Online learning will become a new normal in higher education for the foreseeable future. Not because faculty find emergency remote instruction gratifying or because students enjoy it so much they won’t return to campus. Online learning will flourish because universities will need it to stay afloat during a long and painful recession.
Universities face a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to their operations during this academic year. While many hope to stay opened and offer in-person instruction, others are likely to continue online. One thing that universities and colleges know for sure about their future is that budgets will be tight. The long-term impact of the economic recession on higher education will be disruptive with sharp declines in the revenue stream from endowments, state funding and international enrollments.
Those universities that won’t close during the pandemic will be eager to find a way to offer courses at a lower cost and with higher resilience when in-person delivery becomes untenable due to health or safety considerations. But must this come at the cost of student learning? Previous studies testing how much students learn in the same course with online versus in-person instruction (usually with the same instructor) found that they learn less online. Worse still, low-income and minority students performed especially poorly with fully online instruction. Yet it’s a mistake to assume that anyone who can teach an in-person class can, just as effectively, teach online.
Developing truly effective online courses requires resources and expertise not available at most universities and colleges. To scale effective online instruction will therefore require a collaboration across multiple colleges and universities. We propose a model in which top universities or departments in the same state, system or network collaborate and license their best online courses to other schools. Course providers can charge license fees to cover the costs of production and delivery to extra students at other institutions. Recipient schools can offer licensed courses for credit, either fully online or in a blended format, instead of traditional in-person courses. Students would still have the majority of their classes in person to retain the sense of belonging and connectedness on campus. But a substantial portion of classes could be offered online.
Some US colleges are well on the way towards this model. A number of colleges in Texas are forming online course-sharing consortia that allow colleges to expand their course offerings, help students graduate on time and increase enrollments at a lower cost. Internationally, China, India and Russia de facto established such consortia at the national level to address challenges associated with the shortage of qualified instructors and growing demand for higher education.
To evaluate the financial and pedagogical consequences of this course-sharing model, we tested it in a randomized controlled experiment with two foundational engineering courses.
Three Russian resource-strapped universities adopted online versions of their in-person courses produced by the top engineering school in the country. We compared the learning outcomes of more than three hundred college sophomores who took the same class, either in-person, fully online, or in a blended format.
We randomly assigned students into groups and gave them identical course content and assignments in one of three modalities: 1) in-person lectures and discussion sections 2) a blend of online and in-person instruction, and 3) fully online instruction. At the end of the course, students from the three groups took the same exams.
We found that students learned just as much online as they did in person and with blended instruction. This is the strongest evidence to date that an average college student can learn just as much online as in a traditional classroom.
These findings bolster our belief that colleges could offset a sizable share of the costs of a typical four-year degree program by licensing online courses. In our study, blending in-person with online learning lowered the cost of per-student instruction by nearly 20%. Fully online learning lowered the cost of per-student instruction by 80%. Our calculations take into account faculty salaries and the cost of online course production, delivery and proctoring.
Colleges might consider other advantages of this approach. Expanded online course offerings would provide students with much-needed flexibility if they have a part-time job, are caregivers, want to study abroad or decide to take some time off from campus life. Mastering effective online learning strategies could also help advance students in their careers as employers increasingly expect graduates to acquire new skills.
A looming global recession and social distancing requirements will prompt universities to adopt a more pragmatic approach to online learning. By collaborating and sharing online courses, colleges can bend the cost curve of higher education and continue to prepare the workforce of tomorrow.
Igor Chirikov is a senior researcher and Student Experience in the Research University consortium director at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. Rene Kizilcec is an assistant professor of computing and information science at Cornell University.
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