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.
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.
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.
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