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 ratemyprofessors.com, 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.