Less professor time doesn’t hurt: study

Statistics students perform as well in "blended" versions

A study that Inside Higher Education writer Steve Kolowich calls the largest and possibly most rigorous to date suggests “blended” or “hybrid” learning is at least as effective—possibly more effective—than traditional university courses with three hours weekly of face-time with professors.

Blended learning is when some lecture time is replaced with online lessons. There is evidence that it can save universities substantial amounts of money on instructors and buildings, but many academics are hesitant, in part because tech-heavy courses are viewed as low quality.

That’s what makes this study so important. It shows that blended courses—at least the ones tested here—work well. William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University and lead author put it this way: “Generalized worries that all kinds of online systems will inevitably hurt learning outcomes do not appear to be well-founded.”

The experiment involved 605 students at six public universities in the United States who were randomly assigned to statistics courses. Some courses relied heavily on software to replace most lecture time; the others involved the traditional three hours of lecture weekly. Students in the blended sections did as well on a standardized test and completed the course 25 per cent quicker.

But it wasn’t all good news. For one, students in the blended courses didn’t enjoy them as much.

That will be welcome news to academics. Many of them see blended learning as a threat to their careers, because blended courses require fewer professors to teach the same number of students.

The authors also looked at the potential savings from using fewer high-cost professors. They estimate that blended courses delivered by part-time instructors would cost between 36 and 57 percent less than traditional courses in which a full professor presides over 40-student sections. The authors, however, were cautious in their interpretation and say more research is needed.

Many Canadian universities have recently rolled out blended courses. The University of Manitoba did so after budget pressures reduced the number of professors available to teach an introductory psychology course. Professor Jason Leboe-McGowan, who led the design of the blended course at Manitoba, says students learn as much from it and aren’t any more likely to drop out.

The new study by Bowen and colleagues is called Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials. It was sponsored by non-profit Ithaka S+R.