April 11, 2002

Study Finds Web-Based Learning Less Effective

Print More

In a recent study, two professors in the economics department at Michigan State University (MSU) found that students in online courses fared far worse than those in live classrooms.

The study looked at five sections of a “Principles of Economics” course which was taught in the 2000-2001 academic year. The professors tracked two sections in a classroom, two online and one that was a combination of classroom instruction and online material.

“The result was that online students were less effective in learning more complex material,” said Byron Brown, one of the study’s authors to MSU Today, the university’s student newspaper. The study found that to be true even though the online students tended to have higher average ACT score than those in the classroom.

“These results differ sharply from the vast majority of studies in the education field that continue to claim there is no significant difference between live and virtual courses,” said Carl Liedholm, the study’s other author.

The study comes at a time when eCornell, the online division of the University that President Hunter Rawlings III once said was “an extraordinary opportunity to extend the high-quality educational programs of Cornell to organizations and individuals far beyond the reaches of our physical campus,” is offering professional courses online.

“We have several hundred students, and the numbers go up every day,” said Francis Pandolfi, the chief executive officer of eCornell.

“eCornell got off to a bit of a rocky start because of faculty concerns about whether we were going to give somebody a degree who’s sitting at home in front of their computers. This is extending to much larger audiences than have ever been available. Cornell has a history of outreach,” said Ed Hershey, the director of communication strategies.

eCornell currently offers classes from the Hotel School, the school of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Hospital for Special Surgery, the hospital associated with the Weill Medical College. Online students can also earn a Certificate from ILR in Human Resources Studies.

eCornell is not, however, at the point where it can begin research how well its students are faring, according to Pandolfi.

“It’s too early for us to look into whether it’s more effective or less effective. We can’t do it with such a small research base,” he said.

Pandolfi estimates that such research will commence in the next six to twelve months.

Hershey pointed out that the classes that eCornell offers are slightly different from the one the MSU study concentrated on.

“Nobody is taking a Cornell undergraduate economics course online. Nobody is planning to take four credit baccalaureate or graduate classes and put them online,” he said.

One group that did seem to do better in the MSU study was women. Their scores were still lower than their classroom counterparts. However, the women who took the class online did as well as the men did, while those who took it in the classroom were on average a full six percentage points below the men on the final.

“Classroom dynamics favor students who can come up with a correct answer or observation quickly. The virtual setting removes that pressure and seems to promote achievement across a variety of learning styles,” Brown explained to MSU Today.

While eCornell has no data on whether women are in fact more equally matched with their male counterparts online, Pandolfi said that the finding are consistent with eCornell’s experience in that “most of our customers, around 80 percent, are women.”

Archived article by Freda Ready