Doing educational research is tricky. Unlike in clinical trials, investigators can’t limit all variables or deny some students knowledge. The slipperiness of qualitative research has left many questions about the effectiveness of on-line learning unanswered.
A report this summer for the National Bureau of Economic Research adds another finding to the ongoing debate. The authors, academic economists, attempted to create a controlled experiment by dividing students taking a microeconomics course into a “live” learning group and a virtual group. They found that low-achieving, male, and Hispanic students performed significantly better with the in-person format.
All the usual limitations on educational research apply to this study, but it does suggest that synchronous learning still has its benefits. Just like e-readers are not replacing traditional books, all these teaching methods can exist simultaneously. The internet is not a panacea for higher education, but it offers powerful tools for learning.