College Guide


July 19, 2010 2:40 PM The Truth about Computer College

By Daniel Luzer


Does online education really work? Well no, actually it doesn’t. At least not in the way people have been talking about it.

Back in June the Department of Education released a report about online learning. Researchers found “that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Interesting news, right? Many journalists and for-profit, online colleges seized upon this new paper as evidence that, as they’d long suspected, online education was a great form of instruction. “The study lends credence to a belief that University of Phoenix administrators and faculty have long held: Online education can be just as effective as on-site education,” said the University of Phoenix.

Not so fast, say researchers at Columbia University. Shanna Smith Jaggars and Thomas Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Columbia’s Teachers College published a new report indicating that the truth about online education is more complicated. According to their research:

This finding does not hold, however, for the studies included in the meta-analysis that pertain to fully online, semester-length college courses; among these studies, there is no trend in favor of the online course mode. Therefore, while advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students.

Perhaps some element of internet-based instruction is effective, but there actually isn’t any evidence that students taking an entirely online course “performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” In fact, according to Jaggars and Bailey, some evidence indicates that “online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.” [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Craigie on July 25, 2010 1:35 PM:

    Whether or not on-line education is better than face-to-face instruction, it is much more costly. The savings anticipated 15 years ago have never materialized, partially because schools have used on-line education as a profit center, not a "savings center."

    It is not clear whether on-line education is simply inherently more expensive than face-to-face instruction, or whether it is simply the way that schools have gone about implementing and marketing on-line education.

  • Bernard Schuster on December 31, 2010 3:20 AM:

    Page 8 of the linked Jaggars and Bailey report states "Overall, then, the online courses showed no strong advantage or disadvantage in terms of learning outcomes among the samples of students under study."

    Yet Daniel Luzer's article starts with "Does online education really work? Well no, actually it doesn�t. At least not in the way people have been talking about it."

    If the report sited in Luzer's article concludes that online learning produced effects roughly equal to face-to-face, and Luzer concludes that online education does not "really work", then Luzer is implying that face-to-face doesn't work either. I think that online only has to be equal to face-to-face to prove its worth, because, in my view, face-to-face really does work.

    Luzer, as well as Jaggars and Bailey, argue that �online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.� However it appears to me that the cause of lower completion rates is the fact that the students are "underprepared" not the fact of the course was online. The idea that students may have to be prepared and disciplined enough to complete an online course probably means that standards for enrollment in online classes could be set a little higher rather than that online classes 'don't work'. Perhaps students in face-to-face classes at selective universities have to be prepared and disciplined to complete the courses, but does that mean the face-to-face classes at selective universities 'don't work'?

    Page 11 of the Jaggars and Bailey article says "Another study of developmental mathematics students in community college found that completion rates were higher for face-to-face (80%) than online (61%) courses, a difference which remained consistent and was statistically significant after controlling for age, ethnicity, marital status, gender, and social-interaction learning style (Zavarella, 2008)." Would the completion rate of the those students have been 0%, or otherwise lower than 61% without the online course because the students would not have been able to enroll? If so the online course seems to have "worked" very well for the majority, 61% of students. Page 11 of the Jaggars and Bailey article also says that the majority of the withdrawing students reporting said they withdrew because they had technology problems connecting to the course. If so, then maybe providing or requiring adequate technology would have produced an equal or lower drop-out rate than face-to-face.

    I think students who have a higher probability of dropping tend to self-select into online courses, because they are most in need of the convenience factor, and perhaps they are prone to select a course format that is easiest to back out of...if it doesn't work out.