The Classroom Still Matters

In recent years, many colleges and universities have shifted towards internet-based learning, posting everything from assignments to lectures online. The results of a randomized experiment at a major research institution (analyzed in a new paper by David N. Figlio, Mark Rush, and Lu Yin) caution against a wholesale transformation. The authors found “modest evidence that live-only instruction dominates internet instruction. These results are particularly strong for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students.” Their findings run counter to a recent meta-analysis from the U.S. Department of Education, which concluded that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Also gives food for thought to anyone interested in School of One’s “choose your modality” model. [%comments]


But the size of the effect is less than 1 multiple choice question out of 50. (The tests were multiple choice.)


With so many different personalities, study habits, and learning styles, I'm all for choices. I really wouldn't want universities to all go purely online, but I'm thrilled to see the online presence grow.


this probably depends on the teacher as well as the student - I had my share of teachers/professors who were terrible lecturers, and I would have done (and often did do) much better learning from the books and the online notes. If they hadn't taken attendance, I wouldn't have gone to class


It seems to me that if colleges would make most or all core courses internet-based (or DVD based), you could free up college budgets.

Hire the Top Ten history professors to put together a world-class course (with visuals, bullet points, music, etc.) of history classes. Pay them two years' salary for their efforts. Then, each freshman would be required to take these courses. The students would be getting the best of the best--no need for one student at one college to get one level of teaching, while a student at another college gets a higher level of teaching--everyone gets the best.

Colleges could license these DVDs/courses for their own use, giving credit for completed courses. Grad students could answer most questions (and if a question comes up enough, edit that topic into the DVD so that the question is answered there).

We could do this for a number of courses, enabling colleges to provide world-class training for their students, as well as not have to have a history, philosophy, literature, or what have you department.

Yes, some teachers may lose their jobs (or at least receive reduced salaries), but it would make college more affordable and BETTER for students, I believe.


Brian S

I have taken online MBA classes and it's definitely inferior to classroom in my opinion. The flexibility is great, but there is no substitute for being able to interact throughout the learning process. If the instructor explains a concept that does not resonate, it can quickly be rephrased to make sense to you, etc. Online learning is definitely best for only a select group.

It's the difference between reading a book vs. having a conversation with its author.


For me, there is no difference between sitting in a 600+ person lecture and sitting at home watching a video. There is a HUGE difference between sitting in a 20 person seminar and sitting at home watching a video.

Unforetunately, it is the small seminars that cost universities money - a professor is paid for the number of credits they teach, not the number of students in the class. So for an intro to biology class with 600 students, you pay the professor for 3 credits, but get 3 credits worth of tuition times 600. The cost for the seminar is the same, but the university only gets 3 credits of tuition times 20.

The key in either situation is to have the person responsible for the lecture (and test) available to students, either by email or preferably in person or on the phone.

Eric M. Jones

Really apples and oranges....

A great online course has the advantage of being digitally distributed to zillions of students. It's worth the effort to make these as masterpieces of education.

I really do think human contact and group interchanges also play a part...Perhaps the students could just be blessed by the teacher in some sort of ceremony....then back to the computer. I don't know.

For a really good example of what online teaching might be, see the lectures on the point....and unforgettable.

But bricks and mortal schools....say bye-bye.

Bobby G

Some great points by the commenters here so far.

Some of my teachers started piloting online lectures just as I was finishing school a few years ago. These were econ courses with no homework, just a mid term and a final that included a 90 minute essay question. Most of my econ courses did not take attendence. I thought it was a good deal to be able to skip class and watch the lecture at the time that was optimal for me.

Unfortunately, I was (and probably still am, but I don't have problems with it now) a huge procrastinator and inevitably left watching lectures online until the week before the tests. Suddenly 3 missed lectures turned into a 9 hour cram session of watching the same guy (he looked and sounded like Richard Dreyfus but even so...). I ultimately concluded that I would have benefitted from having a more disciplined learning schedule, and having the option to control my schedule geared me to the undisciplined. I got a C+ in that class (my worst grade in all of college).

I didn't get a chance to see whether or not I learned my lesson and would elect to attend classes in person given the online option again because the rest of my classes were in-person only.

Ultimately I agree with the above... the more options the better. Teaching students (like me) to understand one's own discipline limits is an important thing, and if online course availability helps teach that message, then I'm all for it.



I currently teach at a public virtual K-12 school. We have really good curriculum. But there is no way to replace a teacher. I have at least one, one hour lesson every week. I'm hoping I can have time for 2 at least on a biweekly basis. Students are also encouraged to call, but can use email.

The thing is our curriculum and program is more challenging. And I can see where at risk students scores may drop. This is easily explained: a student is at risk is usually a poor student (Poor study habits, not prioritizing education, not self motivated, etc) and this will usually not change by just switching to online (in fact it probably gets worse due to lack of routine).

But students who work hard, or at least want to become good students do improve over time.

Choice is great. We need more choices in all education; because what works great for me, may not work for you.


There is a fundamental problem with the comparison of "apples with apples" in this report.

It appears that a great face to face course has been digitized and placed online as a reasonable though slighter lesser substitute.

Translating a great online course (with short videos excellent asynchronous and synchronous interaction between teachers, students and possibly guest experts) to face to face (if possible) would probably produce a similar result in favor of online learning if the translation was done well.

The take-away message for educators is that you cannot take what you do face to face, put it online as is and expect it to be better.


The comparison is a red herring, if you know research. This is one study where they took an online course of video lectures and compared it to traditional classroom instruction. So they really compared watching a video lecture to a live lecture not online learning versus face to face learning. Second point, an evaluation of a comprehensive collection of studies on online learning. So you are comparing one flawed study versus one very powerful study (because of the sheer numbers of studies included) and trying to make the statement that online learning might not be as good as face to face. Sounds like tabloid journalism and not insightful journalism.


Last summer, my gf had to take a few online under-grad classes. She already had a Bachelor's degree in History, and was already 1 year into a Master's degree in Education, but NYS said she was deficient in certain subjects. 2 of these were Math and Economics; subjects she avoided. Fortunately, I was an Econ major in college, and have always been good at math. Needless to say, she got an A in both classes, and didn't learn much in the process.


I still remember quite a bit from my introductory micoreconomics course from 10 years ago, which was taught almost entirely online. The professor, ironically, was Mark Rush.


I am wondering about sample bias. Are "online" students better than "classroom" students? If so, then both studies could be true and NOT contradictory.


I love online education. It saves me time to study new things in time. But there are really too many online education programs on internet and it is hard to tell which is good and which is not. You need experience. I am using this website and want to select some programs. Still underconsideration. Any suggestion?


Have to agree with Bob. The meta analysis conducted by Barbara Means and her team at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and funded by the US Department of Education is but one such meta-analysis to come to the same conclusion. In other words at least four teams of researchers have looked at the same question (what does the empirical literature comparing classroom and online education tell us?) and come to the same conclusion with the same effect size. On average the several hundred studies included in these quantitative reviews indicates that online students tend to do slightly better than their classroom peers. When compared to the single study referenced by Figlio, Rush, & Lin the weight of the evidence is not really comparable. And the single study was not a "real" online course but rather online lectures, one of the weakest use of the online medium. It is freakonomics to use the one study to refute several hundred...