Squandering the promise of online education

A recent report from the Brookings Institution explores the pros and cons of online education.

Online classes have the potential to bring otherwise unavailable educational opportunities to a broad range of students, tailoring courses’ content and pacing to each individual learner’s needs. For example, the report’s authors point to the latest “intelligent” tutoring systems, which can assess students’ weaknesses, diagnose why they are making these errors, and adjust the coursework accordingly.

Despite these promises, however, many of today’s online courses may be causing more harm than good, especially for low-performing students. This report reconfirms yet again what numerous studies have previously shown—that online schools consistently underperform the brick-and-mortar variety.

The Brookings report analyzes an online college, but many of its lessons apply to K–12 education, as well. Authors use data from DeVry University, a for-profit college at which every class is offered online and in-person. The average student takes two-thirds of her courses online, and online and in-person versions of a given classes are mostly identical, as “both follow the same syllabus and use the same textbook; class sizes are approximately the same; [and] both use the same assignments, quizzes, tests, and grading rubrics.”

The authors find that taking a course online lowers student grade point averages by 0.44 points on the traditional four-point grading scale. Online courses also lower a student’s GPA the following semester by 0.15 points. When looking at only courses in the same subject area as the online course taken the previous semester, the authors find a 0.42 drop in GPA. In courses for which the online class was a pre-requisite, there is a drop of 0.32 points. The authors also find that students who take an online course are 9 percentage points less likely to remain enrolled the following semester.

Moreover, the negative effects of online courses weigh heavier on students with prior GPAs below the median. These students’ GPAs drop 0.50 points or more after taking an online course, compared to a 0.40 or lower drop in those above the median. As noted previously, these results are in line with past studies looking at online education in different settings, such as community colleges, competitive four-year universities, and online charter schools.

Online learning has the potential to make education more accessible for everyone, but current efforts simply aren’t working. Advocates therefore ought to rethink the models that are currently in use, regardless of whether an online school is serving primary, secondary, or post-secondary students.

SOURCE: Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb, “Promises and pitfalls of online education,” Brookings Institution (June 2017).

Lauren Mason
Lauren Mason Research Intern