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Online students fare better

A surprising new study shows that students learning online tested 20 percent better than their classroom counterparts.

A surprising new study at the California State University at Northridge shows that students learning in a virtual classroom tested 20 percent better across the board than their counterparts who learned in a traditional classroom.

In his applied statistics course last year, Jerald Schutte, a professor at Northridge, randomly selected half of his students to be taught through traditional in-class lectures and pen-and-paper homework assignments while the rest learned through text posted online, email and newsgroups, real-time chat with their classmates, and electronic homework assignments.

The students in the virtual-learning group were given two in-class lectures to explain the technology they would be using and then came to class again only for the midterm and the final exam.

There were no statistically significant differences between the sex, age, computer experience, or attitude toward the subject material of the two groups, Schutte said. Both were given identical tests that they took under the same conditions.

The results of the groundbreaking study, obtained by CNET this evening, provide the first quantitative data to be collected on virtual education--a field that until now has largely subsisted on anecdotal data, despite huge amounts of money that universities are spending to establish themselves as leaders in online education.

Schutte said the unexpected results of the research can be explained by the online collaboration created in the virtual classroom.

"The students formed peer groups online as compensation for not having time in class to talk," he said. "I believe that as much of the results can be explained by collaboration as the technology."

In traditional educational theory, a professor is thought of as the mediator, the figure who encourages collaboration. Most people believe that this is the only way to learn.

"But in fact," Schutte said, "there is a very subtle thing going on here. A classroom can be inhibiting, intimidating. [In the classroom] you think you are the only person who doesn't know the answer, so you don't talk. The very way classrooms are set up, with everyone facing forward, deters interaction."

In fact, according to the study, students in the virtual class spent about 50 percent more time working with each other than the people in the traditional classroom. And while the report acknowledges that the inability to talk to the professor was the cause of this interaction, the results show that the collaboration "manifests itself in better test score" as students formed study groups to "pick up the slack of not having a real classroom."

Other educational studies have discovered similar benefits to online student collaboration.

"It is an effort to engage," said Jeff Stanzler, who directs a University of Michigan program that encourages high school students to share their poetry online. "Students need to have a certain mindset. This different than regular lessons and schools. They are encouraged to respond and work together and put those demands a little more front and center than they can in a classroom."

Online teaching won't solve all educational problems, however. Although the results of his study support much of the hype surrounding its future, Schutte points out that virtual learning may have its limits.

"You must distinguish between the form and the content," he said. Virtual learning "may only be useful in the abstract, only for certain kinds of classes," he added.

For subjects where real-time interpersonal communication is required, such as philosophy and ethics, computer-mediated communications such as videoconferencing and supplemental online texts may be the answer.

This semester, Schutte plans further study with a sociology methods class. In an effort to discover whether the high levels of collaboration were a result of the particular group of students in the virtual class or the virtual experience itself, he will try single-subject replications.

That means that students will learn some modules in the classroom and some online. Schutte will test them after each module to see if performance levels are different.