As we have been pulling together an online class on “learning to learn,” we decided to consider the research on online learning generally. We wrote up some of our conclusions in this blog post and look forward to hearing feedback in the comments.
For one, we think it’s pretty clear that online learning efforts can be quite effective. A major 2009 meta-analysis showed that students often learn just as much from online classes as they do from face-to-face ones. Similar results were found in a 2016 meta-analysis.
To a degree, this isn’t surprising, and in many ways, it comes down to the fact that effective instruction matters just as much as effective media, as learning expert Will Thalheimer argues: “When learning methods are held constant—for example, if learners get a lecture in a classroom compared with getting a lecture delivered in an online video—then elearning will create roughly the same benefits as classroom instruction.”
Not everyone is that optimistic, to be clear. Economist Sue Dynarski looked at the evidence recently and she noted that online courses can produce high results. But online classes were not--on the whole--quite as good as face-to-face ones, according to Dynarkski. “The body of research suggests that learning suffers with no face-to-face instruction,” she writes.
Dynarski argued that disadvantaged students do worse in online courses. This appears to be true for high schoolers and colleges students. “The existing evidence suggests that online coursework should be focused on expanding course options or providing acceleration for students who are academically prepared,” Dynarski writes, “rather than shoring up the performance of those who are lagging.”
In the end, the debate between online and face to face might never end, but it’s clear the online approach can compete. From our reading, the biggest question revolves around the social aspect. By its very nature, online technologies will never be quite as socially engaging as an in-person class since, well, it’s online.
What Works Within Online Courses. Beyond the online vs offline course debate, there’s also now a good amount of evidence about what works within online classes, and not surprisingly, what works in face-to-face classes is often what works online.
More exactly, active forms of learning--e.g. low-stakes quizzes, simulations, etc--work well in traditional classrooms, and it turns that they have a very positive effect on academic achievement in online classes too. In contrast, more passive approaches to learning like long video lectures often show lower results (both online and offline).
Also, the social aspect of learning is important, and online courses show greater impact when they include a face-to-face component. While there’s some methodological debate over the details, there are a number of studies that suggest that a blended approach to online learning is the most effective approach.
The evidence on mini-classes. Our goal is not a full online program but a smaller, mini-courses, and there’s been some interesting work on those approaches as well. We really admire Patti Shank’s research, and she recently took a look at mini classes--or micro-learning--and pointed out three liabilities.
Specifically, Shank noted that mini classes work well when they address these three points:
At least for us, the first two bullets seem the most important. How will our min-class class get people to practice these ideas? Also, what will be the mechanisms that provide feedback?
This is hard in a mini-class. The duration doesn’t allow for a lot of time for robust feedback or practice. For our class, we are using the platform Teachable, and we will try to get at this issue through low-stakes quizzes. (I’m a huge fan). We also hope to have students explain what they’ve learned, and there’s a long body of research behind elaboration as a way to engage deeply in an area of expertise.
We’ve struggled most with social engagement. So far, we have not seen an easy solution with Teachable. In other courses, we’ve seen educators can deal with the social issue in all sorts of ways: Google hangouts, Slack, Skype, etc.
Finally, a word about “dripping content,” or the idea that you release content over certain intervals. I think this strategy has great potential when it comes to online courses. After all, we forget all the time, and it’s helpful to have reminders that prompt us into better habits.
In my mind, it would be optimal to give people quizzes and essays every few months over a year. But that’s not all that practical. Or at least doesn’t seem practical to us yet.
If you have other thoughts or opinions on e-learning, please share below.
Ulrich Boser and Alisa Cook
Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay
I'm always on the look out for new science of learning research, hunting for new studies that help move the field forward. Research summaries of the extant research are particularly helpful. They can offer insights into the state of the field more broadly—and help give a sense of the weight of evidence in a particular area or practice.
So I was excited to come across the recently published "Evidence for Cognitive Science Principles that Impact Learning in Mathematics.” Julie Booth at Temple lead the study, and it provides a fantastic summation of the latest science of learning research in math.
The key principles that Booth outlines are here:
The paper was part of a new book titled "Acquisition of Complex Arithmetic Skills and Higher-Order Mathematics Concepts,” and I've shared a copy here.
The paper brings to light some of the new and growing research in particular areas. For instance the paper emphasizes “error reflection” in math, and it argues that that “thinking about errors improves problem representation and conceptual understanding.”
The paper also underscores the value of video feedback, noting that I may be even better than "traditional textual feedback as it was found to slow down the pace of the learner, suggestively allowing more time for the student to internalize the concept.”
If you’re trying to better understand the science of learning in math—or need a solid overview—this is very helpful document.
There are not that many universities that have fully embraced the science of learning. Some schools might have clickers in a few classrooms for example. Others may have intense mentoring programs. But broadly speaking instructional practice hasn't changed much in higher education since it was first pioneered.
This makes Iron Range Engineering in northern Minnesota pretty unusual. The program has fully embraced the research on how people learn and it's made for a very different educational experience.
I visited Iron Range engineering recently and was really impressed by their approach. When it comes to assessment, they use a lot of oral tests. As co-founder Ron Ulseth explained to me, the oral assessments allow students to explain what they know, both elaborating on their knowledge as well as showing it to the assessor. In this sense the assessments are both a form of learning and a form of evaluation.
The school's faculty has also taken some innovative approaches to retrieval practice. One educator showed me this scratch-off that she uses to help students learn.
A spacing approach to learning is also encouraged, and once students learns a principle in any of their courses, they are accountable for being able to describe and apply that principle right up until graduation.
It helps that the program is small. It only has about a hundred students. It's also well supported financially. There is funding from a regional economic development agency that gives the school a lot of flexibility.
The program has won some recent kudos. MIT recently listed IRE as one of the best engineering programs in the world. For Ulseth, that’s not enough. “Engineering education should always be changing. That’s the nature of engineering. You’re always looking to improve for the betterment of people."
The Learning Agency advisor and George Mason University Economics professor Phil Auerswald recently finished up a powerful Tedx talk titled "Eye Contact Can't Be Automated."
In the talk, Auerswald argues that humans are really good at being, well, human and outlines some important implications for the future of school--and work. Watch it here.