New research shows lower results in online college programs

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Although its growth has slowed and costs are rising, enrollment in online university courses and programs continues to increase. Distance or “holistic” programs are now a staple in many, if not most, colleges – more or less taken for granted as a viable and essential part of the college learning landscape.

It is quite remarkable, given this ubiquity and acceptance, that we know so little about online college learning outcomes.

Over two years ago, I asked the question “What if online education just doesn’t work?” And presented evidence that is now generally accepted – that those who are least prepared and least motivated for academic work, do poorly in online environments. I also pointed out that the arguably worst-performing schools – for-profit colleges – rely heavily, almost exclusively, on online programs. In fact, two years ago, two out of three students enrolled in for-profit colleges were taking courses exclusively online. This correlation is probably not a coincidence.

But it has not revealed whether the mode of delivery of education itself – online – is flawed, whether teaching and learning experiences are somehow degrading by purpose of being on a screen.

Those who claim that the quality of online learning is as good as traditional in-person methods have studies in their favor which show that online students get the same grades – give or take – as those in classrooms. class. Since actual learning outcomes are always difficult to measure, grades have been an accessible substitute for quality.

Now, however, there is a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) of Duha Tore Altindag, Elif S. Filiz, and Erdal Tekin, professors and researchers at Auburn, South Mississippi, and American universities, respectively.

They ask, “Does online education work? And what they found has the potential to tear apart the idea that grades in online courses and standard courses are pretty much the same. They are, they say. But factors in the way classes are conducted online – namely easier grading and the challenge of stopping cheating – inflate grades online, concealing otherwise inferior results.

Their study is massive, encompassing a sample of 18,121 students and 1,086 unique instructors with transcript and course data and grades over three semesters – before and during the pandemic. The fact that the data overlaps with the pandemic’s shift to distance education has mitigated some of the self-selection biases that similar studies have – allowing researchers to measure the same students in the same courses but in both contexts. And they also see the same teachers in both contexts.

As a caveat, the data comes from a single school and researchers are speculating about cheating, looking at a single tool to deal with a single type of misconduct. Although these assumptions may actually work in their favor by asserting their larger point of view.

The point is that online courses perform below and below average and we missed them because grades – the measure we used to judge – are inflated in online courses.

They say, “Our results indicate that students from [face to face] the courses perform better than those of online courses in general. However, this model only emerges after controlling for factors specific to the instructor, such as leniency in grading or actions to prevent violations of academic integrity, which means the importance of the role of instructors. in determining the relationship between teaching modality and learning outcomes. Regardless of these instructor-specific factors, the relationship is highly biased, leading to the inaccurate conclusion that online education is better for student learning than [face to face] instruction.”

They have proof, they say, that it’s easier to get higher grades in online courses. And that, in turn, gives everyone a false impression of the quality of these programs. Online courses are not good, once you get it all sorted out they just get easier. And because they are, we assume they are good.

In other words, when they explained how specific teachers were grading or whether they used cheat prevention means, the researchers found that: “In terms of learning outcomes, the students who participate to online courses are more likely to withdraw from their courses and less likely to receive a passing grade of A, B, C or D.

If this can be validated or corroborated, it is an explosive discovery.

Even as it is, this proves the logical premise that 15% of students who score an A and 15% a D – whether in an online or in-person course – does not mean the courses are of the same rigor. . If one is easier by design, or has a more lenient scoring policy, or if it’s easier to cheat, the rating distribution doesn’t tell you anything at all.

The data used in this research may be outliers. At the same time, it’s possible that further research may reveal that poor learning outcomes in online courses are even worse than what this article found. The researchers may have, in other words, found the mountain but failed to properly measure its mass.

They do not take into account, for example, that most online courses are taught by less expensive, less experienced, remote and non-tenured contract teachers or even staff. In this study, online teachers were also the ones who taught the same face-to-face courses. But this is an exception, not the normal. Hiring teachers at lower cost, session to session, is a hallmark of online courses, a design element that allows schools to increase the profit margins of online offerings. In the absence of the findings of this specific report, further research is sure to uncover that the prolific use of aids to teach online has an impact on quality, particularly on grading and cheating.

When it comes to cheating, despite a few distant studies, we know with great certainty that cheating is more common and accessible in online courses than in in-person settings. As this evidence accumulates, it will remain a gaping hole in ensuring the quality of online programs overall. Again the Auburn, southern Mississippi, and the American Triumvirate found it, they just couldn’t measure its true depth.

Of course, it’s also possible that in addition to all of this, the modality itself – the simple act of teaching online – entails a learning penalty, a distance that distorts the art of education.

“Our results suggest that there is something special about the face-to-face experience that cannot be replaced by technology. In fact, it is something that is expressed by many parents, students and teachers. Because of all the financial benefits of online education, it may not be possible to give it up entirely, but perhaps common ground is possible with a mixture of the two modalities, ” Auburn’s Altindag said.

Given the number of students and the billions of dollars invested and spent in online learning, finding out more about who is learning seems essential. Let’s have more. Let’s ask ourselves the serious questions to know if it works and why or why not. It’s great to have a few more answers.


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