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Can online learning disrupt the status of higher education?

When I moved to Silicon Valley to study at Stanford University four years ago, I thought so. Enrollment in online courses at the college level had multiplied by nearly ten-fold from 2003 to 2013. The promise was that online learning could replicate the live classroom, but also make course content available to anyone at any time with a lower cost.

Today, the story is different. The answer to the question of whether online learning has revolutionized higher education is a clear “not yet.” A new study[i] shows that for students who have access to both online and in-person classes, taking online courses led to lower grades in their current and future courses. Those students are also less likely to remain enrolled in their institutions.

Another recent study[ii], which is quite controversial, argues that online learning in higher education is actually a waste of taxpayers’ money. It turns out that, in many cases, it is actually not much cheaper than in-person classes; besides that, the earnings students make later in life due to online course-taking compared with what they would have earned without online enrollment do not surpass the social costs online learning incurs.

For now, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of online learning. There are many reasons why this is the case. For example, a big difference between in-person and online courses lies in how students interact with each other. You can receive your peers’ responses instantaneously in a brick-and-mortar classroom, but need to wait for those who live on the other side of the country to type their comments into an online forum.

Research says that people learn through a social process. The timeliness of feedback is critical for students to learn. Technology may replicate most resources of the best in-person courses, such as course materials, tests, and lectures, but it is impossible, at least for now, to replicate real-time feedback from in-person peers and teachers. 

Pessimistic About the Future? No

Should we be pessimistic about the future of online learning? Absolutely not. Coupled with the development of learning science, the systematic knowledge about how people learn, we can do better.

One big advantage of online learning is that online platforms provide an invaluable source of information about the process of learning itself. As an education researcher, the most exciting thing I’ve found about online learning is that it greatly extends our ability to study teaching and learning, and in turn to improve students’ learning experiences. Specifically, in online learning we can track every digital footprint of students’ and teachers’ behaviors, what they do, at what time, and with whom. Such data are impossible for face-to-face learning settings, but are crucial for the understanding how students learn.

It might be true that online learning still has a long way to go to find its role in higher education, but we can continue to make it better, and it is relatively easy to make changes. One study[iii] found that simply having peers reach out to classmates who are struggling can help those students earn higher grades and persist longer. Interventions that can enhance students’ interactions thus might engage students more in online learning and help them to learn better. How about sending text reminders to students for timely responses? How about giving instructors tips to help students connect with each other? The possibilities are endless.

Let’s continue to ask more questions about when, why, and for whom online learning works. As technology continues to evolve, we are in a much better position to ask these questions and make changes. We can imagine a better future in which learning can break the limits of time and location so that everyone can become a life-long learner.


[i] Bettinger, E., Fox, L., Loeb, S., & Taylor, E. S. Virtual Classrooms: How Online College Courses Affect Student Success. American Economic Review.

[ii] Hoxby, C. M. (2017). The Returns to Online Postsecondary Education (No. w23193). National Bureau of Economic Research. For the critics of this study, read "Impressions of the Hoxby Study of Online Learning" in Inside Digital Learning.

[iii] Bettinger, E., Liu, J., & Loeb, S. (2016). Connections Matter: How Interactive Peers Affect Students in Online College Courses. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35(4), 932-954.


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