A recent report from Stanford University suggests that online courses have a unique influence over student learning – not only in the online class students are currently enrolled in, but in future class settings as well.
The study, “Changing Distributions: How Online College Classes Alter Student and Professor Performance,” found student performance to be, on average, one-fourth to one-third of a standard deviation lower when taking online courses compared to classes taken in a traditional setting. In addition, student learning was found to be reduced for future classes throughout the college experience.
Researchers followed students and professors at DeVry University for over four years. The for-profit institution enrolls an average of 100,000 students, 80% of whom are seeking an undergraduate degree. On average, two-thirds of classes are taken online, with the remaining courses taken in a traditional, in-person setting. Around 230,000 students were observed for the study with each participating in about 10 online courses.
Each course at the school is offered as both an in-person or online option. The two options are identical in a number of ways, including the use of the same syllabus and textbook, requiring the same assignments and tests to be completed, and using the same grading rubric. The main difference comes in the mode of communication used, with the online course relying on online discussion boards and videos versus the ability to meet in person for the traditional courses.
According to the study, student performance was reduced in the online versions of course offerings compared to the traditional setting.
“Our estimates provide evidence that online courses do less to promote student learning and progression than do in-person courses for students at the margin. Taking a course online reduces student achievement by about one-quarter to one-third of a standard deviation, as measured by course grades, and reduces the probability of remaining enrolled by three to ten percentage points (over a base of 68 percent). Taking a course online also reduces student grade point average in the next term by more than one-tenth of a standard deviation.”
Course grades were also found to be more variable, decreasing by as much as one-fifth of a standard deviation for online sections, and grade point averages decreasing more than one-tenth of a standard deviation in following semesters.
In addition, professors’ contributions to student achievement were found to be lesser for online courses than traditional in-person classes.
Researchers believe a number of factors to contribute to these outcomes. The flexibility that comes with online courses allows participants to take part when they have free time, but could be difficult for some students who have not learned how best to schedule their day. In addition, the ability to take their time in answering online questions could result in students feeling less concern about class responsibilities when compared to an in-person class that requires answers to be given immediately.