• Joanne Jacobs

Online learning: The smart get smarter

Strong students benefit from online classes, but weak students do not, concludes Brookings’ Susan Dynarski.

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The convenience of online learning appeals to adults with full-time jobs and often with children to raise. But these high-risk students do substantially worse online than similar students fare in face-to-face courses, concludes a Stanford study of students at a large, for-profit college.

In “blended” courses, which combine face-to-face instruction with online learning, “blended courses,” students “do about the same as those in fully face-to-face courses,” writes Dynarski. But all-online courses are not a good fit for academically challenged students.

Many “credit recovery” courses for high school students use online learning, she notes. Again, these are weak students.

In 17 Chicago high schools, students who had failed algebra were enrolled in a summer recovery course. Once they had showed up for a few classes, they were randomly assigned to an online or face-to-face format. In this case, students in the online courses did substantially worse in end-of-course tests, scoring 0.2 standard deviations lower than students in the face-to-face classes. The online students were substantially less likely to pass the course: 66 percent vs. 78 percent.

By contrast, research shows online courses can allow strong students to learn more, Dynarksi writes.

In rural Maine and Vermont middle schools that don’t offer algebra, eighth-grade achievers were placed in an online algebra class or in their school’s standard general math course. Those taking algebra online were “twice as likely to complete advanced math courses in high school” as the control group, the study found.

The online students might have learned even more taking a face-to-face algebra class, but that wasn’t a practical option.

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