An experimental study demonstrates the effectiveness of online learning

High-quality online courses are no less effective than traditional classes when it comes to student learning outcomes. Online courses provide an opportunity to expand access to high-quality education without increasing costs: the number of students that universities will be able to enroll increases by 15-18%. The results of a study carried out jointly by HSE University researchers and US researchers have been published in Science Advances.

The experiment involved 325 second-year engineering students from resource-constrained universities. Students took two courses hosted by the national Open Education platform. Before the start of the course, they were randomly divided into three groups. The first group studied in person with the instructor at their university, the second group watched online lectures and attended in-person discussion sections (i.e., a blended modality), and the third group took the entire course online and communicated with instructors at the course’s forum.

Researchers then compared groups’ performance in three areas: the level of subject knowledge (final exam score), grades for assignments during the course, and satisfaction with the course. The results demonstrated that the average level of knowledge acquired in the course was the same in all three groups. The average grade for in-course assessments of online students was slightly higher, while satisfaction with the studies, on the contrary, was a little lower compared with students who studied in person.

According to the research team, the lower student satisfaction is primarily associated with a lack of experience and relevant learning skills in an online environment, for example, time management skills. It is important to provide students with extra support in this area.

With equivalent learning outcomes, the cost of instruction per one student in blended modality is 15-19% lower, and in the online modality, it is 79-81% lower, depending on the course. These estimates take into account the costs of developing and maintaining online courses. According to the authors of the study, with online courses universities will be able to teach 15-18% more students at the same cost.

‘The results of the study demonstrate that high-quality online courses can no longer be considered a mediocre instruction method. They advance students skills and knowledge the same way as in-person classes,’ commented the study’s principal investigator Igor Chirikov https://www.hse.ru/en/staff/ichirikov, SERU Consortium Director and Senior Researcher at UC Berkeley and Affiliated Researcher at the HSE Institute of Education.

He believes that in today’s context it is essential to invest in advanced online platforms, interactive online learning content, and new teaching methods. This would allow to expand the access to high-quality education without considerable additional costs and would provide students with flexible educational trajectories. In addition, it would help universities prepare for various unpredictable situations, such as the novel coronavirus pandemic.

‘We are seeing how universities that are more advanced in creating and using online courses have adapted to the transition to online format more quickly. The fact that Russia has a major national platform with online courses from leading universities has given the country a big advantage in switching to a remote instruction quickly,’ he said.

‘Now in Russia, as in other countries, we can see a real-time experiment unfolding with the use of remote instruction. Our study only focused on engineering courses, but the current mass transition to online learning will allow us to assess the extent to which online courses are effective for other types of studies, in particular the social sciences and humanities. This will be the real stress test,’ adds Tatyana Semenova, co-author of the study and researcher at the Center for Sociology of Higher Education, HSE University.

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