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Online Education’s Pitfalls

A new study from the Brookings Institution indicates that low-performing students fare worse with online courses than with face-to-face instruction. Here is the executive summary, by researchers Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb.

The study uses data from DeVry University, a large for-profit institution with an undergraduate enrollment of more than 100,000 students, 80 percent of whom are seeking a bachelor’s degree. “The average DeVry student takes two-thirds of her courses online. The remaining one-third of courses meet in conventional in-person classes held at one of DeVry’s 102 physical campuses. The data include over 230,000 students enrolled in 168,000 sections of more than 750 different courses,” according to the report.

Here is more on why DeVry is a good choice for research, according to the authors of the study:

DeVry University’s approach to online education makes it particularly well suited for estimating the effects of taking online courses. Each DeVry course is offered both online and in-person, and each student enrolls in either an online section or an in-person section. Online and in-person sections are identical in most ways: both follow the same syllabus and use the same textbook; class sizes are approximately the same; both use the same assignments, quizzes, tests, and grading rubrics. Many professors teach both online and in-person courses. The contrast between online and in-person sections is primarily the mode of communication. In online sections, all interaction—lecturing, class discussion, group projects—occurs in online discussion boards, and much of the professor’s “lecturing” role is replaced with standardized videos. In online sections, participation is often asynchronous while in-person sections meet on campus at scheduled times. In short, DeVry online classes attempt to replicate traditional in-person classes, except that student-student and student-professor interactions are virtual and asynchronous.

Since DeVry is a private institution, presumably the student profile will be different from that of a community college. On the other hand, we often assume that mature students are a good fit for online instruction, due to their work schedules and other responsibilities. Community colleges serve plenty of students in this category.

You’ll hear from faculty members that online instruction works best with students who have demonstrated an ability to stick to assignments independently. So far it seems that introductory “gateway” classes, especially remediation, may not be suited for online pedagogy—at least for many students. Of course there are hybrids, “flipped” classes and other approaches that may be more promising.