New Research Shows Inferior Outcomes In Online College Programs

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Though its growth has been slowing and costs escalating, enrollments in online college classes and programs continue to increase. Remote or “global” programs are a staple at many, even most, colleges now – more or less taken for granted as a viable, essential part of the college learning landscape.

It’s flatly remarkable, considering this pervasiveness and acceptance, that we know so little about the learning outcomes of online college.

More than two years ago, I asked the question, “What if Online Education Simply Doesn’t Work?” and laid out some evidence that is now generally accepted – that those who are the least prepared and least motivated for academic work, do quite badly in online settings. I also pointed out that the schools with the unquestionably worst outcomes – for-profit colleges – rely heavily, nearly exclusively on online programs. In fact, as of two years ago, two of every three students enrolled at for-profit college were taking classes online exclusively. That correlation is probably not coincidence.  

Flowers in front of Samford Hall, Auburn University. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) 

But that didn’t get to the heart of whether the mode of education delivery itself – online – is flawed, whether the teaching and learning experiences degrade in some way by virtue of being on a screen.

Those who assert that online learning quality is as good as traditional, in-person methods have studies in their favor that do show that online students get the same grades – give or take – as those in classrooms. Since actual learning outcomes are always difficult to measure, grades have been an accessible stand in for quality.

Now though, there’s a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) from Duha Tore Altindag, Elif S. Filiz and Erdal Tekin, professors and researchers at Auburn, Southern Mississippi and American Universities, respectively.

They ask, “Is Online Education Working?” and what they found has the potential to rip apart the idea that the grades in online classes and standard classes are about the same. They are, they say. But factors in the way classes are conducted online – namely easier grading and the challenge of stopping cheating – are inflating online grades, papering over otherwise inferior outcomes.

Their study is massive, encompassing a sample of 18,121 students and 1,086 unique instructors with transcript and course and grade data from across three semesters – before and during the pandemic. Having the data straddle the pandemic-mandated shift to remote instruction mitigated some of the self-selection biases similar studies have – allowing the scholars to measure the same students in the same courses but in both settings. And they see the same teachers in both settings too.

As a caveat, the data is from just one school and the researchers make some assumptions about cheating, looking at just one tool for addressing just one type of misconduct. Though those assumptions may actually work in their favor in making their larger point.

That point is that online classes deliver inferior, subpar outcomes and we’ve been missing them because grades – the measurement we’ve been using to judge – are inflated in online courses.

They say, “Our results indicate that students in [face to face] courses perform better than those in online courses in general. However, this pattern only emerges after controlling for instructor-specific factors, such as leniency in grading or actions towards preventing violations of academic integrity, which signifies the importance of the instructors’ role in determining the relationship between instruction modality and learning outcomes. Without accounting for these instructor-specific factors, the relationship is severely biased, leading to the inaccurate conclusion that online instruction is better for student learning than [face to face] instruction.”

They have evidence, they say, that it’s easier to get a better grade in online classes. And that, in turn, is giving everyone the false impression of the quality of those programs. Online classes are not, after you sort everything out, good, they’re just easier. And because they are, we assume they’re good.

Said another way, when they accounted for how specific teachers graded or whether they used cheating preventions, the researchers found that, “With respect to learning outcomes, students who participate in online classes are more likely to withdraw from their courses and less likely to receive a passing grade of A, B, C, or D.”

If that can be validated or corroborated, it’s a bombshell finding.

Even as it is, it gives evidence to the logical premise that 15% of students getting an A and 15% getting a D – regardless of whether they’re in an online class or an in-person one – does not mean the classes are of the same rigor. If one is easier by design, or has a more lenient grade policy, or it’s easier to cheat in it, the grade distribution tells you nothing whatsoever.   

It is possible that the data used in this research are an outlier. At the same time, it’s possible that further research will uncover that deficient learning outcomes in online classes are even worse than this paper found. The researchers may have, in other words, found the mountain but failed to adequately measure its sheer mass.

They don’t, for example, account for the reality that most online classes are taught by less expensive, less experienced, remote, contract faculty – not tenured or even on-staff teachers. In this study, the online teachers were also the ones who taught the same classes face to face. But that is an exception, not the normal. Hiring lower cost, session to session teachers is a feature of online classes, a design element that allows schools to boost the profit margins of online offerings. Absent in the findings of this specific report, further research is certain to unearth that the prolific use of adjuncts to teach online impacts quality, specifically on grading and cheating.  

On cheating, a few outlying studies notwithstanding, we know with high certainty that cheating is more common and more accessible in online classes than it is in in-person settings. As this evidence mounts, it will remain a gapping hole in assuring the quality of online programs overall. Again, the Auburn, Southern Mississippi and American triumvirate found it, they just could not measure the true depth of it.

Of course, it’s also possible that, in addition to all that, the modality itself – the simple act of teaching online – carries a learning penalty, a distance that distorts the art of education.

“Our results suggest that there is something special about face-to-face experience that is not replaceable by technology. Actually this is something that is voiced by many parents, students, and instructors as well. Because of all the cost advantages of online education, it may not be possible to give it up completely, but maybe a middle ground is possible with a mix of both modalities,” Auburn’s Altindag said.

Considering the number of students and billions of dollars invested and spent on online learning, knowing more about who is learning what seems essential. Let’s have more of it. Let’s ask the serious questions about whether it’s working and why or why not. It’s great to have a few more answers.