Don’t Believe The Negative Hype

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday’s online edition of the New York Times contained an article about an experiment conducted by San Jose State University and Udacity in which students took three low-cost online math courses. The article labels the experiment a “flop” given that the students in the online courses did worse than their on-campus counterparts. Perhaps what the story best illustrates is the author’s lack of scientific understanding.

The report on the experiment states that “the project specifically targeted at-risk populations . . . groups demonstrated by other research to be less likely to succeed in an online environment” (p. ii). The at-risk populations represented by students in the experiment included those who

  • were not matriculated into college (more than half the subjects in the study),
  • came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds,
  • were enrolled in remedial courses (many of whom had already failed a prior remedial math course).

While politicians and bureaucrats in the state of California might have believed that inexpensive online courses would magically create academic superstars out of poor minority teenagers from terrible high schools, the report states that the experiment confirmed what many of us see on a daily basis:

“effort, measured in a variety of ways, trumps all other variables tested for their relationships to student success. The clearest predictor of passing a course is the number of problem sets a student completed . . . the positive effect increases dramatically after a certain baseline of effort has been made” (p. 34).

Forcing students to expend that effort by holding them accountable made a difference. The greatest amount of academic success was achieved by students in a course that had mandatory weekly assignments that counted toward the course’s final grade.

It seems that passively encountering information, whether one listens to it in a lecture hall or sees it on an electronic screen, is not enough to learn that information well.