Online Learning for Whom? Experts Weigh In

A study's finding that underprepared students fare worse online spurs questions about which groups of students stand to benefit most (and least) from digital learning.

June 14, 2017
 
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A study released last week found that students who start college less well-prepared can struggle in online courses, and that in-person courses would be better for them academically. While the data were drawn only from DeVry University, a large, nonselective for-profit college where students take about two-thirds of their courses online -- which some critics cited as limiting the study's significance -- the paper's authors defended its applicability beyond DeVry.

The Brookings Institution study didn’t call for the curbing of online courses; it pointed out that students who are well-prepared for college didn't suffer negative academic effects associated with online courses.

But those negative trends -- worse grades, both at the time of the online course and in future semesters, as well as an increased likelihood of stopping out compared to taking classes in person -- were found in lower-performing students. The authors called for reform of online education in light of these trends, especially because digital learning is often touted as a path for students who, for whatever reason, aren’t equipped or prepared for the traditional college route.

For its part, DeVry welcomed the study.

"DeVry University has a longstanding commitment to continuous improvement, including self-reflection and critical assessment. It is the reason we have a research partnership with Stanford University to help identify new opportunities to improve student outcomes," Robert Paul, DeVry president, said in an emailed statement. "Our priority is to prepare students with both technology and business skills to better position them to make a difference in today’s dynamic, interdependent and digitized world."

Some of the issues raised by the Brookings study – particularly the question of which kinds of students are well-served or not by digital and other alternative forms of learning – also were addressed in a study this week from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that its residential students who took an online course reported that it was less stressful than their respective in-person courses.

Inside Digital Learning reached out to experts and industry professionals across the field of online education, as well as the authors of the Brookings study, to give them a chance to sound off on their concerns, comments and insights for online education going forward. The prompt we gave is copied below, with the answers below that.

What are the implications of this study for the use of online education in higher education? Does it raise concerns for the approach as a whole? Does it apply beyond DeVry? To for-profit colleges more than others?

The study doesn't call for curtailing the use of online education -- it aims to improve it. So where does online education evolve from here? What are its current limitations, and how are those overcome?

Does the study's finding that weaker students struggle more online than others do undercut the viability of using digital learning to expand access to students who have been traditionally underserved by higher education, which is how many advocates portray it? If the findings are accurate, is it unethical to promote the use of online education in this way? What approaches might make online education a better fit for these students?

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Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb, associate professors of education at Stanford University and authors of the Brookings Institution study

On June 10, 2017, we published a summary of an article focused on the promises and limitations of online education. A number of media outlets have interpreted this article as being critical of DeVry University. We think that this interpretation is incorrect.

First, as we argue in the article, online education opens up new opportunities for individuals who have never had a chance at getting an education. We certainly see this in data we have used from DeVry. Online education offers new opportunities to individuals. 

Second, as the article argues, there is a broad conclusion that the quality of online higher education has historically lagged behind that of in-person education. This has been found in public colleges throughout California and Washington and in other settings. 

We argue that this has more to do with unprepared students struggling to discipline themselves than it does with the design of the courses. Students who are well prepared for college succeed at the same rates in both online and traditional in-person settings. 

Additionally, our study was part of a continuing improvement process that DeVry employs. They are constantly monitoring the quality of their courses and ways to improve student engagement. The data that they shared is at least five years old, and DeVry took the results of our study to modify and to improve the quality of their course offerings. 

They especially worked to develop strategies to help all students succeed in these courses. They continue to monitor the quality of their courses. We know of no higher educational institutions in the public or private sectors that have dedicated the same amount of attention to introspectively examining the quality of their offerings. 

By contrast, we applaud DeVry for their use of science and evidence to improve and to design their course offerings.

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Phil Hill, education consultant

Given a flawed question comparing monolithic "online" and "face-to-face" courses, and given the report's inability to resist the urge to extrapolate results too broadly, this study is one of the best of the genre. And I do mean that.

Despite online education having entered the mainstream -- with approximate one out of three higher education students taking at least one online class each term (not just over their academic career as stated in report) -- we now have a full spectrum of course modalities. Very few courses these days are fully face-to-face without any online component, and the general course design approach can vary by discipline, faculty preference, institutional support, and many other factors. Quite simply, there is no unified category of online courses and face-to-face courses.
 
And the methodology of this report does an excellent job of localizing to a comparison that acknowledges this variation. They analyzed similar course definitions (outcomes, assessments, general design) across online and face-to-face sections at a large for-profit system -- DeVry University. And more specifically they chose this case for study based on DeVry's cooperation in sharing data and for the general approach where online is mostly a traditional course delivered through a different medium. This study design allows for a deeper and more meaningful comparison of a very specific case where "the only difference between online and in-person courses is the medium of instructional delivery." Within this narrow scope, there is a solid analysis of student performance in online courses and for subsequent terms. The report even calls out the value of online education to expand access to students who might not otherwise be able to take needed courses.
 
And yet the authors couldn't help themselves from making broad generalizations completely beyond the scope of the report. The allure of enticing headlines is strong, even if most Inside Higher Ed commenters recognized this flaw. No, this report does not answer general questions about online courses as claimed in the conclusions or supporting article.
 
DeVry University could take this report and have a valuable analysis from independent sources and improved their pedagogical and professional development approaches. There might even be several other for-profit systems or even a handful of nonprofit nonselective online programs that could apply the same lessons. Other researchers could even take the same questions and try to apply to other online course approaches.
 
But for goodness' sake, we need to get past this false dilemma of online vs. face-to-face courses, and actually study what course design approaches or support structures or even faculty professional development offerings lead to improved student learning outcomes. And spare us the broad generalizations that in the end diminish the value of the research.

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 Shanna Smith Jaggars, director of student success research, Ohio State University Office of Distance Education and E-Learning

 In 2010, a federal report concluded that college students perform similarly in online versus face-to-face courses; however, this conclusion was founded on small-scale studies of well-prepared students attending fairly selective universities. In the intervening years, a set of rigorous large-scale studies (including my own research in Virginia and Washington State) has found that community college students perform more poorly in online than in face-to-face courses, and that this performance decrement is most pronounced among the least-prepared students. The Brookings brief (which summarizes a rigorous econometric analysis) provides further evidence that the most at-risk students are the most poorly served by online coursework.

However, this conclusion does not imply that online courses should be eliminated, because research also suggests that online course-taking has different implications for different types of students. For example, for an older full-time working mother with a strong academic background, online options allow her to fit additional courses into her busy schedule.

For her, these benefits outweigh the possibility of earning a slightly lower grade in any given online course, and her strategic online course selection may accelerate her path to degree completion. In contrast, for a young first-generation male student who is struggling academically, taking an online course is a bad gamble. He is much less likely to succeed in the course, which in turn may encourage him to drop out of college altogether.

Postsecondary institutions need to make available some online coursework (and some fully online degree programs) for students who need it, but they also need to ensure that these courses are consistently designed to support student success. Currently, excellent online courses are not created systematically and on a wide scale; instead, a small smattering of excellent examples arise from the individual talents and efforts of isolated instructors. In my book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, my co-authors and I call this a “cafeteria” approach: the institution offers a buffet of professional development and other resources to support high-quality course design and delivery, but faculty are free to select only those offerings that appeal to them, or to select none at all.

A more systematic approach to online student success would ensure that: online courses are created by a team including a faculty subject-matter expert, an instructional technologist, a course design expert, and a student support professional; meta-cognitive learning outcomes (such as time management) are incorporated into online course design; and online course faculty and designers regularly gather to support one another in instructional inquiry, experimentation and improvement.

How would such measures help improve online student success? As an example, first-generation college students are much more strongly motivated when they feel they have a personal relationship with a faculty member who knows them, cares about them, and notices how they perform. Some simple technologies can help online faculty members make these connections by, for example, flagging students who have not begun an assignment on time, creating “face-to-face” virtual office hours, or attaching audio-recorded comments to a student’s paper draft.

But in order to understand the issues of the specific college’s population, evaluate the tools that may help address those issues, and figure out how those tools can be efficiently and effectively implemented within the online classroom, colleges need to create a more collaborative teaching culture. Happily, as Redesigning points out, such a culture will benefit not only online students and faculty, but also the broader majority who teach and learn in face-to-face classrooms.

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Cali Morrison, director of alternative learning, American Public University System

One day, the significant difference debate will die.  We’ll then recognize that online education, implemented correctly, is, or should be, an intentionally different experience than on-ground education. But this “Evidence Speaks Report” shows that day is not today.

While this report utilizes a meaningful sample size from one institution of students taking the same course in the two modalities, it seemingly fails to report if the demographics of the two groups of students mirror each other. It expresses no controls that may explain the variance in student performance in tandem with or in spite of the modality by which the course is accessed. It leaves no way for any institution, regardless of tax status, to conclude that these students are, or are not, like those at my institution. This data therefore needs to be interpreted with that important caveat. Perhaps if we had access to the full methodology we could apply this data more broadly.

The larger issue this study brings to the forefront is how many times pedagogy is thrown to the wind when creating online courses. In the rush to ‘get online’ many institutions are going through the motions and focusing more on the technology than intentionally designing learning experiences. They are also providing scant training for faculty in how to design for online learning or teach online. In building online education, we need to remember all learning is a human experience, because all learners are humans. Whatever the technology used for online learning, it should provide the foundation for engagement with content, colleagues and caring faculty -- the heart and soul of learning.

If online education is to truly reach its potential, we have to think beyond the checkbox of uploading lectures and providing canned answers in discussion forums. I agree with the authors on one point -- the possibility of artificial intelligence and the personalized learning it can power is one of the elements of the future of online education. But it’s not the future. I stand firmly on my soapbox of #NoSilverBullets. There is no one technology, no one modality that is going to serve every learner well. To quote Miranda Lambert, “…ever since the beginning, to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds.” We can only use technology to improve pedagogy, not replace it. We can only use technology to enhance the human connection made through learning, not replace it. If we hone our focus on creating better learning experiences, even those learners this study calls out as disadvantaged, will have greater opportunity for success.

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Amy Slaton, professor of history, Drexel University Center for Science, Technology and Society

Bettinger and Loeb frame an important challenge to the idea that online education is a panacea for educational inequities in the United States, especially in introducing as variables students’ levels of academic preparation and economic resources. The remote learning experience that may be a helpful and affordable way for one student to enrich a skill set presents a deeply inadequate bargain-basement experience for another learner. 

This problem of fit is of course also true of any textbook, lecture or lab exercise, but we somehow seem to be more ready to talk about those traditional educational mediums as pedagogically indeterminate; that is, as more or less suited to students of different learning styles or preparation. By contrast, a lot of thinking on novel educational technologies, especially that which focuses on cost savings and market expansion, seems to discourage such reflection. Perhaps this is because new machines glow for many of us with a kind of cultural and economic promise, a possibility of good things to come that seems to justify their embrace.

But the consequences of this technological mystique for equitable schooling are immense. In particular, the expanding universe of digital learning technologies urges us to picture “ideal” learners taking advantage of such innovations and to see those who fail to learn with exciting new technologies as deficient or even as resistant to change. The Brookings report could help us think more critically about the way that new technologies so readily capture our loyalty, in and beyond the educational sphere.

Yet the authors ultimately back away from this transformative potential by concluding that we should think about “fixing” online education so that it meets the needs of more students. Like so many voices that embrace the vigorous “make it so!” pro-technology spirit, the authors are in actuality, and ironically, thinking rather small: They discourage us from considering that online education may be an inherently feeble solution to the challenges of providing democratic education.

Consider these non-high-tech alternatives: If many students are unable to attend face-to-face classes due to geographic distance, why not publicly fund more satellite classrooms or campuses? If students working full-time jobs or caring for family members must fit education into odd hours, making online options the only viable ones right now, why not instead provide subsidies that would free more of the students’ time for learning?

These sound, I know, like absurdly expensive alternatives to online programming, but the perceived absurdity of a given educational cost is nothing more or less than an expression of our civic values. Recognizing as the authors do the imperfections of current online instruction is not enough. The very notion of fixing online education may only seem a reasonable next step if we’re starting from the economic logic of software developers and for-profit schools like DeVry rather than from a deep public commitment to fair schooling. If we do not admit that we are making that logical choice, we will never look with real criticality at online or any other sort of educational programming.

Doug Lederman contributed to this article.

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