The Sloan Foundation has released a report that presumably highlights the rise of online courses at the postsecondary level. What it does instead is demonstrate how the rise of virtual learning relies on a perception of effectiveness that in many cases is not based on any rigorous assessment.
The report, titled Going the Distance, documents the perceptions of administrators, professors and students of the merits of online learning. Among the “key findings”:
- Over 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year.
- The 10% growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 2% growth in the overall higher education student population.
- Thirty-one percent of higher education students now take at least one course online.
- Reported year-to-year enrollment changes for fully online programs by discipline show most are growing.
- Academic leaders believe that the level of student satisfaction is equivalent for online and face-to-face courses.
- 65% of higher education institutions now say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.
- There continues to be a consistent minority of academic leaders concerned that the quality of online instruction is not equal to courses delivered face-to-face.
On that last item, the report offers more detail:
“The 2011 results show little change in the perception of the relative quality of online instruction as compared to face-to-face.
- In the first report of this series in 2003, fifty-seven percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-toface. That number is now sixty-seven percent, a small but noteworthy increase.
- One-third of all academic leaders continue to believe that the learning outcomes for online education are inferior to those of face-to-face instruction.
- Academic leaders at institutions with online offerings have a much more favorable opinion of the relative learning outcomes for online courses than do those at institutions with no online courses or programs.”
That is, those who stand to profit from online courses believe in their effectiveness.
And thank goodness for that skeptical “one-third of academic leaders.”
At least in physics, there is no evidence for the efficacy of online courses. Thanks to decades of effort by the Physics Education Research community, there are many well-validated assessment instruments available to measure learning in physics classes. To my knowledge, not one has been used to assess the effectiveness of college-level online physics courses, nor the high school-level courses being offered by the Florida Virtual School or the for-profit virtual education companies recently given access to Florida students.
In one educational institution – Florida State University Schools, FSU’s laboratory school – students who want to take a physics class are told to register for Florida Virtual School’s untested physics course. For an institution that is supported by taxpayers’ dollars so that it can be research-driven, that is an unforgivable offense.
Despite the lack of research supporting the effectiveness of online physics courses, Foundation for Florida’s Future Executive Director Patricia Levesque argued earlier this year that virtual education is the answer to Florida’s problems in high school physics on the Florida Public Radio show Capitol Report: “Georgia has 440 high schools and only 88 certified physics teachers. Florida is probably in a similar boat with numbers, and unless we change the way we think about online learning and what types and how teachers are hired and how student takes courses, we won’t be able to offer physics to every student in the state. And as you guys know physics and chemistry become a requirement here in a couple of years.”
Of course, The Nation recently reported that Ms. Levesque also runs a firm called “Meridian Strategies LLC, which lobbies on behalf of a number of education-technology companies. She is a leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school sector companies pushing new education laws that could benefit them.”
It’s important to note that Florida Virtual School was stuck in the bulls-eye of The Nation article, even though it is an agency of the state government. If FLVS is peddling an ineffective physics course (and how would we know?), it is not for the sake of a profit motive.
With all of the many distractions in the virtual schooling business, we should stick with a bedrock principle: Students should be taught in learning environments – whether physical or virtual – that are constructed in ways that are based on research on how students learn. That should apply equally whether the profit motive is present or not.