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April 10, 2020 Friday 12:55:37 AM IST

STEM students learn as well online as in classrooms

Teacher Insights

According to a first-of-its-kind study, students learned just as much in online STEM college courses as they did in traditional classroom settings, and at a fraction of the cost. The study tracked more than 300 students in Russia, where top universities standardize online classes for use by institutions with fewer resources. It has important implications for the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math - skills that are in high demand by the international workforce, said Rene Kizilcec, assistant professor of information science at Cornell University.

These online courses cost institutions 80% less per student than in-person classes, the study found, while blended classes combining online lectures with in-person discussions lowered the per-student cost by nearly 20%. A shortage of highly skilled professionals in STEM fields is slowing down the global economy, according to previous research. But at the same time, many colleges and universities struggle with the costs of attracting qualified instructors. To address this problem, countries including Russia, China and India have introduced national online educational platforms, in which leading universities create online courses that other institutions can integrate into their own curricula for a small fee.

In this study, the researchers developed a controlled, randomized trial to test whether students in Russia learned as much in these online classes, known as OpenEdu, as they did in traditional in-person classes. For two courses during the 2017-18 academic year, the researchers randomly assigned 325 students to one of three versions: the online version through OpenEdu; the in-person class offered by their local university; or a blended version that combined online lectures with in-person discussion groups.

They found that final exam scores did not differ significantly among the three versions. In their in-course assessments, students in the all-online course scored 7.2 percentage points higher, probably because they were allowed to make three attempts on weekly assignments. Online students, however, were slightly less satisfied with their course experience than students in in-person and blended classes. Though online classes save money in the long run, they have significant startup costs, the study said, which could potentially be covered by states or consortiums of universities. Coordinating course requirements and academic calendars across institutions or states could also improve the effectiveness of this kind of model, according to the researchers.

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