First Do No Harm: New Evidence on Online Learning in Higher Education

Strong opinions abound on the subject of online learning in American higher education.  Proponents see it as a transformative, disruptive wave of the future, whereas skeptics see it as an effort to slash costs, regardless of the impact on students.

Surely some forms of online instruction—such as posting videos of a mediocre instructor on a poorly designed website—are inferior to traditional, face-to-face instruction.  But what about more sophisticated, interactive online learning systems?  There is little rigorous evidence on this subject, especially at traditional public university campuses.

My colleagues at Ithaka S+R (a group part of ITHAKA, a non-profit organization that finds innovative ways to use technology in higher education) and I conducted a series of randomized experiments targeted at exactly this question.  We randomly assigned students in seven introductory statistics courses on six public university campuses to take the course in a hybrid format (with machine-guided instruction accompanied by one hour of face-to-face instruction each week) or a traditional format (as it is usually offered by their campus, typically with 3-4 hours of face-to-face instruction each week).

We found that students in the hybrid format did just as well—in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, and performance on a standardized statistics test—as their counterparts in the traditional version of the same course.  This finding of “no effect” may seem disappointing, but we view it as hugely consequential because it shows that fears of online learning leading to worse outcomes are unfounded.  We certainly hope that more sophisticated versions of interactive online courses will produce even better outcomes, but clearly the first test they must pass is that they “do no harm.”

A second reason that our “do no harm” finding is important is that it suggests a promising strategy for colleges to reduce the costs of educating undergraduates by using faculty time more efficiently.  In turn, institutions of higher learning—especially public universities—can redeploy these cost savings to rein in ever-rising tuition prices and better fulfill their “access” missions by serving more students.

The full study, “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials,” is available