Taking STEM courses online is just as good as in-person classes, study finds

ITHACA, N. Y. — The recent coronavirus pandemic has forced students to take to virtual online classrooms to complete their coursework. Even though it may take time for students to adjust to this new format, their education might not suffer, especially if they are in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

A new study led by Cornell University researchers shows that STEM students learn just as much in online classrooms as they do in traditional in-person classes. Online courses might be less satisfying than in-person classes, but many more students can access them and they are much cheaper to facilitate.

The study’s authors wanted to know if it was more practical to bring STEM courses online. Research shows that there is a shortage of STEM professionals, and this is causing the global economy to slow down. This is no surprise given the immense cost of a high quality STEM education and the shortage of qualified instructors.

“Demand for higher education is surging in the digital economy we now live in, but the price of a college education has ballooned and we don’t have enough people to teach these courses, especially in more rural areas,” says co-author Rene Kizilcec, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell, in a university release. “This new study offers the best available evidence to judge whether online learning can address issues of cost and instructor shortages, showing that it can deliver the same learning outcomes that we’re used to, but at a much lower cost.”

STEM students in Russia participated in this study in the 2017-18 academic year. Researchers divided 325 students into one of three classroom styles for two of their courses: a fully online class through a program called OpenEdu; an in-person course as their local university or a blended course with online course lectures; and in-person discussion sessions.

Results of the study show that students in all three groups scored pretty similarly on their final exams. Students in the online course scored 7.2% higher on their regular coursework, but this is probably because they were allowed to make up to three attempts on their weekly assignments, allowing them to boost their scores.

The analyses show that there is one drawback to the online classroom style: students in the online group were less-satisfied with their class experience than students in the in-person or blended learning groups.

Researchers warn that there is a very high overhead cost for online courses, but universities can end up saving a lot of money. They find that online courses cost colleges and universities 80% less per student than in-person classes, and blended courses cost 20% less per student.

“Licensing online courses offsets some of the costs of a typical four-year college education and can focus instructor attention on the courses that are more specialized. When courses are used at scale across the country, we can improve our understanding of how best to teach mechanical engineering or material science, because we can try out competing pedagogical strategies to see what works well for whom. This can significantly speed up efforts to improve educational efficiency and close achievement gaps,” concludes Kizilcec.

The study is published in Science Advances.