Online learning gets fresh look from a heavyweight

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(MoneyWatch) With college costs continuing to climb beyond Americans' ability to pay, there is a real possibility  that the world of higher education will join the ranks of newspapers, steel, autos, music and other industries that have experienced disruptive changes. 

However, American colleges, which predate the original tea party, have remained particularly resistant to change. For example, generations of colleges have relied upon the credit-hour system to measure whether a person has learned enough to get a degree. Why?

The higher-ed world has also remained wedded to the idea that a college degree is the only worthwhile credential. Once again, why? At least that's what the backers of digital badges want to know.

So far, these institutions have gotten away with their leave-us-alone position, but hungry high-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have trained their sites on the college classroom.

An online learning revolution?

A potentially revolutionary change that has garnered the most interest is online education. The biggest gorilla in this space are the MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, which heavyweights such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard have been rolling out to fawning press reviews. As the name suggests, MOOCs offer online classes to limitless numbers of students across the globe.

With all the hype surrounding online learning, the question remains: will it work? Any inkling of an answer is important to colleges and universities, which are conservative in their behavior and don't want to embrace a technology that might flop.

Enter William G. Bowen, one of the most respected figures in the higher-education, who has tackled the question in his new book, Higher Education in the Digital Age. Just a few years ago, Bowen, an economist and a former president of Princeton University, was skeptical about the fledgling movement. But after some research, he sees the potential for new classroom technologies to improve productivity, reduce institutional costs and make pursuing a degree more affordable. And Bowen believes all this is possible without harming the quality of the educational experience.

Frustrating literature

In attempting to evaluate the viability of online learning, Bowen first reviewed the literature, which includes thousands of studies. He was frustrated by what he found. 

"Very few of these studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates, and the few that are relevant almost always suffer from serious methodological deficiencies," Bowen wrote. "The most common problems are small sample size, inability to control for ubiquitous selection effects, and, on the cost side, the lack of good estimates of likely cost savings in a steady state." 

Bowen ultimately conducted his own research through ITHAKA S+R, the research arm of a nonprofit of which he is the founding chairman. Using a randomized-trial approach, the researchers examined the outcomes of statistics courses taught at six public universities. Some of the classes were taught the traditional way while the others were taught in a hybrid fashion with some in-person interactions and other instruction online. 

Results of the study

What the researchers discovered was that there were no statistical differences in the learning among the two types of courses. The learning outcomes were measured by such things as results of a national test of statistical literacy, final exam scores and pass and completion rates.

These findings were consistent among diverse student bodies. Half of the students, for instance, came from families with incomes of less than $50,000 and half were first-generation students. 

"Students at four-year universities in our study paid no price for taking a hybrid course in terms of pass rates or other learning outcomes," Bowen noted. "This seemingly bland result is, in fact, very important, in light of perhaps the most common reason given by faculty and deans for resisting the use of online instruction:  'We worry that basic student learning outcomes will be hurt, and we won't expose our students to this risk.' "

Bowen and ITHAKA S+R are gearing up to conduct another study to measure whether MOOCs could be effectively incorporated into the traditional college curriculum. 

Change is coming to the the higher-ed world and Bowen just might end up helping to hasten the disruption.

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