NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Great Promise of Online Learning

March 19, 2013

Short on funds, universities are increasingly converting classes to an online learning format to save money and reduce the cost of college. Proponents claim that technology will increase productivity, reduce achievement gaps and improve access while offering new pathways to educational attainment. However, many educators and policymakers are skeptical about the quality of some online learning curriculum, say William G. Bowen and his coauthors in Education Next.

  • There are many types of online learning -- from videotaping lectures and uploading course material and tests to highly sophisticated interactive learning systems with cognitive tutors and multiple feedback loops.
  • Higher education students taking at least one online class has risen from less than 10 percent in 2002 to more than 30 percent in 2010.
  • Unfortunately, relatively few studies address the quality of online learning and whether the outcomes are comparable with traditional teaching models.

Bowen and his coauthors designed a randomized experiment that drew 605 students at random from a pool of 3,046 students. These New York state college students were randomly assigned to either a hybrid section or a traditional section and asked to complete surveys about their experience.

  • Hybrid-format students performed only marginally better than traditional-format students with a pass rate that was 3 percent higher and final exam scores that were 2 percentage points higher.
  • Hybrid-format students also reported less enthusiasm for the course, felt they learned less and spent more time outside of class on the course.

The results suggest that student learning outcomes might not change when students attend hybrid-format classes, which means the same outcome can be achieved for less cost. Hybrid models have expensive start-up costs but save an estimated 36 percent to 57 percent of compensation costs over the traditional model.

  • While millions of dollars are being invested into the development of online education courses, the evidence from this study shows that there is little evidence that online learning systems improve educational outcomes on a large scale.
  • If costs are reduced and research and development continues, the potential for new technology to reduce compensation costs and customize learning is great.

Source: William Bowen et al., "Online Learning in Higher Education," Education Next, Spring 2013.


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