Online Learning and Bias

The New York Times ran stories today and one month ago sparked by the billionaire Bill Gates’ campaign to transform college teaching from the traditional classroom model to an on-line system.   The two stories mention empirical research about the value of online training compared to traditional classroom teaching.  

Today’s article cites research showing that students taking a basic college course partly online did better on tests and in later recall than students taking it entirely in the traditional classroom way.  Omitted in today’s article is the research referenced in the story a month ago showing that those results may hold up for some groups of students, but not all.  Doing worse online than in the traditional classroom setting were Hispanics, males, and “low achievers” (those with lower grade point averages).   

I’m concerned that today’s omission makes the story misleading.  True, the two referenced studies differed a bit.  The one reported last month compared pure traditional classroom teaching with pure online teaching; the one reported today compared pure traditional teaching to a hybrid format combining online and classroom components.  Still, today’s piece made it sound as if there’s no doubt that the hybrid model is clearly superior to the classroom model for all students.  But it doesn’t appear that the research makes that clear. 

In today’s paper, there was plenty of space to add a qualifier.  As it stood, the piece contained several paragraphs taken from the public relations materials that Mr. Gates and his backers have developed to promote this vogue in education.  A few column inches were allocated to a photograph of Mr. Gates.  IMHO, it would have been better to mention the qualifications and ask proponents of online college teaching to comment on how such qualifications affect their vision.

Below are block quotes from the two NYT stories for contrast.

In today’s New York Times, “In Higher Education, a Focus on Technology” (Oct. 11, 2010), discussing research done at Carnegie Mellon, Steve Lohr writes:

             “In one project, a college statistics course was taught in two different ways using comparable groups of students: a traditional class lasted 15 weeks, with four class meetings a week, whereas a hybrid one of online course material held two classroom sessions a week.  The hybrid class lasted half as long — seven-and-a-half weeks — as the traditional setting. Yet the students’ test scores and retained learning, measured later in the year, were as high as or higher than those of the conventional lecture class. . . [T]he hybrid approach doubled the productivity of education in that program.”

In a New York Times story last month, “Second Thoughts on Web Courses” (Sept. 13, 2010), discussing research by professors at U. Florida and Northwestern U., funded by the National Science Foundation and Dept. of Ed, and published as a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, Lohr wrote:  

            “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 . . . 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.”

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1 Response

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Obviously Bill Gates (i) didn’t value his own undergrad experience so much, and (ii) owns a big chunk of a company that has a big chunk of the global software business. Should we be surprised that he’s a proponent of online learning?

    Some other questions: is online learning appropriate for all sorts of subject matter, or primarily for certain fact- and formula-oriented subjects? Is the goal of education to train workers? Are subjects that are less amenable to online learning really dispensable? How does one measure the “productivity” of classes in 19th Century poetry, 20th Century fiction or phenomenological philosophy (or, for that matter, in noncommutative geometry), BTW? What about training people to reason together, to interact in non-anonymous debate and discussion face-to-face? The more we “virtualize” our relationships, does it become easier or more difficult to sustain a democracy?