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Online Courses Versus Large Lectures

By Cait Etherington
February 05, 2018

If you’ve ever enrolled in or taught a large lecture, you’ll know that these courses have many problems. While one lonely professor paces up and down at the front a large lecture hall (likely armed with a mic and remote clicker to help call up stimulating images and video clips to keep everyone engaged), anywhere from 100 to over 1000 students slump back in the audience armed with their own digital devices (even if they have been banned by the professor) playing games, watching reruns of their favorite television shows, and texting nasty comments to each other about the class and professor. Until recently, despite this familiar scenario, in the “online courses versus large lectures” debate, face-to-face lectures continued to win. There are now signs that the pendulum may finally be shifting in favor of online courses.

Students Tweet, Play, and Tune Into Reruns During Large Lectures

In January, Beth McMurtrie from the Chronicle of Higher Education visited Michigan State University to report on the universities academic innovation centers. As she would later report, however, it was not the university’s technological innovations that left a lasting impression.  “What stayed with me,” writes McMrutrie, “Were not the whiteboards, sticky notes, and optimistic talk of design thinking, but the students in the back of a psychology class. Inside this vast lecture hall, one professor had the thankless job of trying to manage a class of more than 600 students. He tried to make the course engaging with short, relatable descriptions of the material and pop-up quizzes to keep students involved. But a bunch of them were checked out. They were scrolling through Twitter, scanning the course catalogue, and listening to music. One enterprising student had Grey’s Anatomy playing on her phone.”

In the past, the defence of large lectures over online courses has rested on a single factor: Students ultimately learn more in synchronous rather than asynchronous learning environments. Human contact, any human contact, even contact that involves a professor running around a stage with a roaming microphone, is simply more engaging than an online course, but is this really the case?

Over the past decade, the rise of MOOCs has offered an unprecedented opportunity to study the impacts of online learning. While there are certainly consistent findings that MOOCs yield lower completion rates, this is primarily due to the fact that these courses are often non-credit and free. Simply put, the incentive to complete the course is lower than it is in a traditional credit course on campus. When asked about engagement, however, there is growing evidence that students in fact often feel just as or more engaged and learn just as much or more when enrolled in an online course.

A 2014 study carried out by David Pritchard, MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, along with three other researchers at MIT and one each from Harvard University and China’s Tsinghua University and published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning found that in MOOCs, “the amount learned is somewhat greater than in the traditional lecture-based course.” Especially encouraging was the fact that the study revealed that students level of knowledge coming into the course appeared to play a less significant role in their achievement levels. Indeed, those who came in least prepared tended to do as well as anyone else, suggesting that online courses may also be ideal to overcome  certain gaps in testing.

If online courses are finally gaining ground, it likely has something to do with the fact that they are often more rather than less interactive than large lecture courses and interaction is a known factor in student success. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, found that teaching approaches that turn students into active participants drastically reduce failure rates on exams. As Scott Freeman, the study’s author reported, 55 percent more students fail lecture-based courses than classes with at least some active learning: “If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning, according to our analysis. There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we’re talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out every year.”

Online Courses Versus Large Lectures: The Final Showdown

As higher education scrambles to respond to students’ growing demand for online and blended courses, evidence on the impact of online courses, including MOOCs, versus on-campus large lectures will no doubt continue to be closely monitored. Of course, while some professors appear to be ready to call it quits and embrace online learning (at least as a way to manage large lecture courses), the assumption that face-to-face courses are simply better is one that has a persistent hold in higher education. Only time will tell, however, whether tradition ultimately trumps logic and evidence.