Tuesday, January 22, 2019
A new study finds that pure online courses are not as effective as those that incorporate a face-to-face instructional component
This new study by researchers at George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development and the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute should be of interest to law schools who are either already providing limited online course offerings or contemplating a move like the recent one by Syracuse University College of Law by offering a fully online J.D. program. The study, called Does Online Education Live Up To Its Promise? A Look At The Evidence And Implications For Federal Policy, finds that, among the ways online education at the college level has failed to meet expectations: 1. It has failed to improve affordability; 2. it does not represent a good return on investment for students; 3. students, particularly underprepared and disadvantaged ones, underperform and experience poor learning outcomes; and 4. it has led to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups. The key to success with online education, the study's authors concluded, is that it must incorporate opportunities for face-to-face interaction between instructors and students (i.e., the so-called "hybrid" model of online education). Here's an excerpt from the executive summary of the study:
Today, almost one-third of college students take courses online, with no in-person component. Half of these students are enrolled in exclusively online programs, while the remaining take at least one, but not all of their courses, online. This form of delivery is particularly prevalent in the for-profit sector: for profit colleges enroll just 6 percent of all students, but 13 percent of students taking courses online and 24 percent of fully-online students.
However, more than a decade after Congress allowed online colleges full access to federal student aid programs, and despite a subsequent explosion in their enrollment, a growing and powerful body of evidence suggests that online learning is far from the hoped-for silver bullet. Online education has failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students. Faculty, academic leaders, the public, and employers continue to perceive online degrees less favorably than traditional degrees.
In a range of environments, the gaps in student success across socioeconomic groups are larger in online than in classroom courses. Students without strong academic backgrounds are less likely to persist in fully online courses than in courses that involve personal contact with faculty and other students and when they do persist, they have weaker outcomes. Not surprisingly, students with more extensive exposure to technology and with strong time management and self-directed learning skills are more likely than others to adapt to online learning where students can do the work on their own schedules. There is considerable danger that moving vulnerable students online will widen attainment gaps rather than solving the seemingly intractable problem of unequal educational opportunity.
Technology can add to the learning experience when it supplements, rather than replaces, face-to-face interaction. The outcomes of hybrid models employing this approach do not mirror the problems that emerge in fully online courses. But high quality courses are expensive to produce and maintain. It is inexpensive to post lectures online for large numbers of students to access, but high-quality courses with meaningful interaction among students and between students and faculty are not money savers.
A key theme emerging from the literature is the critical importance of student-faculty interaction in online settings. Researchers, as well as both proponents and skeptics of online education, emphasize the need to design online courses that facilitate robust interactions as an essential component for improving the quality of learning and student outcomes and satisfaction. Lack of sufficient interaction between students and faculty is likely online education’s Achilles’ heel. Both evidence about the cognitive components of learning and research on differences in outcomes in different types of courses confirm the central role of meaningful personal interaction between the instructor, who is the subject-matter expert, and the student.
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Our review of the evidence demonstrates that:
- Online education is the fastest-growing segment of higher education and its growth is overrepresented in the for-profit sector.
- A wide range of audiences and stakeholders—including faculty and academic leaders, employers and the general public—are skeptical about the quality and value of online education, which they view as inferior to face-to-face education.
- Students in online education, and in particular underprepared and disadvantaged students, underperform and on average, experience poor outcomes. Gaps in educational attainment across socioeconomic groups are even larger in online than in traditional coursework.
- Online education has failed to improve affordability, frequently costs more, and does not produce a positive return on investment.
- Regular and substantive student-instructor interactivity is a key determinant of quality in online education; it leads to improved student satisfaction, learning, and outcomes.
- Online students desire greater student-instructor interaction and the online education community is also calling for a stronger focus on such interactivity to address a widely recognized shortcoming of current online offerings.
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