Does Research Backup Online Learning Claims?

By Lillian Williams

In a recent interview, Sal Khan offered a theory about why his approach to online education is so popular with students around the world.

Khan Academy is a nonprofit, online tutorial project that offers thousands of videotaped lessons on subjects ranging from mathematics and physics to civics and art history.  And, it’s free–another key point.

Also, in a previous post I noted that Khan has captured the attention of technology magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates who made a $1.5 million donation.  Google supports the project too.

What’s remarkable is that Khan stumbled onto this online educational venture while trying to tutor a young cousin in math. Wired Magazine offers a background piece on his educational service.

Khan theorizes during a TV interview that his educational videos work because they are conversational and down-to-earth. In other words, he believes his approach is less threatening and less intimidating, particularly for students trying to navigate unfamiliar or difficult concepts.

Researchers, of course, continue to study what works–and does not work—in online teaching/ learning.   I describe the results of one such study below in this post.

Meanwhile, on the following point we can be certain: The interest in online education is growing by leaps and bounds, whether at Khan Academy, at public K-12 schools, or at higher education institutions. The latest annual Sloan Consortium survey shows the number of students in the U.S. taking at least one online course now exceeds 6 million.  Nearly one-third of all college students take at least one online course, and sixty-five percent of colleges now report that online education is a critical part of their long-term strategy.

As noted in a previous post, some of the current buzz comes from the start of MOOCS, or Massive Open Online Courses, offered by some institutions.  These are free, high-quality courses offered to anyone across the globe.  They do not carry college credit.

For example, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) earlier this year received wide media coverage of their free online courses. Harvard and M.I.T. formed a nonprofit partnership, known as edX, which offers a certificate for completion of these courses.   Coursera is another such MOOC venture that involves University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Stanford and Princeton.  Udacity is yet another such massive, online course start-up.

So, do students learn effectively in online courses, whether MOOCs, Khan, or others?  What type of online courses work best? Online education certainly has its critics, as this debate shows.

A recent research study, however, adds to this discussion. According to the study report, one group of students, selected randomly from six public universities, took a statistics course with mostly online instruction.  Another group of students took the same course in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. In post-course assessments, both groups fared essentially the same in knowledge gained. Download the report here and take a look.

The study was conducted by Ithaka  S+R, a nonprofit think tank.  The authors were William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, Kelly A. Lack and Thomas I. Nygren .  Study questions were:

  • Can sophisticated, interactive online courses be used to maintain or improve basic learning outcomes in introductory courses in basic subjects such as statistics?
  • Are these courses as effective, or possibly more effective, for minority and low-socioeconomic –status students and for other groups subject to stereotype threat? Or, are these groups less well suited to an online approach?
  • Are such courses equally effective with not-so-well-prepared students and well-prepared students?

The researchers summarized: “We find that learning outcomes are essentially the same—that students in the hybrid format “pay no price” for this mode of instruction in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, and performance on a standardized assessment of statistical literacy.”

The authors acknowledge that much more research is needed. They point to a limitation of their study–it only targeted a single course. “We need to learn more about the adaptability of existing platforms for offering other courses in different environments,” the researchers wrote.

It’s your turn. Take a look at the study report. Or perhaps you have taken, or taught, an online course. What are your thoughts on the limitations and/or benefits–of online teaching/learning?

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