There’s no Shame in Being 90% as Good

The internet’s paper du jour is a new Columbia University study that looks at online classes in community colleges. The study found that online students had an 82% chance of finishing a course whereas students in face-to-face classes had a 90% chance of finishing.

For the most part, these numbers have been cited to critique online learning and downplay it as a potential solution, and for the most part, this is a completely misguided reaction. The right response is “Only 10% worse? That’s not bad. Not bad at all.” In fact, there are at least four reasons why reformers and blended learning enthusiasts should be high-fiving each other over these results.

First, when you’re talking about a system that can teach 10, 100, or 1,000 times as many students for the same cost, a 10% decrease in quality is nothing. If you could vaccinate 100 times as many African children but have the vaccines be 10% less effective, I don’t think anybody would say that’s a bad thing.

Second, it’s only 2011. In the grand scheme of things we’ve barely scratched the surface with educational technology. Using this study to draw conclusions about the failure of online learning is like writing off mp3s in 1997 because of poor sound quality. The study also took place over five years, which means some of the data comes from whatever primitive online interfaces were being used from 2006-2008.

Third, as with most education research, the average performance isn’t as important as it seems. Even if on average fewer people complete online classes, there are countless students whose chances of completing a class go from 0% to 99% percent because of an online option. If there’s a new cancer treatment that does the same on average as existing treatments, but magically cures 20% of people far beyond anything that exists, nobody would abandon work on it because of its “on average” results.

Fourth, there is some selection bias built into the study. The researchers attempted to control for student backgrounds, but when somebody chooses to take an online class rather than a more time-consuming face-to-face class, it means they’re more likely to have other important commitments or less overall interest that students in conventional classes. The selection bias means that the observed downsides of online classes may not even exist.

Too often when it comes to research on things like educational technology and charter schools people want results that show a new option always better. We’re not there yet. But as long innovations can do the same for less, or do more for a certain subset of people, we’ll continue to make progress.

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