On Tuesday Via Meadia reported that the Coursera program for online education has just expanded its offerings. Along with programs like MIT’s EdX and Stanford’s Udacity, Coursera offers lectures from professors presented in video format, supplemented by online coursework and reading materials. Other institutions are looking to offer hybrid coursework, in which online classes are supplemented by semi-regular meetings with professors or tutors of some sort, to minimize the time required of professional staff while retaining the advantage of face time with an instructor.
Yet for all the fanfare, many people, particularly professors and students, are not yet convinced. Can a set of online videos and computer programs really be as effective as actual professors? According to a new and purportedly rigorous study comparing test results of students taking the same course online and in person, the answer may be yes. The Wall Street Journal reports:
In a carefully crafted, foundation-funded experiment that has received less attention than it deserves, Ithaka S+R, a higher-education think tank, enticed 605 undergraduates at six public-university campuses in New York and Maryland to agree to be assigned randomly to one of two courses. Half took a conventional introductory statistics course that met three hours a week. The other half took a computer-assisted course that met once a week and relied on an interactive, online statistics course developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Online Learning Initiative.
To compare outcomes, researchers had students take a standardized statistics test and a final exam that had some of the same questions.
The statistically sound result: Students in the online course did just as well as those who took the conventional course. No better, no worse.
These results are heartening. The more such studies proliferate, the more likely universities are to experiment with new programs.
This also serves as a reminder that even though the American university system sometimes seems full of obstructionists and slow to move, it’s actually moving much faster than most of its rivals overseas. What’s more, these changes tend to accelerate once they get under way.
If this happens with online learning, the United States will end up with a reformed and much more efficient higher-ed system while overseas university systems are still arguing over whether it’s a good idea to try. This is looking like a textbook case of how the United States reinvents itself faster than its competitors in response to technological and social changes.