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Online education: More efficient than the classroom?

in a rush to get back to the classroom? Online learning appears equally as good as the face-to-face equivalent, finds a new study.

A teacher using laptop as part of a workshop for school children. Image by Astrid Lomholt. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A teacher using laptop as part of a workshop for school children. Image by Astrid Lomholt. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the necessity of digital and online learning, as most school and college students have spent longer periods at home than in school. Many educationalists and parents have been calling for children to go back to the classroom.

As well as parents being keen for their children to exit from under their feet, there is also the perception that no form of digital learning experience can surpass the classroom experience. New research appears to contradict this.

A study has found that students learned just as much in online STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) college courses when compared to traditional classroom settings.

The reason for the STEM focus is due to a current shortage of highly skilled professionals in these areas. These are sectors seen as importance for the global recovery.

In making this point for the relative success of e-learning, the Cornell University researchers say that online learning can also be delivered at a fraction of the cost of the traditional school setting (around an 80 percent reduction, on average). Similar savings (albeit only of 20 percent) can be made from a hybrid approach, where digital and face-to-face learning sessions are both sed.

The study used some 300 students based in Russia. To evaluate the data, scientists the researchers developed a controlled, randomized trial to test if students learned as much in online classes compared with traditional in-person classes. A total of 325 students were assigned either to:

  • Online learning.
  • In-person class.
  • Hybrid version of online lectures and in-person discussion groups.

It was found that final exam scores did not differ significantly among the three versions. Another benefit is where activity-based online learning, rather than lecture-based, enhances student creativity.

One of the study motivations was to determine whether an e-form of learning can address issues associated with running costs and instructor shortages.

This cost factor is something that can be weighed up when looking at budget setting. The other advantages appear to have a role within current and future lockdowns, showing the instructional resilience of colleges that embrace digital forms of learning across a broad subject portfolio.

Despite the equivalency in learning outcomes, there are other aspects of attending school or college that cannot be adequately catered for online. It was discovered that online students were less satisfied with their course experience compared to students in in-person and blended classes.

The research appears in the journal Science Advances, where the study is called “Online Education Platforms Scale College STEM Instruction With Equivalent Outcomes at Lower Cost”.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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