The educational value of online courses has been debated for years, based on a large but uneven body of research. An analysis of 99 studies by the federal Department of Education concluded last year that online instruction, on average, was more effective than face-to-face learning by a modest amount. But that analysis has been challenged because so few of the underlying studies include apples-to-apples comparisons, reports the New York Times. Mark Rush of the University of Florida and colleagues tried to do just that by contrasting grades of students who sat through a semester of his live microeconomics lectures with those who watched online. Their conclusion, reported in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research: some groups of online students did notably worse. Hispanic students watching online earned a full grade lower, on average, than Hispanics who attended class, and all male students who watched online were about a half-grade lower. The results surprised the researchers; after all, the live lectures were delivered in a hall to scores of students, who rarely engaged the professor or one another. David N. Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study, had been prepared to find that “watching online didn’t make a lick of difference,” he said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Hang on for a second, maybe it does.’ ”

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staff and wire services reports