Is remote learning better?


The New York Times op-ed page doesn’t often feature the commentary of a 13-year-old. Yesterday, though, it featured New York City eighth-grader Veronique Mintz’s compelling declaration that “Distance Learning Is Better.” Mintz lamented that her usual school day is filled with peers “talking out of turn” and “disrespecting teachers.” Now, she wrote, “I can work at my own pace without being interrupted by disruptive students and teachers who seem unable to manage them.”

Mintz’s take, of course, departs from how some others view distance learning. Just a few weeks ago, the Times told a very different story. In “What Students Are Saying About Remote Learning,” one California student said, “Zoom calls and texting and Google Hangouts just can’t replace face-to-face interaction.” A New Jersey student added, “I feel like my education is not being fulfilled. I have a significant lack of motivation and I miss the thought-provoking discussions I used to have with my classmates during physical school.”

Who’s right? How does distance learning compare with the familiar schoolhouse? Well, not surprisingly, it depends. It matters whether one’s school is chaotic and disorderly. But, more generally, the research on online learning pretty clearly suggests that most students today will do better in classrooms surrounded by peers and teachers.

Consider the illustration of the once-heralded MOOCs. Less than a decade ago, The Atlantic announced that they were unleashing a “revolution” in higher education. For those who may not recall MOOCs, these “Massive Online Open Courses” were free online college courses open to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

MOOCs had a lot of things working in their favor. Their students were adult learners who were choosing to take lecture-based classes taught by veteran professors who volunteered to participate. Compare that with at-home students who are taking courses they may not want to take, with teachers who may or may not be comfortable teaching remotely.

First employed at the University of Manitoba in 2008 and then popularized by professors at Stanford, MOOCs exploded in 2012 as Harvard, Penn, MIT, and other prestigious universities raced to pioneer what many journalists and politicos billed as “the future of higher education.” Courses taught by some of the world’s most renowned professors attracted tens of thousands of registrations. The New York Times was moved to dub 2012 “the year of the MOOC.”

Within a few years, the revolution had stalled out. As colleges and MOOC providers quickly discovered, the vast majority of students who signed up for MOOCs didn’t actually complete the classes. An analysis by MIT researchers of all MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT between 2013 and 2018 found that less than 5 percent of enrollees completed a typical course. Subsequent research by scholars at Arizona State University and the University of Pennsylvania helped explain: It turns out that MOOCs work best for learners who are highly motivated and disciplined.

Two rigorous studies by the American Institutes for Research are telling, especially given the paucity of good research in this area. A 2011 study of academically advanced students in Maine and Vermont found that algebra-ready eighth-graders randomly assigned to an online algebra class in lieu of their school’s in-person math class did substantially better on an end-of-the-year assessment than their peers. Conversely, a 2016 study of remedial algebra across 17 Chicago high schools found that students randomly assigned to an online course — rather than the in-person one — learned less than their peers. In other words, as the University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski observed in 2018, familiar approaches to online learning may work well for high-achievers but less well for struggling students.

In higher ed, the data tell a similar story. A 2017 study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and Mathematica compared online course-taking with in-person course-taking at a large, for-profit university. Overall, students enrolled in online courses did about half a letter grade worse than their in-person peers. Of particular interest, though, they found that students with high GPAs who took online courses fared about as well as in-person students, but online students with low GPAs did much worse. A 2014 study by Ohio State researchers similarly found that students with low GPAs fared much worse than higher-performing peers in online classes.

It gets more interesting still. There’s some evidence that technology can have a negative effect on the learning of highly disciplined, high-achieving students — even West Point cadets. A 2017 random-control study found that permitting laptop use in “Principles of Economics” classes at West Point significantly reduced students’ final-exam scores compared with students taking the same class in sections that prohibited computers. Yes, even at West Point, students who could take notes and use their laptops learned less than students who couldn’t.

Done well, virtual learning has immense promise. It can leverage interactive elements that surpass even terrific in-person instruction and be customized to the needs of individual students.  But current efforts rarely meet that high bar. Schools are relying on iffy materials and on-the-fly programming, mostly delivered by instructors who don’t know what they’re doing.

We should take to heart Veronique Mintz’s frustrations while appreciating just how different students are. Today’s online learning may be instructionally effective — and even exhilarating — for disciplined learners, especially for those stuck in chaotic, ineffectual classrooms. But for most students, especially those who are lost or disinterested, remote learning is no substitute for personal interaction.

Schools must find ways to do better by all students. That means expanding choices, improving the quality and convenience of online learning, and stepping up efforts to ensure that classrooms actually are places of learning. But as shuttered schools force 50 million students to learn remotely, we shouldn’t kid ourselves by imagining that this is the better option for most of them.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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