Study documents and quantifies what we’ve known all along: face-to-face instruction beats online by every measure

In-person, live instruction and class meetings offer superior results to students than online courses.  It’s true!  And you no longer have to listen to fuddy-duddy old proffies like me, who have been beating our breasts and wailing about the poor outcomes of online classes.  From a study of 217,000 unique students in California community colleges:

[R]esearchers found online students lagging behind face-to-face students in three critical areas:

  • Completing courses (regardless of grade).
  • Completing courses with passing grades.
  • Completing courses with grades of A or B.

The results were the same across subject matters, courses of different types and different groups of students. Larger gaps were found in some areas, such as summer courses and courses taken by relatively small numbers of online students. But no patterns could be found where students online performed better than those in face-to-face courses.

Hey, assessment fans:  these are the basic measures of what we professors like to call “learning.”  They’re not perfect, but the data are crystal-clear.

And for the record, I’m absolutely fu(k!ng disgusted by online proponents pretending like they’re doing a favor to the working class by putting courses online instead of fully funding higher education and expanding the number of traditional courses and campuses and diversifying the times of the day face-to-face classes are available.  Like this commenter on the article at Inside Higher Ed:  “Many online students don’t have the option of going to class: Young parents, working adults with busy schedules, people living far from campus, etc…”  

So build more campuses!  Hire more professors!  Pay them extra to teach night classes!  Don’t put stressed out potential students in front of a computer at 9 p.m., sell them a book and access to a few videotaped lectures, and then imply that it’s all their fault when they get a poor grade or drop out.

In sum, expand the availability of F2F traditional courses.  Don’t cut university budgets and further withdraw state support of higher education–that’s how we got into this mess, idiots!  And Christ on a cracker, stop pretending that online courses are just as good as the real thing.

Do you think the unscrupulous marketing of online courses as the quick-and-dirty way to a college degree has anything whatsoever to do with the poor completion rates of online courses?  Well, do ya, punk?

33 thoughts on “Study documents and quantifies what we’ve known all along: face-to-face instruction beats online by every measure

  1. Here is the logic of all higher education “reform.”

    The things that have been actually shown to work (the extremely healthy state-funded higher education system built for the Baby Boomers) is excluded from the conversation as “unrealistic.”

    Therefore, something else HAS to work better. Just because alternative proposals (online ed, for-profits, etc.) have been shown NOT to work is not the issue. Everyone has to accept that they COULD work, even if they don’t.

    Or: raising taxes is impossible. Therefore, replacing college with some online videos is possible.

    And of course, liberal arts are no help, because they would only expose how stupid the above proposition is.


  2. Word to my Lord Cleveland.

    I am surprised that it’s been nearly 3 hours since I posted this and no one has popped up to say “BUT I LOVED MY ONLINE MLIS/MLS/MSLS CLASSES SO STFU! ONLINE IS TEH AWESOMMME FOR EVERYONE!!!

    But I have been accused of killing babies and putting their heads on spikes on Twitter this morning. They day is still young on the Best Coast!


  3. P.S. to Bardiac: I don’t think looking at whether or not students complete a course or what their grades are is exactly “assessment.” That’s just “grades,” the kind of assessment that we’ve been doing all along.

    So, no: beyond the grades we give and the feedback we write on student essays and tests, “assessment” exercises are just makework exercises that induce us to do again what we’ve already done. My mistake!


  4. What Dr. Cleveland said. I’d only add that analyzing that logic is a result of education, and critical thinking.


    Glad I haven’t been following twitter this AM!


  5. Not to be excessively radical about it, but the difficulties faced by working-class students suggest that we really need a broader re-imagining of society than just “online classes.” If face-to-face education is the best (which it undoubtedly is), and it is inaccessible to working-class students (which it also undoubtedly is in many ways), then perhaps we need to address the other things that shape working-class life, no?


  6. YES! Let’s all be “excessively radical!”

    There is a fantastic model for bringing the benefits of higher education to the working class. It’s called the CUNY system and the University of California ca. 1920-1970.

    F2F has done it before, and it can do it again if there’s the political will. But as my Lord Cleveland points out in the first comment, there is little if any appetite among the political class and our social betters to truly democratize access to education. Too many people are getting rich, staying rich, and seeing their property values increase because of the status quo we have created.


  7. There’s no political will because there’s no way to monetize a democratic access to education.

    The most alarming thing about the rush toward packaged online education (looking at you, MOOCs) is the frightening eagerness of corporate edu-companies to promote their products and drive out better alternatives in the name of efficiency and cost savings, which they define as “excellence.”

    As we’ve all pointed out many times, Reginald Vanderbilt Gates Elite the III is not going to be shunted off into online education. He’s going to go to Harvard where he can network and learn to be a master of the universe. But mass education massively delivered is plenty good enough for the rest of us.


  8. You are missing the point here, Historiann. Clayton Christensen and the Happy Disruptors know that online is inferior, that’s the point. To be disruptive, they claim, you go after the cheap end of the market and deliver a cheaper, inferior product. They know it’s not as good and they just. don’t. care.


  9. Oy, you should go take a look at my Twitter page! Western Dave, I should have tagged you on Twitter but you’ll probably be glad that I overlooked you once you take a look.

    And yet, still no angry MLIS/MSLS/MLS insistent that he or she was well served online! I’m totally and completely ready to believe that. I just don’t think that online works for beginning college students or certainly in K-12 ed.


  10. At the BF’s institution, online enrollments have basically flatlined, if not declined. Gone are the admin-o-crats’ dreams of a virtual cash cow generating unending tuition dollars without pesky faculty.

    It might be that students noticed the lack of quality before assessment caught up. . . I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.


  11. This is what I hear from all of my students: they prefer F2F rather than online, because they feel they learn more. Of course, it’s a very self-selected sample, obvs.: they’re in my classes, which are all F2F. I will have to check on online enrollments at my uni to see if the same thing is happening as at your BF’s institution.


  12. Also, this is an actual Tweet I just received:

    if I had read the blog post first I never would have bothered with any of this; I trusted (Jonathan Rees’s) retweet.”

    PRO TIP: If you want to argue with the content of a blog post, please read it first. Ideally, comment here too, as there’s no registration & you can make your point at length, rather than writing 40 Tweets. But, it’s your choice!


  13. MLS here who *knows* F2F is best and who acts on it as much as possible. (Well, OK, I’ve had to streamline my F2Fness because reasons, but it’s better, streamlined F2F as opposed to the random mindless F2F stuff I did ad infinitum when I was new at currentjob.

    However, in MLS-land my firm belief in F2F is easily dismissed because I have a PhD (meaning that I’m one of THEM) and I’m… old(ish), so, I can be charged with being a change-averse Luddite. So I may not be real representative of MLS-hood.

    I’ll also add that some of the MLS online-luv is because MLS programs are not necessarily super-rigorous. One of my MLS courses involved regular fill-in-the-blank quizzes and hard-hitting discussion questions like, “why would a YA novel not be held in the reference section”?

    My brother-in-law, currently working three part-time jobs, including teaching online as an adjunct, is just about to start an online MLS program. It’ll be interesting to see what he makes of it; he has a F2F masters’ already, to compare it to.


  14. I should add that I’m not necessarily opposed to online, just that I think F2F is a necessary thing that can’t be eliminated.

    I also have the feeling that my brother-in-law’s online program may end up being more rigorous than my F2F one, given which university it’s part of (Wisconsin)… but I don’t think that that’s an argument against F2F. Also, there aren’t a lot of library schools in the country, and in his case, there isn’t one in his city. I think he’s going to have to drive to Madison a couple of times (2-hour drive) for the program.

    The issue I had in my F2F program was that there wasn’t a lot of actual *teaching* or interaction– in some ways it felt like it was mimicking (and, I think, predicting) online education even though we were there in person. I really, really appreciated the professors who actually taught in thoughtful ways (I loved when I was able to figure out their methods!) and didn’t just have us teach ourselves the material.


  15. Thanks, sophylou, for your insider perspective.

    As I’ve said here dozens of times before, I’m not opposed to online ed in every case, and my mission is not to shut it down everywhere (as if I have that power!) But I think the evidence is clear that less experienced students do demonstrably less well in online classes than in F2F.

    I’m sorry that you felt you were left to teach yourselves the material. OTOH, isn’t that kind of what all of graduate education is, to at least some extent? That is, I think part of the lesson is learning how to learn on your own. (But I’m sure that was a concept that was easier for you to pick up on, b/c you had a Ph.D. already!)

    It’s that divide that separates high-quality grad programs from intro undergrad courses, where students are less successful. IMHO, a lot of what I do in intro classes & all undergrad classes generally is teaching them HOW to “do” college successfully. If you’ve already mastered that & have a college degree, then it’s easier to grasp the scope and purpose of a course whether it’s online or F2F.


  16. I’m wrapping up a first-time offering of an online course that I’ve taught many times on campus. I’d say that it appears to be much more difficult for students to master this online for a variety of reasons: even though I’ve written accompanying guides to their readings, illustrated with video clips and virtual walk-throughs, it feels cold. Their posts on the discussion board aren’t anything compared to what we could hear in-class, back-and-forth. Students struggle with some parts that came easily in the classroom.

    This isn’t just my impression: it’s coming from the students. One student confessed that not hearing the names of all of these various figures made it really hard for them to sink into the memory. Another said that it was difficult to get excited about the readings as compared to an on-campus course taken with me because it felt more isolated.

    I’m thinking about helpful tweaks to the next offering: should I make a short audio segment to go with each unit? Should I cut back on the expectation they’ll post formal responses to questions and ask for more impressionistic responses to sources as they read along? Maybe I’ll only ask for one primary source analysis and beef up the quizzes. I don’t know yet, but I do know the course will never be as easy to offer online as it is in person.


  17. So I was just blogging about things related to this and I did get caught up in the Twitter mess albeit late in the game. Yikes. It’s worth pointing out that Audrey Watters has been covering this for years. If you are interested in this stuff and not familiar with Hacked Education go check out. Watters is a fabulous writer and does a great job contextualizing much of the technofuturist discourse into the larger cultural project of “teaching machines” and the long time scale agendas of ed-tech reformers.


  18. Yeah, I knew I should clarify that. By “teaching it to ourselves” I meant that there was a huge amount of reliance on peer instruction. Instead of the professor talking about the material in any way, individual students or groups would *lecture* on material that was new to everyone (very different from PhD school, where students or groups would lead discussions of materials everyone had ostensibly read. Also, unlike a history grad program, there wasn’t any kind of body of shared basic knowledge to build on, and also not much emphasis on any kind of methodology, so there just wasn’t the kind of the structure/commonalities that are implicit in a more traditionally scholarly field). Since almost everyone was in their 20s, if not just out of college, almost no one really knew anything about their assigned lecture topics (or how to do research) and there was always a tacit understanding that you DID NOT ask questions, as a courtesy, because the people presenting/lecturing would really only know whatever was on their Powerpoint. I was totally fine picking up the reading etc, on my own, and papers were a snap for me, all stuff I knew how to approach, but the more technological stuff was so much better learned from people who actually knew what they were doing and could take a more active role. (Yes, I thought A LOT about how different it was from PhD school. I was practically writing love sonnets to the course layout and doctoral exam structure in my PhD program.)

    I had a FABULOUS professor for a basic database management course– he mixed lecture, in-class labs, AND peer instruction, which was a great combination. And I also had an awesome class on User Studies where we got to function as individual design teams, and we did, with the professor available to help and provide input. I learned SO much in that class because we had an expert in the field who, well, experted, as well as letting us create our projects. (He also told great stories about projects he’d worked on). Those guys taught — they didn’t just rely on peer instruction — and that to me is the value of F2F. For me right now my favorite F2F teaching is a footnote mining exercise where the students follow footnotes and go get the materials. We put them in groups, they work together, they get stuck, the professor and I unstick them, and then we have a great discussion with all the “stuck” moments as discussion/teaching moments. It’s fun, people move around and ask each other and us things. One prof wants to do this as a take-home exercise, but I like the mix of teamwork/”expert” help, and I also like that they get to see that everybody’s getting stuck and everyone learns from the stuck moments.


  19. Janice–your experience teaching online sounds like what I hear from everyone I know who’s gone online to teach in the past 5 years or so. I think we fall for the notion that our students are “digital natives,” forgetting that they’re also natives of face-to-face instruction for 13 years before they get to university. Everyone I know says that it takes way more work, and that the results just aren’t as good for either the teacher or the students.

    Sophylou’s experiences, even as someone with a Ph.D. already, suggest that there are many things online can do, but they can’t do it nearly as well or as efficiently as F2F instruction.

    If you haven’t clicked on Western Dave’s latest blog post, he’s got some great things to say about the “sage on the stage,” the “guide on the side,” and the value of expertise in the classroom however it’s organized (online or F2F, seminar or lecture style).

    Janice, your students are really fortunate that you’re in the trenches trying to make something of the online environment. Imagine what someone with less experience and knowledge than you would do with a class like yours!

    I wish you luck. I remain skeptical for myself.


  20. I teach online fairly regularly, and am not at all surprised by the results. I also concur with Janice’s experience: doing it well is a labor-intensive process (for both teacher and students), takes some practice (ditto), and still probably doesn’t work as well as traditional f2f for many students. It’s probably best suited for graduate and advanced-certificate programs targeted at people who already know how to learn (and I’d still guess that the most effective programs of that kind have a hybrid component, in the form of periodic intense in-person meetings). It’s very badly suited for beginning and/or marginal students. And it’s not, by any measure I can think of, efficient (especially not if you count the cost of hiring a bunch of instructional designers, some of whom are excellent and some of whom have lots of bright ideas about how teaching should work but little to no in-the-trenches experiences, and the time experienced in-the-trenches teachers lose arguing with the latter group).

    And no, online education is not an effective way to serve (and/or capture borrowed tuition dollars from) the beleaguered working class, or those in rural areas. Even taking into account the scourge of flexible scheduling, few of the former have enough time in their overcrowded schedules to do the work, and the latter often have slow internet connections (think trying to watch a lecture online is difficult? Try watching it as it stutters and starts and stops and buffers).

    And finally, to answer your final question: yes. Unquestionably yes. I’ve gotten explicit pushback in evaluations that online classes are “supposed” to be easier (even though we’re, in fact, explicitly required to make them fully equivalent to our f2f classes). Wonder where the students got that idea?


  21. CC: I’m glad to hear from you. I was concerned that you would find this post off-putting or hostile to your work. I hope you know–and I think you do–that this is about my problem with universities and administrators, not with individuals who teach online.

    Other friends of mine have told me about the hostility they get from students, and about complaints about their work that they never get in their F2F classes in their whole careers. It seems like online courses work like the rest of social media, in that it’s easy to make assumptions and impugn motives that one wouldn’t make or impugn when dealing with someone in person.

    Technology can bring us closer, but only so much.


  22. There is a lot of enthusiasm for more online courses in the UW system, which is now facing a $300 million budget cut. The governor wants us to be more efficient, and the accepted wisdom, at least among politicians, is that teaching online will enable faculty to reach more students in a more cost-effective way.


  23. I developed an online upper-level course that I will be teaching for the first time this fall. We were pushed to do this so that students could do our entire minor online (which does make some sense for us for geographical reasons – two campuses fairly spread-out, in a rural area). It was hard to put together and I’m sure will be hard to teach. But the most interesting thing was that it filled up immediately. In a discipline where we struggle to get 10 students in our upper level classes – we’re technically not supposed to run them under 10, but we have been lately, all the time – this one maxed out at 25 students right away.

    So I’ll have to see how it goes; I hope it’s okay. Of course I would rather teach it face to face, but with this kind of demand it will be hard to justify going back to that. Our small humanities department is at risk of consolidation, losing the major, etc., etc., and this may be something we can do to keep it going. I envisage lots of moral dilemmas about this ahead. Sigh.


  24. It will always come down to the teacher whether it is online, f2f, or mobile learning. I’ve taken a lot of online courses and the system does work when the instructors are willing to make it work. That said, it will not work for a lot of students because online students need to be self-motivated.

    The best example I can give of a good online student is to see if they read the textbook or not. This usually indicates where they are with their reading comprehension. If that is low, the students will fare poorly online. They need the f2f. If they have high reading comprehension, then online may work for them. Of course, at that point it comes down to the instructor.

    Far too many online instructors have little pedagogical training. They try to take their ground courses and just port it over to online. The two systems are totally different and require different approaches and pedagogy. It does take quite a bit of work to construct an engaging online course. Unfortunately we have far too many instructors who will not put the work into it because most of the time they have no clue how to teach online in the first place.

    F2F has its fair share of problems too. Complacency, poor pedagogical practices, a lack of technical knowledge, and an unwillingness to adapt to changing student bodies are all common issues. Yet, F2F is better for the majority of the students I encounter mainly because they need to become better learners before taking those online courses.


  25. Jimmy, I agree with you that teaching in the two different formats requires a different approach & different pedagogies. However, I think it’s too glib to say that “it will always come down to the teacher.” What are the conditions in which the teacher teaches? How many students is ze expected to supervise? What kinds of assignments and communication are facilitated by the classroom or software design? What kind of liberty does the professor have to decide course materials and assignments? How much money was a university willing to invest in training their faculty to teach in these different situations? Were F2F proffies offered any money or time to learn about online ed, or were they just commanded to figure it all out on their own?

    These are the structural conditions that concern me, and that I think are actually more important than the quality of the individual instructor. (Think about it: people who teach at Amherst and Swarthmore can believe that they are probably all brilliant teachers, because they teach relatively few, very bright students who excel, learn something, and get great grades. Teachers who teach at Open State U. (like me), where the numbers of students are much higher, and their preparation for college work uneven, get much more mixed results I’m sure. So does that mean that the quality of instructors at Open State are all inferior to their counterparts at Amherst or Swat?

    I don’t think so, but of course I have a strong self-interest in doubting that proposition.

    af, I’ll be really interested to hear how your online course goes. If you’re interested, I’d be thrilled to have you write a guest post for this blog, whatever your experience. If you find that online = teh awesome! I’ll publish it. If you think online sucks, I’ll publish it. I’m interested in real data and real experiences, not ideological cant.

    However, all faculty who care about quality instruction on or offline should be concerned about the budget cuts at UW that Theresa mentions. Pols who want more for less are not to be trusted, or believed.


  26. I have students and colleagues who speak positively about “hybrid” classes — classes that meet half face-to-face and half online, organizing the F2F and online components in different ways depending on the instructor and the nature of the class. Sometimes they meet for just one 75-min session a week instead of two; sometimes they meet twice a week for a while and then move all online; etc.

    This seems to have real potential for working students, students who are parents, or those with transportation problems, giving them a certain amount of flexibility and cutting down on commuting time/costs while still allowing them to establish real, in-person relationships with the people they’re otherwise encountering as words on a screen.

    But of course, hybrid classes don’t save colleges any money — they place the same demands on space as F2F classes and the same demands on technology as online classes. I assume a lot of places that offer such classes will eventually phase them out.


  27. Online doesn’t save them any money either–although my uni charges MORE for online classes! Go figure.

    When I get really foily, I start thinking that universities really don’t care about the high dropout rates in online classes, once they’ve got the students’ money. It’s all good! Privatize the profit, and socialize the risk of education!!!


  28. Grit City is a big public mid-tier university. I teach small lecture/discussion classes and seminars (20-30 students), mostly because my subspeciality is small (my US colleagues regularly teach 30-50).

    A few years back, I implemented one-on-one tutorials to go with my papers in my survey courses. I’d cancel class for a week twice a semester and hold individual 30-min conferences with each student. And in 80% of those conferences, I saw a light go on, or I could talk to a student about their work in other parts of the course, or they asked a question about the work that for some reason they couldn’t bear to ask in front of people (unrelated point: what’s with the passivity and unwillingness to admit to ignorance lately?), or I got to hear them get super-excited about something they were researching.

    I’m not saying everyone should do this. It’s a metric fuck-ton of work, and every semester I wonder if I’ll do it again. What I *am* saying is that, from my experience, the closer I get to a one-to-one model, the more chance I have of reaching a student. It stands to reason that the further you get from it (2,000-person MOOC, anyone?), the more challenging learning becomes for all but the most motivated students.

    And, as H’Ann has suggested: Small courses for elite schools + big MOOCs for cash-starved public unis = two-tiered educational system. As a semi-socialist grew-up-scrappy educator at an urban public uni, I say Fuck. That. Noise.


  29. Historiann,

    You bring up concerns that are important for any classroom whether they are online or F2F. I am fortunate in that I have just about complete control of my courses whether they are ground or online. I teach for a community college and my online course assignment has been the American History survey course. I actually am no longer teaching online because of the need for me on my home campus in ground courses.

    I see several problems with online education that can be corrected, but are not because of many factors which you have indirectly addressed. I strongly resent any institution creating an online program that does not include teaching students how to be online learners or instructors on how to teach online as well as requiring them to be an online student so they learn the online student perspective.

    Online has advantages over F2F in some respects because it is superior to the large lecture halls used by many major universities for their lower level history courses. If it were up to me I would ban classes with more than 50 students (and I think that is too high a number as well!), but we all know the bean counters will never let that happen.

    As far as I am concerned, the traditional lecture needs a stake driven through its dead heart. I moved to a flipped classroom design which engages the students through a constructivist model. This can work online as well, but I have not had the opportunity to employ it there.

    My conversations with many of the teachers at my school has led me to realize that most have no desire to develop engaging online courses. They are using an old, outdated model of textbook reading, short discussion questions, and a test. There is no engagement and no attempt made to promote active learning. The instructors see the online course as an easy way to supplement their pay.

    With instructors like that, it is easy to get the results the study you linked to occur. That is why I said the problem is instructor based. I think a lot of problems in higher education are instructor based because most of them have no pedagogical training. Then again, a lot of problems are institution based because money drives the way things are done. Just take a look at the abysmal plan Arizona State University has come up with regarding MOOCs and freshmen.

    That has to be one of the worst plans ever seen in higher ed. MOOCs have their place in the transfer of knowledge, but not for college freshmen. That deserves a post of its own. It takes the worst parts of online education and magnifies them for the students who need the most help whether it is online or F2F.


  30. I abs. agree with your conclusion here Jimmy.

    However, I would argue that this:

    My conversations with many of the teachers at my school has led me to realize that most have no desire to develop engaging online courses. They are using an old, outdated model of textbook reading, short discussion questions, and a test. There is no engagement and no attempt made to promote active learning. The instructors see the online course as an easy way to supplement their pay.

    is clearly malpractice in the F2F classroom, although even someone with unimaginative assignments and evaluative instruments can sometimes or even frequently be a really good classroom lecturer & discussion leader, which can make all the difference to the student experience. (I would say that their institutions aren’t properly teaching about and creating incentives to develop quality online instruction, if this is what they’re doing.)

    I’ve written here before about the emotional aspect of our experiences, and it seems like students are much more likely to be expansive and forgiving of their F2F proffies vs. their online proffies. The human touch matters.


  31. Instructors can be both good F2F and online instructors. At the same time there are many good F2f instructors who are terrible online instructors. Then again there are some very bad F2f instructors. There are several problems that come up with online education. I am not going to go into all of them, but one is that many teachers are pushed into online teaching because the school chooses to create that program and does not want to hire online instructors.

    Part of that stems from an erroneous idea that online teaching is easy. It is not easy and it requires serious preparation. In many cases it takes more time than a ground class although experienced instructors learn how to manage that time more efficiently. Yet, the bean counters, who often have little to no teaching experience or knowledge of pedagogy make the decisions and poor ones to boot.

    A properly run online program works. They do exist and they provide quality education. However, there are a lot of bad apples out there that give this platform a black eye. They’re in it for the money and unfortunately students get hurt in the process.

    Another problem is that some prefer to think online education is a one size fits all model. It is nothing of the sort. There are a lot of students that have absolutely no business taking online courses because they cannot learn in that system. These students have problems learning already. Why double down on their issues?

    I know that online education can work. It will not work for everyone so the bean counters need to stop trying to promote that it can. Unfortunately as you and I well know, the current political conservatism is all about cutting public education and therefore schools seek any revenue stream they can manage.

    (Any time you hear a Republican say they support funding education you are really hearing them say they support private education funded by those who can afford it, not public education supported by tax dollars.)


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