNY—Baruch College, and CUNY—City College—during fall 2011, researchers split the students into two groups. One group completed the course in a traditional format, while the second group completed an online component complemented with an hour of in-class instruction each week.
Students were asked to complete a series of tests before and after the course, and researchers found that "hybrid-format students did perform slightly better than traditional format students" on outcomes including final exam scores and overall course pass rates, according to the report.
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The report's authors note that while the students who participated in the hybrid group performed marginally better than students in the traditional group overall, the differences in learning outcomes are not "statistically significant" between the two groups. And although the researchers were able to successfully randomize students in both groups, based on factors including age, gender, ethnicity, academic background, and family income, they could not control for differences in teacher quality.
Students learn more from active discussions than from traditional lectures, and they need instructors who can engage them in the material, notes Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services at the Center for Online Learning at Florida's St. Leo University, who has spent more than 12 years teaching online, traditional, and hybrid courses.
"Teacher quality is still a very important part of success in an online course, but so, too, is the course design," Johnson says. "Despite the delivery mechanism of the class, faculty members need to show students they care and that they aren't just a number. The ones that do this will help students to learn."
With universities facing shrinking budgets, this report may make the case for higher education professionals to consider plans to implement more courses with an online component—and to train faculty members to lead these interactive learning communities.
"Online learning … holds the promise of broadening access to higher education to more individuals, while also lowering costs for students," notes Deanna Marcum, managing director of Ithaka S+R, in the report's preface. "The results of this study are remarkable; they show comparable learning outcomes for this basic [statistics] course, with a promise of cost savings and productivity gains over time."
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