Higher education’s embrace of online courses could hurt the performance of some groups of students, according to a study that contradicts the findings of a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) showing that online students perform as well, or better, than their peers in face-to-face settings on average.
Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that males, Hispanics, and low-performing students might fare worse in web-based classes than they do in the traditional classroom—a problem exacerbated by the high rate of online course adoption at community colleges and “less selective institutions,” where these three groups are most likely to attend.
The rush to make online courses widely available and save colleges money in difficult economic times might be “inadvertently … harming a significant portion of their student body,” according to the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and ED.
The NBER’s research tracked the progress of 312 undergraduate students enrolled in a microeconomics course at a state university, which remained unnamed at the school’s request. The course’s grading was based on three tests: two midterm exams and a final.
Hispanic students who took the microeconomics class online finished the semester a full grade lower than Hispanic students who learned in a face-to-face environment. Males who watched lectures and studied online were half a letter grade behind males who learned in the classroom, as were low-performing students—those who had a grade point average below the university’s mean GPA.