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Sustainable Hybrids

September 22, 2009

The question of whether distance education is as effective as classroom education is hotly debated in academe and largely unanswered by existing studies. However, new research from South Texas College suggests that hybrid courses -- those that are offered online but also involve substantial face time -- can produce better outcomes than those that are delivered exclusively on the Web or in the classroom.

Researchers at the community college, led by Brenda S. Cole, analyzed the spring 2009 grades of every student enrolled there. The scholars' basis for assessing outcomes was straightforward: “A,” “B,” or “C” grades qualified as successful outcomes; “D” and “F” grades counted as unsuccessful.

The data showed that, over all, 82 percent of students of hybrid courses were successful, compared to 72 percent of classroom courses and 60 percent of distance courses.

These findings require some qualification, Cole said. When broken down by individual instructor, the data show no difference in the outcomes across the different delivery methods -- meaning that the overall figures do not account for the grading habits of particular instructors, which could be a confounding variable. (At the same time, the sample size for the instructor subgroup was too small to render statistically significant findings -- South Texas has offered hybrid courses only since 2006, and relatively few professors teach in all three modalities.)

Still, hybrid courses showed outcomes superior to distance and traditional courses when researchers controlled for other factors. Students who took all three types of courses generally performed best in the hybrid ones. And hybrid classes bested the other delivery methods in courses affiliated with the college’s business and technology, health, and liberal arts and social sciences programs. Only in the math and science and bachelor’s degree programs did traditional students do the best -- and hybrid-course students outperformed distance-education students in every instance.

Cole said the fact that this study was limited to the student population at South Texas -- which is large, predominantly Hispanic, and averages about 25 years old -- makes it difficult to argue that these findings say anything about hybrid-course outcomes broadly. However, they do align with a meta-analysis released several months ago by the U.S. Department of Education, which concluded that hybrid, or “blended,” courses could be more effective than either wholly Web- or classroom-based courses.

The advantages of hybrid courses over online-only ones are obvious, Cole said. Students and instructors are more accountable to one another, and students benefit from being able to talk to their professors in person. “Being able to ask a question, or say, ‘Hey could you do that again or explain that again?’ -- you can’t easily do that online,” she said, adding that she believes more rigorous research into the matter will reinforce her preliminary findings on this score.

The evidence suggesting that hybrid courses produce superior outcomes to traditional courses, she said, is more puzzling. “That’s just one of the questions that we haven’t answered yet that we intend to follow up on,” she said.

In any case, Cole said, how well students perform in a given course-delivery system is almost certainly tied to their individual needs. Students who require more prodding in order to get the work done probably perform better with the increased sense of accountability that comes with time in the classroom. Students who are more self-motivated, or those whose personal obligations cause them to benefit from maximum flexibility, might do best in courses that are exclusively online.

There is much more work to be done, Cole said. For one, the study assessed only how well students did in the courses, not how much they learned, which is much harder to determine. South Texas’ preliminary research into the question of hybrid outcomes merely satisfied the college’s question of whether it was an acceptable alternative to traditional and Web-only courses; whether it turns out the be the preferable alternative will be a question for subsequent studies to answer.

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