stem online courses
STEM online courses are just as effective as in-person classes. Source: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

According to a new study by Cornell University, STEM students learn just as much in online classes as they normally do in traditional brick-and-mortar ones.

Researchers of the study divided 325 students into three different classroom styles for two courses: a fully online class through a program called OpenEdu, an in-person course as their local university and a blended version combining both.

“Demand for higher education is surging in the digital economy we now live in, but the price of a college education has ballooned and we don’t have enough people to teach these courses, especially in more rural areas,” said Rene Kizilcec, co-author of “Online Education Platforms Scale College STEM Instruction With Equivalent Outcomes at Lower Cost,” which was published April 8 in Science Advances.

“This new study offers the best available evidence to judge whether online learning can address issues of cost and instructor shortages, showing that it can deliver the same learning outcomes that we’re used to, but at a much lower cost.”

However, the study also found that online students reported feeling less satisfied with their course experience compared to students in in-person and blended classes.

“Satisfaction might be lower, but learning outcomes are the same,” Kizilcec said.

“This is a reminder that what students say about instruction quality in course evaluations at the end of the semester might not be so predictive of what students are actually learning.”

STEM online courses

Students, wearing facemasks amid concerns of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak, attend a class at the University of Science and Technology campus in Hanoi on March 2, 2020. Source:
Manan Vatsayana/AFP

STEM online courses are more affordable

The aim of the study was to gauge if it was more practical for STEM classes to be conducted online, as it could make STEM education more affordable to students worldwide. This could lead to the closing of the skills shortage gap in STEM industries.

The study involved tracking over 300 students in Russia during the 2017-18 academic year, as top universities in the country standardise online classes so that institutions with fewer resources can use  them.

The researchers raised the issue of how STEM online courses have significant startup costs but can save money in the long run.

The initial startup costs could be covered by states or university consortiums, and the online classes can be used across universities by “coordinating course requirements and academic calendars across institutions or states,” thus improving the effectiveness of online courses.

Kizilcec, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell, also said that online STEM courses could also raise the profiles of leading instructors at high-quality universities, sparking development of better teaching techniques.

“Licensing online courses offsets some of the costs of a typical four-year college education and can focus instructor attention on the courses that are more specialized.

“When courses are used at scale across the country, we can improve our understanding of how best to teach mechanical engineering or material science, because we can try out competing pedagogical strategies to see what works well for whom. This can significantly speed up efforts to improve educational efficiency and close achievement gaps.”

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