Is it Time to Get Onboard with Online Education?

Sunday, August 23, 2009
In several recent interviews and blog posts I've expressed my hesitation about the move toward online learning in higher education. My concerns are fairly common ones and go like this: How do we know that students are engaged, or even awake, when participating online? How do we know that online learning is as effective as classroom learning? How do we know that any negative consequences outweigh the cost savings? And what exactly are those cost savings? (After all, technology isn't cheap) And finally, despite claims to the contrary, the digital divide still exists-- so how do we know that low-income and rural populations will get the access to online learning they need?

Admittedly, I'll always be forced to note that for most of these big questions there's little evidence to the contrary-- e.g. we don't know much about the effectiveness of classroom learning in higher education either, we don't know its relative cost-effectiveness, and we don't know how many are left out of higher education because they can't make it to a classroom setting.

But, in this case I've tended toward the traditional and in some sense the sociological-- prioritizing the value of in-person face-to-face social interactions over online ones, and assuming that more mentoring occurs in an in-person relationship, adding value to the instruction. So, I tend to say things like "the move to online education is premature" and "we need more evidence."

Ok, so this summer the U.S. Department of Education came out with a decent response in the report "Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Studies." It came out in May-- yes, I'm late to the game here (but honestly, the thing is 93 pages and I read it cover to cover before writing this post). In typical What Works Clearinghouse fashion, the authors pay detailed attention to the methods used in each study they reviewed, and I'm very comfortable with the standards of evidence employed (though I have to note, not every study was peer-reviewed--many were dissertations). They also took care to distinguish between the populations considered in each study (e.g. k-12 versus higher education), and the type and quality of online education examined.

This report taught me the following: (1) There's been much more assessment of the effectiveness of online learning in higher education, compared to k-12. (2) Student outcomes of online learning seem to be somewhat better than those of classroom learning-- but it's not exactly clear that apples and apples comparisons are being made, mainly because the amount of actual instructional time in online courses is greater than that in classroom settings. As the authors write, "Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages."

In some sense this is the kind of evidence I wanted to see in order to be a bit more comfortable with the accelerated pace towards online education. Yet at the same time, I'm not convinced. Apart from the caveat regarding the actual medium, mentioned by the authors above, another reason is that while the authors are right that most of the studies of online learning aren't in k-12, it's also clear from reading the bibliography that they're not in typical undergraduate education either. The meta-analysis is dominated by studies of students in undergraduate education, yes, but of students who have declared their major in undergrad and are taking a specific kind of course (e.g. nursing). (I count only 5-7 studies in this meta- analysis that involve more entry-level courses, or those for struggling learners.) I'd argue this is a very specific, more highly motivated group of adult learners than the folks that a scale-up of online instruction in undergrad education is bound to reach.

Reading between the lines a bit, it seems clear that U.S. DOE won't be motivated to fund more evaluations of online learning outside of k-12 in the near future. I think that would be a mistake- we need to know more about which kinds of online learning work for which undergraduates and under what conditions. We also need to know more specifics about both costs and impacts, allowing for judgements to be made in a cost-effectiveness framework. In the meantime, however, I'm a bit more convinced that online ed is a reasonable way to move forward in solving crowding problems in specific majors, particularly with more advanced students.