Online Education

Online education exacerbates inequalities

This is a statistic that hurts in these times of a health crisis that is closing campuses in favor of distance learning: online courses improve the test scores of the best students by 2.5%, but make the less bright ones worse. In other words, distance education reinforces inequalities.

The study was conducted in 2016-2017 among 1,459 first-year students at the University of Geneva from multiple faculties at the initiative of the Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) and has just been published in an open access journal. Journal of the European Economic Association. Explanations with one of the study’s co-authors, Michele Pellizzari, a professor at GSEM’s Institute of Economics and Econometrics.

Le Temps: What does your study reveal?

Michele Pellizzari: Students had the choice of watching the courses in class (we haven’t said in person yet…) or at home, with the course being filmed live and streamed. Some weeks there were only on-site courses with no streaming. We then remotely measured the difference in the probability of a correct answer between the 10% of students who had the best grades before entering university and the 10% of students with the lowest grades according to their use of courses. We found that online courses improved the test scores of the best students by 2.5%, but reduced the scores of the less brilliant students by 2%.

How did you make the connection between in-person courses, streaming and results?

In general, we observe that all students prefer to come to class when they can: being able to take the same course replicated in streaming only reduces class attendance by 8%. The difference is when it is difficult to go to class, for example due to weather problems. In this case, the strongest students are more willing to take streaming courses, even if they do not come without streaming, but tell themselves that they will catch up later, with books; while more average students struggle to come to class. They know they need explanations from classroom teachers to understand; so even if it’s hard to get there, they will. They watch the lessons online if there is no other option, but streaming penalizes them because they lose the advantage of a teacher who evaluates his lesson, sees when students drop out, can explain in turn… And this is not an effect due to the group: there is no difference in the quality of learning according to the degree of class occupancy.

For more: Pierre Dillenbourg, pioneer of educational technology

What implications does your study have for improving online learning or hybrid learning that combines distance and face-to-face?

We used very simple course streaming for our study. Online courses with more sophisticated material, interactive elements, reverse courses, have very positive effects for students who have the best abilities. However, pedagogical innovations often reduce the time for teachers to explain, which is very important for weaker students. Reducing personal time makes it very difficult for them to work, while stronger students who can take a book or find other resources are not affected much. The key would be to create very small groups in video interaction with the teacher, almost one-on-one sessions that require the student to be mature enough to say: I need these sessions. However, this requires more responsibility.

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