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JOAN VENNOCHI

Online classes cut costs and human contact

In a blow to the sentimental old teaching model celebrated from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” a new study shows that online education works as well as in-class learning.

According to a report done by Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit think tank focused on technology and education, students taking an online introductory statistics course, with only one hour per week of face time, did just as well as those who took the course the old school way, via face-to-face teaching.

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This is good news for those who want to lower the costs associated with higher education, while also opening up a lucrative, new revenue stream for colleges and universities. It is even better news for people who dislike interacting with other humans.

Today, we e-mail and text, rather than telephone or even trot down the hallway to talk. We Google in the privacy of our homes, instead of going to a library and sitting quietly next to fellow information-seekers. We already spend much of our day staring into laptop screens, iPads and smartphones.

Increasingly, students will be able to earn college degrees without ever dragging themselves to an 8 a.m. class, or getting that sinking feeling when a professor asks them to summarize the assignment they never read. So much for a syllabus announcing that attendance and participation count in the final grade calculation; a sophisticated student who scans education news headlines could challenge any professor on the relevance of that requirement.

“The rise of machine learning” is inevitable, according to a recent article by Steve Kolowich on insidehighered.com. Those who resist the trend are considered dinosaurs or, worse, obstructionists who fear the loss of cushy academic posts, and the long summer vacations that go with them.

This latest study by Ithaka S+R is evidence that online learning, at least, passes the “do no harm” test, writes Matthew M. Chingos for the Brookings Institution.

If they never have to show up, where will they learn to answer a question, formulate an argument, and advocate a point of view?

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Students attending six public university campuses were randomly assigned to seven introductory statistics courses. Some took a hybrid format, with machine-guided instruction, accompanied by one hour of face-to-face instruction each week; others attended a traditional classroom, with three to four hours of face-to-face instruction. Students in the hybrid format did just as well, in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, and performance on standardized statistics tests, as those enrolled in the traditional version of the same class.

Chingos, who worked with researchers who conducted the study, said the “do no harm” finding is important because “it suggests a promising strategy for colleges to reduce the costs of educating undergraduates by using faculty time more efficiently. In turn, institutions of higher learning — especially public universities — can redeploy these cost savings to rein in ever-rising tuition prices and better fulfill their ‘access’ missions by serving more students.” That makes sense, up to a point. The point depends on the full meaning of “educating undergraduates.’’

An online statistics course is clearly preferable to a boring or difficult-to-understand instructor. But what about the professor who is able to convey passion for a subject matter, as well as basic knowledge? Isn’t that part of learning, too? (In the Ithaka study, the one hour a week of student-teacher contact provides some opportunity for that.)

From personal experience as an adjunct instructor, I know some college students submit writing that reads like long text messages, complete with casual abbreviations and misspelled words. That’s already the price of a society that puts video games and reality TV ahead of reading books and newspapers.

Many college students also prefer passive learning, the kind that requires little other than showing up and handing in assignments. If they never have to show up, where will they learn to answer a question, formulate an argument, and advocate a point of view? Having to physically show up for work one day may also come as quite a shock.

Maybe it’s more than “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” Maybe now, we simply prefer a world with less human contact at school, work, and everywhere.

Like all businesses, the business of education must change and adapt. Online learning has its place. But there’s a middle ground, and there should be ways to find it, and still lower the cost of higher education.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.
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