Despite the aspirations of many leaders in higher education, most of America’s college campuses will not reopen for in-person instruction this fall. Though the majority of schools originally intended to go back to a semblance of normal, today just 24% of colleges are planning to be fully or primarily in person, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Evidence has consistently shown that students tend to learn less in online courses than in their face-to-face equivalents. While effective virtual education is possible, good online courses take years to design and involve far more than simply uploading a lecture recording to YouTube or holding class discussions over videoconference. Students rightfully complain about paying full tuition for “Zoom University,” which worries college presidents who fear many students will decide online college is not worth the money.
But there’s another option: a mix of online and in-person instruction that researchers have dubbed “blended learning.” This does not refer to the practice of holding some courses online and others in-person, as many universities plan to do this fall. Instead, schools combine online and in-person elements within each individual course.
A study by William Alpert, Kenneth Couch, and Oskar Harmon confirms the efficacy of this approach. The authors randomly assigned students in an introductory microeconomics course to take the class in one of three ways: in-person, online, or blended. The in-person section met twice per week, with one class session devoted to lecture and the other to a discussion. The online section viewed lecture materials on the internet (on their own time) and participated in an asynchronous online discussion forum. Students in the “blended” section watched recorded lectures online, but met physically once per week for an in-person class discussion.
Consistent with prior research, the online-only students performed significantly worse in the class. On average, the online section scored 4.2 points worse on the final exam than the in-person section. The online section also suffered from increased attrition: only 54% of online students finished the course, compared to 70% of the in-person students. Since students were randomly chosen for each section, these differences in performance are attributable to the means of learning (online versus in-person) rather than any differences in the aptitude of the students themselves.
However, the authors found no statistically significant difference between the in-person section and the blended section. As measured by their performance on the final exam, students who participated in partially-online “blended” learning absorbed the class material just as effectively as students who learned in-person all the time.
Though the experiment was run well before the COVID-19 pandemic, it points to a potential solution for colleges struggling to comply with social distancing best practices without sacrificing learning gains. A class that would normally meet twice per week could be divided in two. Each half of the class would meet once per week for an in-person discussion, then complete the remainder of their learning online. Class meetings would have half as many students as they normally would, making physical distancing easier in the classroom. However, each professor would spend the same amount of time in the classroom as she did before, so colleges’ instructional faculty would not be stretched too thin.
To be sure, the study only examined the efficacy of blended learning in economics courses, so the approach may not be as effective in other fields. Laboratory science courses, for instance, may not be as adaptable to the model. But blended learning almost certainly a better option than holding courses fully online, which is the alternative most schools around the country are confronting.
Blended learning reduces, but does not eliminate, in-person class time. It gives students some face-to-face learning experience but facilitates physical distancing, while at the same time requiring only modest extra investment from universities. While it’s no one’s ideal solution, evidence suggests it’s the best way to balance the difficult trade-offs that the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced to higher education.