Let the computer do the teaching. Some studies, expert opinion and cost pressures all point toward a continuing shift of education online. A major study last year, funded by the Education Department, which culled comparative research over 12 years, concluded that online learning on average beat face-to-face teaching by a modest but statistically meaningful margin. Bill Gates, whose foundation funds a lot of education programs, predicted last month that in five years much of college education will have gone online. “The self-motivated learner will be on the Web,” Mr. Gates said, speaking at the Economy conference in Lake Tahoe. “College needs to be less place-based.” But recent research, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, comes to a different conclusion. “A rush to online education may come at more of a cost than educators may suspect,” the authors write.
The research was a head-to-head experiment, comparing the grades achieved in the same introductory economics class by students — one group online, and one in classroom lectures. The 312 students were undergraduates at a major state university (unnamed, at the university’s request). The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Education Department. Certain groups did notably worse online. Hispanic students online fell nearly a full grade lower than Hispanic students that took the course in class. Male students did about a half-grade worse online, as did low-achievers, which had college grade-point averages below the mean for the university. The difference certainly was not attributable to machines replacing a tutorial-style human teaching environment. Instead, the classroom was a large lecture hall seating hundreds of students. Initially, David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University and co-author of the paper, said he had thought that the flexibility of the Internet — the ability to “go back and roll the tape” — would probably give the online coursework an edge over traditional “chalk and talk teaching.” The online lectures were well done, using a professional producer and cameraman. “It had very much the feel of being in the room,” Mr. Figlio said. (His co-authors were Mark Rush, an economist at the University of Florida, and Lu Yin, a Florida graduate student.)
So what accounts for the difference in outcomes? Mr. Figlio has a few theories. For the poorer performance of males and lower-achievers, he says the time-shifting convenience of the Web made it easier for students to put off viewing the lectures and cram just before the test, a tactic unlikely to produce the best possible results. It’s partly a stereotype but also partly true, Mr. Figlio says, that female students tend to be better at time management, spreading their study time over a semester, than males. “And the Internet makes it easier to put off the unpleasant thing, attending the lecture,” he said. The lower performance by Hispanic students online, Mr. Figlio said, might be attributable to missing the body language of the lecturer and other classroom cues, which could be more important to a student whose first language is not English. Online, he added, students lose the ability to ask an immediate question in class, during breaks or right after the lecture. A policy issue raised by the study, Mr. Figlio said, was whether a shift to online education will serve to widen the achievement gap between the best students and others. Mr. Figlio says he uses online teaching tools and finds them valuable. “But what we are saying is that there’s no free lunch” in the drive to online education, he said.