student on laptopFor this blog post we’re going to examine two recent studies regarding the efficacy of online education– one by the Brookings Institution and one by a group of academics from MIT, Harvard and China’s Tsinghua University.

In the case of the Brookings Institution study, the authors looked at achievements by a large cohort of students attending for-profit DeVry University classes all over the country. These students seemed to self-segregate into two broad categories of learners. One group of relative high-achievers showed no apparent drop-off in learning in either online or traditional classrooms while a second group of less-qualified students displayed a very noticeable degradation of about .5 GPA in an online setting versus their performance in an in-person learning environment.

What was particularly alarming about the lower achievement group in the DeVry study is that the use of online classes not only resulted in less comprehension of the material directly under study but also seemed to handicap the student’s chances of staying in school or of succeeding in follow-up classes during the next semester afterwards. In other words, the failure to learn online left the students ill-equipped to deal with advanced topics that built upon their original field of online study. Confused and overwhelmed by their earlier shortfall in mastery, they end up dropping out at a noticeably higher rate.

On the other hand, the MIT-led study concluded that the online coursework actually led to a superior educational outcome among all quintiles of the students being assessed. While these two studies may appear to be directly contradictory to one another on the face of it, an explanation does suggest itself. The MIT study looked strictly at a single online/ traditional physics course offered by MIT. Given the relatively high motivation level of even the least prepared and disinterested student who managed to gain entry into MIT, it is not much of a surprise that no real difference was found in the ability of the students to successfully learn in either format. It can be argued, however, that these results are congruent with the outcome of the DeVry study, which also found that high achievers did fine in either venue.

It is in the arena of the non-self-starters in the other end of the DeVry study where the concern truly lies. Like the vast majority of American college students everywhere, these are students who would never gain entry to MIT under any conditions whatsoever. They are the ones who are most “at risk” and thus require the most effective instructional methodology to help them overcome the challenges they face.

In that regard, the Brookings Institution study is extremely damaging to the claim that online is as good as, if not superior to, traditional classroom environments in all cases whatsoever– which were the overt findings of the MIT paper. Both studies concluded that there are magnificent opportunities upcoming in online learning environments, particularly as AI enhancements are brought into play, and seem to realize that online learning is not just here to stay but likely to become the predominating form of instruction in the future due to its scalability and cost-effectiveness.

Yet the Brookings Institution study points unmistakably to the fact that online courses are extremely harmful to the academic chances of certain students. Where the study failed, however, is in its desire to draw any actionable conclusions from this discovery. If it is indeed correct that some students respond poorly to online learning, the question becomes one of deciding what is to be done to ameliorate their weakness in this form of instruction. Moving ever-larger masses of students through an online empire that does not enhance their learning or their ability to graduate does not seem like a viable solution.

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