If you're thinking about skipping a lecture and just catching it online, think again. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports in a recent study that university students who attended live lectures modestly outperformed students who viewed the same lectures online.
Researchers David Figlio of Northwestern University and Mark Rush and Lu Yin of the University of Florida found the disparity after analyzing the exam scores of 312 undergraduate students enrolled in a large introductory economics class of a selective university. They randomly assigned students to either attend the live lectures or view them after they were uploaded on the Internet. Figlio, Rush and Yin also found that male students and Latino students may particularly encounter a greater learning disadvantage online.
The use of Internet classes by traditional universities has been exploding in recent years. The 2009 annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning reports that more than a quarter of all higher education students are now taking at least one online course. Over 80 percent of research institutions offer online classes. And roughly 4.6 million took at least one online course in fall 2008, almost triple the number in 2002 when the survey was first released.
Medill News Service asked Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy, about the pros and cons of online lectures, and why some students may not benefit from them.
Why is studying live lectures versus Internet-viewed lectures important?
In an era of budget cuts, it’s more and more likely that we will see a larger and larger number of institutions that may be saying, “Well, why offer three sections of a 400-student lecture if we can offer one section and post the lectures on the Internet? That’s major cost savings.” What this study is saying is that universities that think there is no difference between an Internet-only experience and a big traditional lecture should be careful.
Before conducting the experiment, what were your expectations?
Mark Rush and I have a lot of experience teaching large lecture courses, in both traditional settings as well as in hybrid settings like the one considered in our paper. We, frankly, both thought that having the flexibility to pause, rewind and review the lectures at a later date would have academic advantages for students. And it’s not like a giant 400-student class has rich student-teacher interactions. If you think of those students in a giant lecture hall as being pure consumers of information as opposed to active participants in a course, then why not allow them to take the class at their leisure, in their pajamas? We find that not only is there no advantage to Internet lectures but, that for certain key groups, there is a disadvantage. That gives me pause.
The two groups that you found did not learn as well from Internet-driven lectures are young men and Latinos. Why?
I’m somewhat circumspect about that because we all know many, many, many motivated young men and we know many unmotivated young women. And remember, these are not students getting 700 on their SATs. These are students getting 1200 on their SATs. They are still way above average.
The Latino students also appear to be impaired by the Internet-only education. It could be the case that Latino students are more likely to come from home environments where Spanish was the first language. If that’s the case, then in a live lecture, they might feel this need to pay extra close attention. If, also, English is your primary language in school but you’re not speaking English at home or in your neighborhood, you may not have developed quite the level of facility as other students. That’s also speculative, but I think that’s a compelling story.
Do you think the absence of noticeable social cues in an online environment plays a part as well?
That could be. Also, there’s a more immediate opportunity to seek help in live lectures. You can ask people to repeat themselves and you can ask the professor questions during a break.
Did you find that students’ tendencies to procrastinate worked against the possible advantages of learning through Internet-based lectures?
It could be the case that the Internet environment may provide opportunities for procrastination, but you can address this also with more frequent evaluation. We all have the best of intentions, but it’s human nature to delay painful experiences. And let’s face it, for most people, attending a giant lecture with an often droning professor may not be the most scintillating experience. For every student who loves these introductory classes, there’s probably three or four who just want to get past them and get to the smaller-scale, higher-level courses where discussion is key.
What are you hoping will come out of this study?
Again, this is just one study, so I'd like to conduct similar experiments in other types of environments to see how [much the findings can be generalized]. My hope is that people from other institutions might be able to do more, to try a different set of environments. I think the results of this paper are informative, but I think the most important thing about this paper is providing a template for further research on this topic. We view this more as the start of a conversation rather than the end of the story.