Academic journal article Education Next

Online Learning in Higher Education: Randomized Trial Compares Hybrid Learning to Traditional Course

Academic journal article Education Next

Online Learning in Higher Education: Randomized Trial Compares Hybrid Learning to Traditional Course

Article excerpt

Higher education in the United States, especially the public sector, is increasingly short of resources. States continue to cut appropriations in response to fiscal constraints and pressures to spend more on other things, such as health care and retirement expenses. Higher tuition revenues might be an escape valve, but there is great concern about tuition levels increasing resentment among students and their families and the attendant political reverberations. President Obama has decried rising tuitions, called on colleges and universities to control costs, and proposed to withhold access to some federal programs for colleges and universities that do not address "affordability" issues.

Costs are no less a concern in K-12 education. Until the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent slowdown in U.S. economic growth, per-pupil expenditures on elementary and secondary education had been steadily rising. The number of school personnel hired for every 100 students more than doubled between 1960 and the first decade of the 21st century. But in the past few years, local property values have stagnated and states have faced intensifying fiscal pressure. As a result, per-pupil expenditures have for the first time in decades shown a noticeable decline, and pupil-teacher ratios have begun to shift upward (see "Public Schools and Money," features, Fall 2012). With the rising cost of teacher and administrator pensions, the squeeze on school districts is expected to continue.

A subject of intense discussion is whether advances in information technology will, under the right circumstances, permit increases in productivity and thereby reduce the cost of instruction. Greater, and smarter, use of technology in teaching is widely seen as a promising way of controlling costs while reducing achievement gaps and improving access. The exploding growth in online learning, especially in higher education, is often cited as evidence that, at last, technology may offer pathways to progress (see Figure 1).

However, there is concern that at least some kinds of online learning are of low quality and that online learning in general depersonalizes education. It is important to recognize that "online learning" comes in a dizzying variety of flavors, ranging from simply videotaping lectures and posting them online for anytime access, to uploading materials such as syllabi, homework assignments, and tests to the Internet, all the way to highly sophisticated interactive learning systems that use cognitive tutors and take advantage of multiple feedback loops. Online learning can be used to teach many kinds of subjects to different populations in diverse institutional settings.

Despite the apparent potential of online learning to deliver high-quality instruction at reduced costs, there is very little rigorous evidence on learning outcomes for students receiving instruction online. Very few studies look at the use of online learning for large introductory courses at major public universities, for example, where the great majority of undergraduate students pursue either associate or baccalaureate degrees. Even fewer use random assignment to create a true experiment that isolates the effect of learning online from other factors.

Our study overcomes many of the limitations of prior studies by using the gold standard research design, a randomized trial, to measure the effect on learning outcomes of a prototypical, interactive online college statistics course. Specifically, we randomly assigned students at six public university campuses to take the course in a hybrid format, with computer-guided instruction accompanied by one hour of face-to-face instruction each week, or a traditional format, with three to four hours of face-to-face instruction each week. We find that learning outcomes are essentially the same: students in the hybrid format pay no "price" for this mode of instruction in terms of pass rates, final-exam scores, or performance on a standardized assessment of statistical literacy. …

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