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Study Shows Promise and Challenges of ‘Hybrid’ Courses

Students learn just as much in a course that’s taught partly online as they would in a traditional classroom, but such courses won’t reach their potential until they are both easier for faculty members to customize and more fun for students, according to a report released today.

The report, “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence From Randomized Trials,” is based on a study conducted by Ithaka S+R, a consultancy on the use of technology in teaching.

The finding that hybrid courses are no better or worse than traditional ones isn’t, as it might appear, “a bland result,” said one of the co-authors, William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“One of the responses most frequently raised in efforts to experiment with this kind of teaching is that it will expose students to risk,” he said in an interview. “The results of this study show that such worries are overblown.”

The results do indicate that such courses, as they exist today, “do no harm,” said Mr. Bowen, who serves as a senior adviser to the Ithaka group. “But surely these courses are going to improve dramatically as they become more customizable and more fun.”

Some experts advocate online classes as a way to deliver courses more economically and effectively, particularly for members of minority groups and others who might be subject to stereotypes in a classroom setting. Meanwhile, skeptics suspect that online approaches depersonalize education and shortchange students.

“We felt it was important to do a rigorous, randomized study so we could see if the extreme claims on either side of the divide are justified,” Mr. Bowen said.

The study compared how much students at six public universities learned after taking a prototype introductory statistics course in the fall of 2011 in either a hybrid or a traditional format. The researchers randomly assigned a diverse group of 605 students to either a hybrid group, in which they learned with computer-guided instruction and one hour of face-to-face instruction each week, or a traditional format, usually with three or four hours of face-to-face instruction per week.

The result? “We find that learning outcomes are essentially the same—that students in the hybrid format pay no ‘price’ for this mode of instruction in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, and performance on a standardized assessment of statistical literacy,” the report concluded.

The authors also found that using the hybrid approach in large introductory courses “has the potential to significantly reduce instructor compensation costs in the long run.”

The report emphasizes that its conclusions don’t apply to all online instruction, just a specific type of interactive online course in which computer-guided instruction substitutes for some face-to-face instruction.

The findings were consistent among all groups and campuses, the authors said. Half of the students tested were from families earning less than $50,000, and half were first-generation college students.

Large public universities that face growing pressures to cut costs and improve graduation rates stand the most to gain from refining the hybrid approach, particularly for large introductory courses, the authors note.

“As resistant as some might still be even to think about seeking productivity gains in order to reduce teaching costs, there is simply no denying the need to look more closely than ever before at the relation between certain ‘outputs’ (approximated, for example, by degrees conferred) and ‘inputs’ (the mix of labor and capital that defines educational production functions),” the report says. “It is essential that the limited resources available to higher education be used as effectively as possible.”

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