New Report Offers Evidence of Digital Learning’s Benefits

By Cait Etherington
April 21, 2018

From online courses to an initiative that entailed putting an Amazon Echo in every freshman engineer’s dorm room, Arizona State University continues to embrace digital learning on myriad levels. This week, the university, in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group, released a new study on the benefits of digital learning: Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies from Six Universities and Community Colleges.

A case study of Arizona State University and five other institutions with a longstanding interest in digital learning, including the University of Central Florida, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and Rio Salado Community College, the report suggests that when colleges and universities take a “strategic approach to digital learning” and invest in design and development, they can achieve three major objectives: improved student learning outcomes, improved access for disadvantaged students, and an improved financial outlook for the institution.  While the report is enthusiastic about digital learning’s widespread benefits, at least some readers have questioned the report’s claims and methods.

Highlights from the Making Digital Learning Work

As in many other recent reports, Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies from Six Universities and Community Colleges emphasizes that a combination of face-to-face and online courses is ideal. Other success factors included making an effort to engage faculty as partners, paying close attention to design, working strategically with outside vendors, and using emerging metrics to refine courses and platforms, as well as learning outcomes.

Among the report’s many claims is the conclusion that digital learning expands access. Specifically, the report found increases in the proportion of Pell Grant-eligible students, minority students, older students, and female students. While this is an important finding, the report does not address the fact that other recent studies have found that in online courses, students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds do not perform as well as more privileged and well-prepared students. This, however, was also not the report’s only questionable finding.

Skepticism about the Report’s Claims and Methodology

Despite the report’s findings, at least some onlookers wonder if the report has exaggerated the benefits of digital learning to support ASU’s focused efforts on digital learning. Earlier this week, Inside Higher Education published reactions from ten education experts.

Clare McCann, Deputy Director of Federal Policy at New America, observes, “Online programs have shown huge variation in quality, with some showing comparable outcomes to face-to-face programs, and others falling well short of good outcomes for their students. For instance, research has found that students in online courses have worse grades, less learning and lower rates of retention than other students. And some colleges have used their online programs to reduce, or even all but eliminate, the kinds of high-quality interactions with professors and peers that studies suggest are necessary for deeper learning.”

Deb Adair, the Executive Director of Quality Matters raised concerns about the report’s method:If the purpose of the study was to specifically identify the factors leading to success, I would quibble. When you only look at the most successful cases, it’s hard to draw any evidence-based conclusions about what might lead to success for other institutions. This seems to me to be a minor point, because the recommendations drawn by the authors have a great deal of common-sense appeal. In fact, you would hardly need to read through the case studies to be convinced of their applicability. On the other hand, it would be a loss to skip the details about how these organizations go about the business of digital learning. There is much here to inform the decisions and actions of other administrators.”

Despite such concerns, Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies from Six Universities and Community Colleges still makes a strong case for digital learning’s benefits and highlights best practices in the field.