Online education has grown so fast that more than a third of all college students—more than 7 million—took at least one course online in 2012. That’s according to the most recent 2014 annual survey by the Babson Research Group, which has been tracking online education growth since 2002. Yet nagging worries remain about whether an online education is a substandard education.
The Babson survey itself noted that, even as more students are taking online courses, the growth rate is slowing and some university leaders are becoming more skeptical about how much students are really learning. For example, the percent of academic leaders who say that online education is the same or superior to face-to-face instruction dipped to 74 percent from 77 percent. That was the first reversal in a decade-long trend of rising optimism.
Opinions are one thing, but what do we actually know about online learning outcomes? Unfortunately, there have been thousands of studies, but precious few that meet scientific rigor. One big problem is that not many studies have randomly assigned some students to online courses and others to traditional classes. Without random assignment, it’s quite possible that the kinds of students who choose to take online courses are different from the kinds of students who enroll in traditional courses. Perhaps, for example, students who sign up for online classes are more likely to be motivated autodidacts who would learn more in any environment. Researchers can’t conclude if online learning is better or worse if the student characteristics are different in online courses at the onset. <Read more.>