Apparently virtual instruction isn’t as much of an educational armageddon as some people seem to believe…researchers David Figlio, Mark Rush and Lu Yin performed an experiment at the university level and found very modest (and not always statistically significant) effects for in-person versus online instruction.
I am trying to be careful to not overgeneralize the results of this study, but I do think that as the world sees more and more that virtual instruction *can* be on par with traditional models, we are likely to see significant change in the education industry. I talk more about this over at The Huffington Post:
First it was music. Then it was theater. Now it’s…education? Technology has enabled inexpensive reproduction of a wide variety of media, which has in turn radically transformed the structures of a number of industries. Whereas we used to have only concert halls and live theater, we now have CDs, MP3s, DVDs and movie theaters, and industries that used to consist of a large number of moderate-scale performers are now mainly served by the Brad Pitts and the Lady Gagas of the world.
Economists refer to these sorts of industries as “winner-take-all” markets since their key feature is that a few “superstars” serve a large portion of the market (and often receive astronomical payouts for doing so) while a long tail of similar, somewhat less-qualified or less-talented individuals see comparatively minuscule levels of success. This phenomenon is seen clearly in the markets for actors and musicians but is also prevalent in professions such as writing, banking and sales.
As a follow up, I would like to point out a subtlety that is easy to overlook in a discussion of online education: When comparing virtual classrooms to real ones, it’s important to make an apples to apples comparison. The authors of the online learning study aren’t looking at University of Phoenix and Glenn Beck University to see whether they are acceptable substitutes for Dartmouth and the University of Virginia. They are instead using the same instructor and the same students and, just as importantly, the same teaching support. Virtual instruction probably won’t be successful if it’s used as an excuse to pawn all educational responsibility off onto the Internet (this doesn’t work for parenting, so the outlook for education is not so good either), but it can be a valuable complement to an otherwise comprehensive system of problem sets, review sessions, office hours and exams. And then tenured professors at large research universities can go back to doing what they do best- sitting in dark offices crunching numbers that are never going to see the light of day outside of the hallowed halls of academia. (I kid because I love, I swear.)
If you need me, I will be busy developing the antidote to Glenn Beck University. (To be fair, I am not against GBU on principle, and I generally think it’s a great idea to get people voluntarily interested in material that would typically be forced upon them in a university setting. I just don’t entirely trust it to be above board, where by “above board” I mean “objective and not laced with the incorrect and sensationalistic BS that often comes out of Glenn Beck’s mouth.” On a related note, Glenn Beck should send Rush Limbaugh a fruit basket, since he’s diverted my attention from Rush for the time being.)
Update: I realized that I can’t write “superstar” as many times as I did without having the following stuck in my head all day: