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Benefits of online STEM education investigated

Materials World magazine
9 Apr 2020

Online and blended (online and in-person) STEM education can produce the same learning outcomes for students as traditional, in-person classes at a fraction of the cost, finds research published in Science Advances.

A joint USA-Russia team from the University of California at Berkeley, HSE University Moscow, Stanford University and Cornell University used a multi-site, randomised, controlled study at three Russian universities to compare performance and satisfaction of students in two engineering courses. 

The students were randomly divided into the three cohorts and received identical lessons and assignments. The first was delivered through in-person lectures and discussion sections, the second through a blend of online and in-person instruction, and the third was fully online. The study made use of OpenEdu, a platform developed by a non-profit organisation in Russia to make online university courses available to the public.

Students in all three course modes had similar scores on final exams. Students that were fully online scored higher on course assignments, but they reported slightly lower satisfaction than those receiving instruction in-person. And the online and blended courses cost significantly less - 78-91% and 15-19% reduction in costs, respectively. 

‘Online education platforms have a big potential to expand access to quality STEM education worldwide,’ says Igor Chirikov, Senior Researcher at Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education and the project's Principal Investigator. ‘Such platforms could bring cost-savings to financially distressed colleges and offer flexible learning opportunities to students without diminishing learning outcomes. They could also strengthen the instructional resilience of colleges when in-person delivery is not an option, such as right now, when most universities are closed to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak.’

‘This is the strongest evidence to date that an average college student can learn just as much from a course online as on campus or with blended learning,’ adds Cornell Professor of Information Science and Study Rene Kizilcec. ‘In this study, we only used basic online course materials to match the in-person content, but prior research shows that interactive and social online activities with immediate feedback could have produced even larger learning gains.’

The team notes that ongoing challenges of adopting this model include the initial cost of investing in online platforms and training instructors. Also, there needs to be a high degree of synchronisation among academic programmes and courses across multiple institutions.