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When is online learning as good as the classroom?

Students learned just as much in online STEM college courses as they did in traditional classroom settings, and at a fraction of the cost, according to a first-of-its-kind study. The study tracked more than 300 students in Russia, where top universities standardize online classes for use by institutions with fewer resources. It has important implications for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math – skills that are in high demand by the international workforce, said Rene Kizilcec, assistant professor of information science at Cornell University.

“Demand for higher education is surging in the digital economy we now live in, but the price of a college education has ballooned and we don’t have enough people to teach these courses, especially in more rural areas,” said Kizilcec, co-author of “Online Education Platforms Scale College STEM Instruction With Equivalent Outcomes at Lower Cost,” which published April 8 in Science Advances.

“This new study offers the best available evidence to judge whether online learning can address issues of cost and instructor shortages, showing that it can deliver the same learning outcomes that we’re used to, but at a much lower cost.” These online courses cost institutions 80% less per student than in-person classes, the study found, while blended classes combining online lectures with in-person discussions lowered the per-student cost by nearly 20%. “Online education platforms have a big potential to expand access to quality STEM education worldwide,” said Igor Chirikov, the project’s principal investigator, director of the Student Experience in Research Consortium and a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. “They could also strengthen the instructional resilience of colleges when in-person delivery is not an option, such as right now, when most universities are closed to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak,” Chirikov said.

A shortage of highly skilled professionals in STEM fields is slowing down the global economy, according to previous research. But at the same time, many colleges and universities struggle with the costs of attracting qualified instructors. To address this problem, countries including Russia, China and India have introduced national online educational platforms, in which leading universities create online courses that other institutions can integrate into their own curricula for a small fee. In this study, the researchers developed a controlled, randomized trial to test whether students in Russia learned as much in these online classes, known as OpenEdu, as they did in traditional in-person classes. For two courses during the 2017-18 academic year, the researchers randomly assigned 325 students to one of three versions: the online version through OpenEdu; the in-person class offered by their local university; or a blended version that combined online lectures with in-person discussion groups.

They found that final exam scores did not differ significantly among the three versions. In their in-course assessments, students in the all-online course scored 7.2 percentage points higher, probably because they were allowed to make three attempts on weekly assignments. Online students, however, were slightly less satisfied with their course experience than students in in-person and blended classes. “Satisfaction might be lower, but learning outcomes are the same,” Kizilcec said. “This is a reminder that what students say about instruction quality in course evaluations at the end of the semester might not be so predictive of what students are actually learning.” Though online classes save money in the long run, they have significant startup costs, the study said, which could potentially be covered by states or consortiums of universities. Coordinating course requirements and academic calendars across institutions or states could also improve the effectiveness of this kind of model, according to the researchers.

The paper was co-authored by Tatiana Semenova and Natalia Maloshonok, both of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia, and Eric Bettinger of Stanford University.

The research was supported by the Basic Research Program of the National Research University Higher School of Economics and Russia’s Federal Program for Education Development.

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