The Fall 2019 issue of Daedalus is on the subject "Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience," edited by Sandy Baum and Michael S. McPherson. There's a lot to digest in the issue, and I'll list the table of contents below. But I found myself especially interested by the comments on online education in "The Human Factor: The Promise & Limits of Online Education," by Baum and McPherson, as well as in "The Future of Undergraduate Education: Will Differences across Sectors Exacerbate Inequality?" by Daniel I. Greenstein.
It was now seven years ago, back in 2012, that companies like Coursera, Udacity, and edX announced their plans to revolutionize higher education with "massively open online courses," or MOOCs. While the use of online tools has clearly spread, it seems fair to say that the revolution has not yet arrived. Where does online higher education stand at this point?
On the spread of online classes to this point, Baum and McPherson write (footnotes omitted):
But MOOCs, as attention-getting as they have been, have never been the main source of online education. For-profit, career-oriented institutions and large public universities have been the major providers at the undergraduate level, although several private nonprofit institutions now enroll thousands of online students. Today, more than 40 percent of all undergraduate students take at least one course that is offered purely online; 11 percent–including 12 percent of those in bachelor’s degree programs–study entirely online.
What's the evidence on how well online courses teach? A key difference here seems to be that hybrid courses with high online content can work well, but pure online courses have some problems. Baum and McPherson:
But studies that focus on course completion rates as opposed to test scores generally show weaker outcomes when courses are entirely online.Moreover, recent randomized controlled trials of semester-long college courses have found lower test scores for students in fully online courses than for similar students in traditional classroom settings–but no significant difference in outcomes between those in settings that mix technology with classroom experience and students in fully face-to-face courses. Economist David Figlio and colleagues compared a fully online course to a classroom course; economists William Bowen and Ted Joyce each had teams comparing traditional courses to those replacing some live instructor time with online learning; and labor economist William Alpert and colleagues studied all three models. The results of these studies are consistent. Classroom instruction time can be reduced without a negative impact on student learning. But eliminating the classroom and moving instruction entirely online appears to lead to lower course completion rates and worse outcomes, even when guidelines are followed for best practices for generating online discussion. The weaker results for students listening to lectures online instead of in a classroom with other students suggests that it may not be just personal attention, but being in a social environment that contributes to student learning. It is also possible that the more structured scheduling of classroom courses is important for some students.
The other big change in online higher education in the last decade or so has been a shift in who is most likely to be offering these courses. Back in 2009, it was mostly for-profits, but that has changed. Greenstein offers a comparison:
Unsurprisingly, by 2009, online instruction outside the for-profit sector was highly concentrated in a relatively small number of outlier institutions. In that year, Western Governor’s University (WGU), established in 1997 by the governors of nineteen states and with a significant grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offered fully online courses to over fifty thousand students, Penn State’s World Campus served twenty-five thousand (9,500 full-time equivalent) students, University of Maryland’s University College had twelve thousand online students, and there were one or two others operating outside the for-profit sector at something bigger than fledgling scale. There were also a number of headlining failures in the not-for-profit sector to point to, failures that reflected outright resistance to the genre, notably at the University of Illinois, where the Global Campus effort announced with great fanfare and with an investment of $10 million collapsed after only three years. By comparison, in the very same year–2009–the for-profit University of Phoenix was nearing its high watermark enrollment of nearly four hundred thousand online students.
Within a decade, the tables had turned. For-profits, under enormous pressure resulting from the Great Recession and a hostile regulatory environment, collapsed, losing as much as a half of all enrollments. Several of the biggest for-profits went out of business (Corinthian Colleges), were bought out by private equity firms (University of Phoenix), merged with not-for-profit institutions looking to accelerate their own online learning initiatives (Kaplan and Purdue Universities), or transitioned from for- to not-for-profit status. Large public universities and community colleges, meanwhile, moved in to pick up some of the slack. WGU grew to one hundred thousand enrollments and continues achieving 10 percent year-on-year growth. Arizona State University serves nearly the same number annually, and the University of Central Florida has grown to nearly sixty thousand students with almost one-third of all student credit hours taken online. Other evidence collected annually since 2002 has demonstrated how online learning has become part of the mainstream in higher education. Large public universities and colleges are particularly likely to offer a large share of student credit hours online.
One of the hopes of online higher education was that it would be a low-cost way to make college classes widely available to underserved and at-risk student populations. This hope has gone largely unfulfilled. Baum and McPherson:
Two rigorous large-scale studies of community college students by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) found lower course persistence and program completion among students in online classes. These studies found that students who take online classes do worse in subsequent courses and are more likely than others not only to fail to complete these courses, but also to drop out of school.Males, students with lower prior GPAs, and Black students have particular difficulty adjusting to online learning. The performance gaps that exist for these subgroups in face-to-face courses become even more pronounced in online courses.
According to the CCRC, the differences are even greater for developmental courses than for college-level courses. In a study of online developmental English courses, failure and withdrawal rates were more than twice as high as in face-to-face classes. Students who took developmental courses online were also significantly less likely to enroll in college-level gatekeeper math and English courses. Of students who did enroll in gatekeeper courses, those who had taken a developmental education course online were far less likely to pass than students who had taken it face-to-face.
Thus, many of the current successes of online learning in higher education are for students who are pre-screened for high admissions standard, and or highly motivated, or both. As one example, Baum and McPherson write:
Georgia Tech’s widely cited computer science master’s degree program is getting very positive reviews and appears to be opening opportunities to new students, rather than diverting them from face-to-face programs. Since this is a graduate program, all of the students have already earned bachelor’s degrees and, in the case of Georgia Tech, passed rigorous admission standards. Evidence about success in MOOCs confirms the reality that students from higher-income and more-educated backgrounds are most likely to participate and succeed in these courses.
Greenstein offers some other examples:
Two potentially very promising trajectories are beginning to take shape. The first is the use of hybrid modalities: modalities that mix face-to-face and online instruction. Where implemented well, they appear to lower costs and improve student outcomes. This at least is the experience at the University of Central Florida (UCF). With undergraduates taking nearly one-third of their credits online, UCF shows the best course outcomes for students in hybrid courses (with outcomes for face-to-face and fully online falling behind in that order). A second very promising development is seen in adaptive technology platforms and courseware that integrate data science to make machine-assisted learning directly responsive to individual students’ needs and their progress and pace in mastering explicitly specified course competencies. By the mid-2010s, results were more rather than less promising for the technology demonstrating improved student outcomes for students from all demographic groups.
I've heard enthusiasts for online education point out more than once that the possibilities for innovative technological progress in the form of a human delivering a live lecture are somewhat limited. In contrast, it's easy to imagine all kinds of potential for improvement in online higher education. It remains true that most online higher-ed involves lecture-based presentations followed with online quizzes and tests. One can easily imagine over time that the interaction of an online class with a student will become more adaptive, flexible, and responsive. The methods of group participation online with other students and faculty will become more sophisticated. But after some years of watching online classes not cause a revolution in higher education, some hard questions are emerging.
1) It's easy to imagine online higher education getting better, but it's not going to happen easily or on the cheap. It's clear at this point that just recording some classroom lectures and linking up students to a multiple-choice online test-bank will work for a highly motivated few, but not for the many. The investment needed for really good online courses may be large, and it may be ongoing. The old model of finding a professor who teaches a course well, and then having the professor record some lectures or write a textbook, isn't going to suffice. Instead, there will be a need for experts in computer programming, psychology, artificial intelligence, and more. A highly-evolved version of an online education class is also not a one-time project, but instead is going to require ongoing cycles of learning, and respecting differences across topics. Teaching statistics online may look very different from teaching a foreign language or writing or chemistry or economics. Before we're too quick to assume that online higher education will soon and quickly get a lot better,, it's important to remember that creating the highly evolved online education courses of the future isn't just a matter of jumping a few hurdles, but of overcoming a multidimensional obstacle course. It's not about a few incremental gains to the existing courses, but of evolution into a different kind of online experience that barely exists--or may not yet exist.
2) Who is going to make these costly, risky investments? Maybe it will be a few very well-to-do schools. It would be an interesting irony of those who attend huge-endowment highly-selective schools also ended up with access to much better online courses! Another possibility is that it will be schools with extremely large enrollments--probably larger than the enrollment of any specific campus. It would be interesting to see if some conferences, like the Big 10, SEC, Pac-10 or the ACC could put together a team along these lines. It's not at all clear how community colleges, smaller schools, or schools with lower levels of funding can afford to make large and ongoing investments in a dramatically better version of online education. Thus, it's not at all clear that these online courses of the future will be focused on at-risk or nontraditional students.
3) There are times when the discussion of online education seems to be based on a vision of education as something that can be downloaded or viewed online by individuals in isolation, who then absorb the necessary information. But most education has traditionally happened in groups, and the social and emotional structures of the group may matter--at least for most learners most of the time. Thus, a challenge is to make online learning into a genuinely shared experience. I'll give Baum and McPherson the last word:
Behind the successive would-be revolutions in the technology of delivering college education seems to lie a desire to minimize, if not eliminate, the need for messy, often inconvenient, and always costly human interaction in the college-going experience. This desire is particularly evident when the concern is for mass higher education. A purely automated delivery system for much of higher education would appear to be very cheap and efficient, and perhaps even higher quality than traditional higher education because everyone could be exposed to the best lecturers. Unfortunately for this dream, developments in psychology and learning theory over the last two decades have made ever more clear how central the social, emotional, and interactional dimensions of learning are.
Here's the Table of Contents for the issue, with links to the articles:
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.