Apr 09 2020

Online Learning Works

Published by under Education
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While we are all shuttering at home, especially as the weeks drag on, many people are looking for some constructive things to do. Of course some of use can work from home, others have essential jobs and still have to go to work, but even then we are spending the rest of the time at home rather than going out. This has been a boon to streaming services, but also has changed perceptions about certain online activities, including telehealth, telemental health, online conferences, and online learning. Since we are basically forced to do this, some who were resistant to such things are learning that it’s not so bad. I do wonder how long this effect will last. Will this be a short-lived phase and we quickly revert to our past attitudes and standards, or will this permanently change the world? We’ll know in a few years.

Meanwhile, it’s good to know empirically if online learning, for example, is as effective as in person learning. This has already been the subject of many studies, and a recent study adds to the list. A 2010 meta-analysis of such research found that online learning was superior to traditional in person learning in terms of outcomes. However, these conclusions were criticized because the studies focused on well-prepared college students and may not generalize to the underprivileged or the general population. Overall the research shows that online learning is at least equivalent to in person learning, and may be superior in some cases.

The recent study is in line with this general trend in the research. This is what they did:

The experiment involved 325 second-year engineering students from resource-constrained universities. Students took two courses hosted by the national Open Education platform. Before the start of the course, they were randomly divided into three groups. The first group studied in person with the instructor at their university, the second group watched online lectures and attended in-person discussion sections (i.e., a blended modality), and the third group took the entire course online and communicated with instructors at the course’s forum.

They found that all three groups had the same learning as measured by testing. However, the online group had slightly higher grades on assignments, but slightly lower overall satisfaction.  The lower satisfaction was related to unfamiliarity with online learning and some difficulty with self-time management. This suggests that online students need some structure and support.

So this is roughly in line with existing research – online learning is at least as good as traditional in person learning, but you can’t just do it without a system of support. The economic implications, however, are perhaps more significant. The study also found that the blended approach cost 15-19% less per student, while the fully online course cost 79-81% less. Given the ridiculous expense of colleges and universities, an 80% reduction in cost for the exact same outcome in terms of learning sounds pretty sweet.

Of course what you are missing is “the college experience”, which is hard to quantify. But like all new technologies, at first it is introduced as a simple replacement for existing technologies. The first cars were motorized carriages. They were only later optimized as cars. Likewise, online learning is mostly an add-on to the existing higher education infrastructure. I know there are fully online universities, and many hybrid programs (my wife got her PhD from a hybrid program), and these are moving in the direction of optimizing higher learning using online resources. In order to fully realize the potential of online learning, this is the direction we need to go in.

First – online and hybrid programs need to be recognized as just as legitimate and effective as traditional learning. The research supports this sufficiently that old-school academics can no longer rightfully look down on online learning. Traditional universities and colleges should fully embrace online learning, rather than fighting against it, and explore ways to optimize it. This will require some creative thinking and new infrastructure. Professors needs to be trained and gain experience teaching online. There needs to be robust technical support. And thought needs to be give about how best to compensate for what is lacking in an online education.

For example – local or regional in person events for students can be organized. Or, simply online social events. Personal online interactions with professors outside of lectures and workgroups would be helpful. Support for students who need structure and help with time management seems to be an issue. Even the inchoate online learning we have now is at least as effective as traditional learning and much less expensive, and in many ways more convenient. A fully realized online learning program would likely be significantly superior. Or perhaps an optimal system would settle upon some kind of hybrid.

Why, for example, attend a lecture from a competent but mediocre professor at your local college when you can watch the same lecture from an internationally recognized expert? Then you can discuss the content with your college professor. The details will have to be hammered out with  trial and error, but it will likely only improve.

Also – there are likely to be unanticipated social changes resulting from widespread acceptance and use of online learning. If college is much cheaper and can be done mostly in virtual time, this opens up a lot of possibilities for how one structures their life around obtaining a degree. Also, we may see something like virtual universities come into existence. I don’t just mean online universities – I mean virtual universities where content can be sourced from many places. Such a virtual program could curate the best content from many sources and weave them into a degree program.  The essence of universities may fundamentally change, to repositories of expertise, content and virtual infrastructure completely independent of any physical location.

Maybe what students of the future will really be paying for is a degree service – a person or entity who can find and curate the best content for them, package it into the credits necessary to obtain a specific degree, and usher them through the process.

I’m just speculating, and nothing like this may happen. In 100 years we may still have mostly brick and mortar universities that simply incorporate more types of media and ways of accessing it. This is one of those things that’s hard to predict – we just have to try everything and see what happens. But I do think COVID-19 is having a side effect of breaking the ice with many online activities, including online learning. If nothing else, there are many professors who previously never did an online class and now were forced to learn how to do it. Some of them may be more willing to give online courses in the future because of it.

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