Continuing Debate Over Online Education

A new paper by the Community College Research Center has re-examined and challenged the studies that theDepartment of Education used in a meta-analysis that stated “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction”—a conclusion that received much attention and applause among advocates for online education.

But the Education Department’s analysis was flawed, according to Shanna Smith Jaggars, lead author of the CCRC paper and a senior research associate at the Columbia University center. Based on its review of the data, the CCRC concluded that online learning in higher education is no more effective than face-to-face learning.

The CCRC report states that the Department of Education analysis’ flaws lie in the student populations studied and the conditions of the online courses. The meta-analysis examined the results of 51 published studies that looked at the effects of online versus face-to-face education. Of these, however, only 28 compared face-to-face courses with fully online courses. (The third option, hybrid courses, had most of the students experiencing as much face-to-face class time as they would in a normal course.)

The paper also states that most of these 28 courses studied contained conditions unrepresentative of typical college classes. Most of them looked at short educational programs (as short as 15 minutes) instead of semester-long courses, and some examined online learning in elementary schools or with postgraduate professionals. As a result, Jaggars narrowed the pool to only seven studies that accurately reflected fully-online learning in a college or university setting.

According to the report, these seven online courses “showed no strong advantage or disadvantage in terms of learning outcomes among the samples of students under study.”  . . .

But comparing online to face-to-face learning may not be the best approach to assessing online education, says John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a group of colleges and other organizations that work on online education issues.

“I am exceptionally dubious of studies that tend to compare online education and on-the-ground education without even an attempt to understand the differences in the mechanisms of teaching,” he said, adding that he thinks both reports are flawed, albeit interesting. “The jury is absolutely still out on this, and I don’t believe for a minute that it’s about the delivery mechanism, but what the affordances are of the delivery.”

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