I went back to +Larry press
's blog post which prompted this discussion just to see where we stood. I noticed that in the blog post he repeatedly refers to "traditional online courses" - as especially in the rather inflammatory title of the post: Columbia University study slams traditional online classes -- we need to move beyond traditional
- but the study never gives any information AT ALL about the online courses in question, so I got curious about that label which Larry used, "traditional online courses." I checked: it is not used anywhere in the study at all.
The only information provided about the specific online courses under consideration are that they "limited the sample to Washington residents enrolled in academic tarnsfer track and to courses offering both online and face-to-face sections" (that's in a footnote). That, to me, is already a warning bell; at my school, the best online courses are the ones that were designed to be online courses - not courses that exist as online offerings of the "same" course offered face to face.
Anyway, aside from that, I could find zero information that characterized the online courses in any way at all. Please correct me if I am wrong! The reason the authors selected the courses this way is a requirement of their statistical modeling; they want to use statistical methods to compare the "same" (i.e. statistically speaking the same) student taking a face-to-face course v. the "same" course online. Such statistical modeling seems to me misguided, but that's a separate discussion (this is the same kind of modeling being used to do the "value added" types of teacher evaluations, for example).
Based on my reading of the article, I'm not sure where Larry's label of "traditional" courses comes from, nor what such a label means - does everybody agree on what a "traditional" online course is? I personally have no idea what that would mean. Larry says: "The study was based on traditional online courses, which typically have about 25 students and are run by professors who often have little interaction with students." I am not sure where that comes from; I did not find it in the study. Usually smaller courses like that do feature a lot of interaction with students - but that varies, of course. If we are talking about a part-time adjunct faculty member who is juggling three different jobs, even in a small class, yes, there might be limited faculty interaction. But if we are talking about full-time instructors with reasonable teaching loads, classes that size are ideal for student interaction. The study, as I've said above, reports no data that helps us assess that directly (levels of interaction) nor indirectly (faculty employment status, faculty course loads, etc.)
The authors of the study would in fact have enrollment data (all they do is count things), but I could find no information about class size in the report anywhere. (Again, correct me if I am wrong).
So, in every way I can see, this study seems to be badly ill-conceived. Even when they had available data (class size), they did not report it. Of course, size is just the first question to ask about an online course - but there are many other questions to ask as well. The failure of the authors of the study to even report the available data on class size suggests to me that the thought about the variability between online courses and the way those variables affect student outcome did not even cross their minds. I wonder: have they ever taught an online course...? Have they ever taught at all?
I did a quick check on the authors.
Di Xu - http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/person/di-xu.html
- appears to be research staff only, not teaching faculty. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia Teachers College.
Jaggars - http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/person/shanna-smith-jaggars.html
- has a PhD from UT Austin in Human Development and Family Science and she appears to be an administrator, managing "a suite of studies funded under the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation" as part of the CCRC Community College Research Center at Columbia Teachers College - my guess is that she also does not teach.
And, +Donna Murdoch
, it turns out this is a 100% Teachers College production after all. :-)