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Study suggests online courses as good as classroom

Method effective, study concludes

The burgeoning movement to put more college classes online, which attracted the support of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this month, is getting another endorsement that may have an even greater impact: rigorous evidence that the computer can be as effective as the classroom.

A new study compared two versions of an introductory statistics course, one taught face to face by professors and one mostly taught online with only an hour a week of face time. Researchers found students fared equally well in both formats on every measure of learning. The only difference was that the online group appeared to learn faster.

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The report - being released Tuesday by Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit think tank focused on technology and education - is the first large, randomized study to support online learning. Ithaka also published another report in early May laying out the current landscape of online higher education.

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Taken together, the reports “don’t suggest that interactive online learning is far better than traditional forms of instruction - but even in its infancy, it does well,’’ said Lawrence Bacow, the former Tufts University president, who co-authored the first paper. “And today’s students become tomorrow’s faculty. They will have much greater comfort using these tools. This is only going to get better over time.’’

The report also suggests that online courses can suit a wide variety of students, not just the elite. Previous studies have looked at small groups of students or only those with strong intellectual or financial backgrounds. Other comparative studies used research techniques that could have skewed their results, such as neglecting to randomly assign students to online or in-person instruction.

But the Ithaka study looked at hundreds of students randomly assigned to comparable online and in-person statistics classes at six public universities. Many of the students had family incomes of less than $50,000 and college grade point averages of lower than 3.0. Even those groups learned as well online as they did in the classroom.

“The notion that online courses might work at MIT or Harvard or Stanford or Carnegie Mellon is in a certain sense neither here or there, because those places are going to survive and thrive whatever they do,’’ said James McCarthy, president of Suffolk University, who helped design and implement the new study. “Whether this approach works across a broader spectrum of institutions is what really matters.’’

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McCarthy plans to distribute the report to administrators at Suffolk and hopes to pilot the online statistics course as early as next spring. Online education may be a lifesaver for middle-tier universities, many of which are financially strapped. By allowing them to adapt free materials for their own use - and teach the information to many more students than can fit in a classroom - it could save them money.

“I honestly feel that for the first time we have a potential model that can totally change the teaching and learning process while lowering costs,’’ said William “Brit’’ Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and an adviser to Ithaka. “I just don’t know where we go as a country if we aren’t able to deliver on some new paradigm that will accomplish those twin goals.’’

Online instruction has been the talk of higher education in recent months as prestigious universities and venture capitalists alike have jumped in with plans to offer classes to the masses, typically free and sometimes with credentials attached.

“It’s unreal how fast this space has heated up,’’ said Michael Horn, executive director of the Innosight Institute, a think tank that focuses on innovation in education. “It has become a ‘cool’ problem for engineers to solve.’’

On announcing that Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would partner on the edX initiative, Rafael Reif - MIT’s new president - said online courses “will probably, quite frankly, revolutionize the way higher education is practiced in the next few years.’’

But there have been skeptics, too, as academics have questioned whether it is advisable or even possible to provide a good education largely via screen. Even online education’s advocates acknowledge they are not yet sure how best to deliver it.

“This is like the automobile industry in 1912,’’ said Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and Treasury secretary who now chairs the advisory board of a major online-education startup, the Minerva Project. “We don’t know what the right model will be.’’

The new report demonstrates that at least one model - a highly interactive one, with brief in-person tutorials - works. “People can no longer dig their heels in and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, my subject matter can’t be communicated in an online format,’ ’’ said Joan Thormann, a professor at Lesley University who published a book this year on how to design and deliver Web-based courses. “They see now that it is a valid way to teach. It’s undeniable, and it’s unavoidable.’’

Bill Bowen, Ithaka’s founding chairman and a co-author of the new report, said that if online classes are to truly transform higher education, one piece is still missing: a large investment in basic, free versions of courses that universities could tweak for their own purposes.

Creating high-quality online courses “is not easy work to do, and it is not an approach that can be developed campus by campus,’’ Bowen said.

“No individual campus can really muster the resources - in not just money, but also talent,’’ he said. “One hopes the foundation world, or maybe the government, will step up and invest.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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