Last week I blogged on the potential value of online tutoring for college students taking remedial classes. The ideas presented in the studies that formed the basis for last week’s post seem compelling. And online learning is clearly gaining more and more importance at all levels of education in the US and worldwide.

But what proof do we have that online learning really leads to successful learning outcomes compared with classroom learning, particularly at the college level? One recent study, , directly addresses that question.

The study was undertaken by ITHAKA, a nonprofit devoted to the transformative uses of new technologies in higher education. Using a randomized trial format, they measured the effect on learning outcomes of a prototypical interactive learning online (ILO) course. In the fall of 2011, 605 students at six public universities were randomly assigned to take a statistics class in a hybrid format (with “computer-guided” instruction accompanied by one hour of face-to-face instruction per week) versus a traditional format (3-4 hours of face-to-face instruction per week).

The study found that learning outcomes are essentially the same for hybrid and traditional learners. This proved true regardless of the race, gender, age, enrollment status and family background of the students.

In short, the learners in the hybrid format “paid no price” for using this mode of instruction in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, or performance on a standardized test designed to test how well they actually knew the material. This calls into question the widely held concern that students who receive hybrid instruction won’t learn the material as well.

The study also conducts “speculative cost simulations” that find that hybrid instruction methods for large introductory courses could potentially significantly reduce instructor compensation costs over time. It speculated that large public universities that face growing pressure to cut costs and improve graduation rates might stand to gain the most from refining the hybrid approach.

While it may be equally effective for learners and save money for colleges, one challenge with the hybrid learning approach is making it easy for faculty members to customize, and more engaging for students. “Canned” approaches to hybrid learning could depersonalize the learning process and reduce its richness. And it’s hard to imagine any online course could fully take the place of classroom instruction from a passionate and engaging professor.

Another concern with the hybrid approach is that it further reduces face-to-face contact for a generation of students who already spend a great deal of time interacting virtually. The hybrid approach might also favor “” that does not involve asking questions or formulating arguments in front of other people.

Whether you like it or not, online learning, “smart” teaching software and massively open online courses (MOOCs) are destined to permanently alter how higher education functions and what it might cost.

More links on this topic:

What’s your opinion about using teaching software as an adjunct to university classroom learning?

Featured photo courtesy of Jerry Bunkers.

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