Friday, February 22, 2013

Columbia University study slams traditional online classes -- we need to move beyond traditional

Researchers at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center have released a working paper "Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas", based on a study of nearly 500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State. The study was based on traditional online courses, which typically have about 25 students and are run by professors who often have little interaction with students. (I will return to this point below).

Here's the bottom line -- the study concluded that “the online format had a significantly negative relationship with both course persistence and course grade, indicating that the typical student had difficulty adapting to online courses.”

This is consistent with the anecdotal reports of my colleagues who teach online -- they have much better experience with masters level classes than undergraduate.

Let's drill down a bit.

The study found that the negative results for online classes held across the board, but the effect was stronger for some subgroups – “males, Black students, and students with lower levels of academic preparation experienced significantly stronger negative coefficients for online learning compared with their counterparts, in terms of both course persistence and course grade.”

They also note that "performance gaps between key demographic groups already observed in face-to-face classrooms (e.g., gaps between male and female students, and gaps between White and ethnic minority students) are exacerbated in online courses."

They found that older students adapted more readily to online courses than did younger students. (Again, consistent with my colleagues' observations).

The study also found that "the relative effects of online learning varied across academic subject areas ... two academic subject areas appeared intrinsically more difficult for students in the online context: the social sciences (which include anthropology, philosophy, and psychology) and the applied professions (which include business, law, and nursing)."

The authors of the study went on to suggest policies to cope with the problems they identified:

  • Screening: Only allow certain students to take online classes, for example those with a 3.0 or better GPA or those who successfully complete a workshop on online learning skills.
  • Scaffolding: Incorporate the teaching of online learning skills into online courses in which less-adaptable students tend to cluster.
  • Early warning: Identify and intervene with students who are having difficulty adapting.
  • Wholesale improvement: Improving the quality of all online courses taught.
The first three feel like fingers in the dike to me, but how about wholesale improvement? At the start of this post, I noted that these were traditional online courses. They are often quick makeovers of classroom courses -- using standard textbooks and ancillary materials, but substituting threaded discussion for classroom sessions. Old wine in new bottles.

This is understandable when there are, say, 25 students in a class. There is no time for "wholesale improvement."
However, if we scale the online class up, say enrolling 500 active, for credit students, we can afford to create "new wine."

We see experimentation along these lines in MOOCs -- highly modular, interactive presentations created specifically for online delivery, peer interaction, instrumentation of material, crowd-sourced feedback from students, high production values, frequent revision of teaching material, etc.

None of this is affordable if we are teaching sections of 25 students, but for 500 students, we can afford full time staff producing and maintaining a single course. Hey, with 20,000 students we can afford Disney Studios.