September 15, 2017

The downsides of virtual learning

Online courses can create setbacks for students.

Students who take classes online are more likely to drop out, take fewer credits, and have lower grades.


By now, most students have gone back to school. But for some, going back does not mean returning to a physical location.

As more and more college students take classes online, they are able to learn remotely and work around their own schedules. Many aspects of these online course, such as syllabi and textbooks, are identical to their in-person versions. However, conversations and projects happen over discussion boards, and standardized videos replace the lectures.

These online courses may be convenient, but they come at a cost. In a new paper in the September issue of the American Economic Review, authors Eric Bettinger, Lindsay Fox, Susanna Loeb, and Eric Taylor examined data from a large for-profit college and found that online courses hindered students’ success.

Students in online courses had lower grades, did not earn as many credits, and were more likely to drop out of college than similar students taking those courses in person. Even though the two versions — which used the same grading rubrics and delivered the same content — were nearly identical, students in the in-person class earned a B- on average, whereas students taking the course online earned a C.  

In fact, students were 12.2 percent less likely to earn an A, 13.5 percent less likely to earn a B or better, 10.1 percent less likely to earn a C or better, and 8.5 percent less likely to pass at all when they took the course online. Plus, their GPAs were 0.15 points lower the term after taking an online class relative to students who took the in-person version.


Falling behind
Each column represents a different measure of student success. The outer bars are averages for students who took the in-person version of a class, and the inner bars are averages for students who took the online version.


Of course, grades do not always reflect learning. In this case, however, they probably do. The authors analyzed student performance in courses that built upon the ones with an online option. Students who took a course online had lower GPAs in future courses that listed the online course as a prerequisite. Students who took the in-person version did not see this GPA change. Because success in later courses depended on previous learning, the disproportionately lower performance indicates that students coming from the online version were less prepared than those coming from the in-person version.

Taking courses online also harmed students’ progress toward graduation. Students were nine percentage points less likely to remain enrolled in college the semester after they took a course online. The ones who did not drop out took fewer credits the next semester.

These negative consequences did not affect all students equally. Students with below average prior GPAs saw about a half-grade drop in their GPAs, whereas students with GPAs in the top three deciles were not affected at all.

What’s going on, and what might we say to students going into the decision to take these types of courses that might help them?

Eric Taylor

The authors are careful to note that these results are not explanatory. Why virtual students, and especially those with below average GPAs, experience lower grades and persistence remains an open question. One theory is that in-person settings foster more support and encouragement from professors. Another says that online courses might pose more of a time management challenge than classes that take place at structured times. The next important question, Eric Taylor says, is “What’s going on, and what might we say to students going into the decision to take these types of courses that might help them?”

For some students, taking online classes may be worthwhile because of the low cost and flexibility — regardless of the downsides. In fact, if online courses induce more people to get a college education, then virtual learning could be a net positive.

Until these questions are resolved, the current state of virtual learning is clear: online courses are detrimental to students’ grades, learning, and graduation.

"Virtual Classrooms: How Online College Courses Affect Student Success" appears in the September issue of the American Economic Review