More ‘edupunks’ are learning online

College students are taking more classes online, usually in addition to face-to-face classes, concludes the Sloan Survey of Online Learning. With less money and more students, community colleges and state universities are expanding online options rapidly, reports the New York Times.

At University of Florida, 1,500 students take Principles of Microeconomics in the same semester. There’s no need for a huge lecture hall. Students can watch from the comfort and chaos of their dorm rooms.

Online education is best known for serving older, nontraditional students who can not travel to colleges because of jobs and family. But the same technologies of “distance learning” are now finding their way onto brick-and-mortar campuses, especially public institutions hit hard by declining state funds. At the University of Florida, for example, resident students are earning 12 percent of their credit hours online this semester, a figure expected to grow to 25 percent in five years.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first-year Spanish is online only, “despite internal research showing that online students do slightly less well in grammar and speaking.”

Public universities see online learning as a way to save on facilities costs and provide convenience for students.

Online instruction is slightly more effective than face-to-face teaching, according to a  meta-analysis of 99 studies by the U.S. Department of Education. But few studies compared apples to apples, argues Mark Rush, a University of Florida professor.  He compared outcomes for students who attended his microeconomics lectures with those who watched online.

Their conclusion, reported in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research: some groups of online students did notably worse. Hispanic students watching online earned a full grade lower, on average, than Hispanics who attended class, and all male students who watched online were about a half-grade lower.

The results surprised the researchers; after all, the live lectures were delivered in a hall to scores of students, who rarely engaged the professor or one another. David N. Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study, had been prepared to find that “watching online didn’t make a lick of difference,” he said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Hang on for a second, maybe it does.’ ”

Researchers speculate that students put off watching the online lectures, then try to cram in viewing just before the final.

Self-directed “edupunks” won’t wait for colleges to figure out online education, said panelists at the TIAA-CREF Institute’s 2010 Higher Education Leadership Conference in New York.

“We’re still trying to fit the Web into our educational paradigm.… I just don’t think that’s going to work,” said Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College, in Eugene, Ore.

Today’s students are “pretty bored with what we do,” she added.

College leaders will have to figure out how to credential students’ independent learning, said Mark David Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Gates Foundation.

We are not far from the day when a student, finding unsatisfactory reviews of a faculty member on, will choose to take a class through open courseware online and then ask his home institution to assess him, Milliron said. Colleges need to prepare for that reality, he said.

Advanced Placement has been wildly successful because it certifies the learning of students across the country, regardless of how they learned the subject. An equivalent evaluation system for college students would be very powerful:  If a student can demonstrate subject mastery, it doesn’t matter if the student learned in person or online or by reading books or  working as an apprentice.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I really want to see valid studies doing an apples-to-apples comparison of which method is better and for what type of student…

    Joanne — what data can you share on the success of AP on line…I have heard this but have never seen data…my hope is the data is correct…would love to be pointed towards some…

  2. “Today’s students are “pretty bored with what we do””, said some college administrator.

    Does she really think that when her students graduate, their employers are going to fall all over themselves altering their “paradigms” so as not to bore the Precious Ones?

  3. tim-10-ber:

    I’ve taught Comp I and II in both the classroom and online. I can’t promise it’s totally apples to apples–many of my online students seem far more motivated than the traditional classroom students–but there’s a much greater proportion of A quality work in the online classes. There’s also a much greater proportion of students that are failing altogether (mostly from not doing the work).

    Honestly, I think that, for those students who are prepared to take charge of their own education and be responsible for themselves (the only type that should be in college in the first place), online learning is a very good option that lets them keep the basic courses to the schedule that fits them best. I can’t speak for every teacher out there, but it seems like my online students read and re-read the material until they understand it, and they ask questions when they don’t (unlike my classroom students, who kind of sat passively absorbing what they could, and disregarding the rest).

    In other words, it totally depends on the individual student.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    @ heroditus huxley — thank you! I think you are absolutely right!!

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Once again I am annoyed by education researchers getting causation backwards.

    Is there something about watching lectures online that makes students get lower grades? NO! There is something about the students who watch online that causes them to get lower grades.

    The students who put in more time, the students who study harder, the students who try to understand, are also the students more likely to actually make the trip to the lecture hall.

    (Alas, much of the ed business is built on getting causation backwards. Students who go to selective colleges make more money and are more likely to be world changers than students that don’t. Do selective colleges cause this? Mostly no. The students who are accepted by and stick out 4 years at selective colleges are, almost by definition, the kids who will do well and change the world. The colleges don’t make the graduates successful. The successful graduates make the colleges look good.)

  6. My approach to education – and in this case higher education – has always been “whatever works.” I took several correspondence courses to get my bachelor’s degree – and graduate before the state instituted new requirements. These didn’t lessen my educational experience to any noticeable degree. I might have benefited from more class time and discussion – or I might not have.

    For some areas, expediency is not so bad.