Who Really Benefits from Online Courses?

By Cait Etherington February 17, 2018

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eLearning and millennials, complexity and opportunity

In late January, Susan Dynarski, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, published an article in the New York Times calling the value of online education into question. Dynarski concludes, “The weakest students are hurt most by the online format.” Given that the weakest students are often those who are already disadvantaged when they enter the school system, Dynarski’s conclusions are troubling, but are they actually true?

Evidence that Online Courses Serve Only the Most Well Prepared

To support her position that students who are already disadvantaged are not served by online courses, Dynarski cites several studies completed over the past five years. The first study she cites is a 2015 study published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. In this case, researchers randomly assigned 1,224 ninth graders who failed algebra in 17 Chicago public high schools to take either an online or face-to-face algebra recovery course. The researchers found, “Compared to students in face-to-face credit recovery, students in online credit recovery reported that the course was more difficult, were less likely to recover credit, and scored lower on an algebra post test.”  In her New York Times article, Dynarski contrasts the results of the Chicago study with the results of another recent study carried out with rural students in Maine and Vermont. Unlike the Chicago cohort, which was comprised of students attempting to recover a credit they failed to achieve during the school year, the students in Maine and Vermont were working above their level and looking to move ahead. In this case, the online students excelled.

According to Dynarski, these studies point to a broader trend and one to which anyone invested in online learning should be paying close attention: “Online education is still in its youth. Many approaches are possible, and some may ultimately benefit students with deep and diverse needs. As of now, however, the evidence is clear. For advanced learners, online classes are a terrific option, but academically challenged students need a classroom with a teacher’s support.”

Notably, Dynarski also cites a recently released study by the Brookings Institute that reports similar findings at the postsecondary level. Using data from the DeVry Institute, the Brookings’ study found: “Students taking the course in-person earned roughly a B- grade (2.8) on average while if they had taken it online, they would have earned a C (2.4). Additionally, taking a course online reduces a student’s GPA the following term by 0.15 points; and, if we look only at the next term GPA for courses in the same subject area or courses for which the course in question is a pre-requisite, we find larger drops of 0.42 points and 0.32 points respectively, providing evidence that students learned less in the online setting.”

When Online Learning Meets Competency-based Learning

While Dynarksi’s argument is certainly worth taking seriously into account, as she recognizes, online education is still in its youth and so too is evidence on its impacts. One issue she does not address is competency-based learning. Indeed, when online learning is coupled with competency-based learning, the results are notably different.

As emphasized by the U.S. Department of Education, “By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students. Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.”

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