Remote vs. In-person Classes: What the Data Shows

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The research surrounding student outcomes of remotely versus in-person college tells two different stories, says Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab

“There’s a group of people who say whenever we do studies where we compare radio versus in-person, film versus in-person, computer versus in-person, there’s no difference in terms of media, that you can do good instruction in any model,” says Reich whose book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education is available on Sept. 15.

“The very best of those studies are randomized control trials,” Reich says. However, “Many of those studies are small, they involve dozens of learners or a dozen class rooms, and a lot of them are in medical education.”  

Over the past 10 years, a new body of research based on observational studies of tens of thousands of students has found evidence of what’s been called an “online penalty.” For instance, researchers looking at the California community college system observed, in the particular context, that not everyone did equally well online. “Many learners appear to do less well online, they’re less likely to pass a course, and they’re more likely to get a lower grade,” Reich says. The online penalty also seems to be more severe for learners who are not historically well-served by our education system, such as learners with low prior achievement and minorities. 

While both areas of research have their strengths and weaknesses, Reich says there is good evidence indicating that well-supported high-achieving students will also do well remotely, but that instructors should make an extra effort to support vulnerable students in their classrooms. 

Designing for success

At Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut, Provost Dr. Elizabeth Johnson says outcomes for students who complete courses are the same in-person versus remote because they are built off of the same learning outcomes. 

“It’s designed so there won’t be a difference,” says Johnson of online learning at Post, for which about 13,000 students enroll in a typical semester. “While the assignment or the assessment or the experience that a student has in their course is clearly going to be different between an in-person classroom or an online classroom, the outcome, the intent behind that learning experience does not change.” 

However, the school does have more issues with retention of remote versus in-person students. 

“With online education, choosing to quit is very easy,” Johnson says. “There is no walk of shame from your residency hall out to the car where mom and dad come and get you. It’s literally as simple as closing your laptop and no longer accepting calls from the university.” 

To prevent remote students from disconnecting from the university, Post has invested in a number of initiatives designed at providing emotional learning and support. One is YOU@Post, a personalized student portal that supplies students with relevant resources on mental health, stress reduction techniques, and on-campus events. To complement YOU@Post, the university recently launched SOAR, a 24-hour service that offers mental health counseling, financial and legal support, and personal convenience services to students and their families. It even includes a cartoon simulation of the campus itself in which students can do things such as click into the library building, where they can enter video chat rooms with other students.

The 9-to-5 schedule of traditional universities does not always work as well for remote classrooms. “Online students are weekend warriors, they’re evening and night warriors,” Johnson says. “They need their questions and their problems answered at off times. So from a technology standpoint those partnerships with those companies that can support having those questions answered throughout the night, having those questions answered throughout the weekend, that is a huge piece to effective online education.” 

Tips for remote teaching

“We should be very concerned about our most vulnerable students this semester,” says Reich, from MIT. “Too often in higher education we have a kind of ‘sink or swim’ mentality that everybody is here at this campus at the same time, and they all decide how much effort they want to put into things.” 

Reich notes that is a fallacy in the best of times and particularly untrue in the current semester. “We have a responsibility as faculty to ask the question, ‘How can I identify the students for whom online or remote learning is working least well, and how can I provide the most support for them?’” he says. 

“We should think about courses as things that we partner with our students to build together,” he adds. “There is exactly one generation of Americans who have participated in learning and schooling during a pandemic and it’s the students who were in our classroom last spring. We should listen to them and we should talk to them about what worked, and what didn’t and build courses and learning experiences that help them feel like they are helping to co-construct what our response is together.” 

Reich offers some additional advice for teachers here

5 strategies for building connectivity online

“In my experience, the key to building connectivity with students taking classes virtually is regular and personable communication,” says Johnson, from Post University. She offers suggestions for doing that based on her experience teaching remote classes and working with others who teach them.  

1. Post and email regular announcements with the assignments and activities for the week to help keep your students on track. Make this announcement fun and personable, so that it represents how you would interact with your students at the start of a class meeting. Consider making this announcement an impromptu video to really let your personality shine.

2. If your online course meets synchronously, encourage your students to interact with you and with each other outside of the virtual class session. One great way to do this is by adding an ‘Ask the Instructor’ discussion board forum and a ‘Water Cooler’ discussion board forum in each of your courses. 

3. Personally engage with every student in your class weekly (or every other week for large courses). This can be through substantive responses to assignments or discussion board postings, emails, or phone/video calls. Connecting with your students one-on-one matters greatly in a virtual environment. When students are not on campus, their time with you in their courses represents their primary connection to the University.  

4. Actively reach out to students who stop attending synchronous class meetings or otherwise disconnect from the course. It is easy to feel disconnected from online learning and convince yourself that no one will care if you give up. Getting students to reconnect with you and the course material may be as simple as an email or phone call asking if they are okay and offering support on how to get back on track.

5. If a remote student needs additional help from your school’s student support services, avoid just sending the student a website or email/phone number for the department. A warm transfer where you personally introduce the student to a staff member in that department goes a long way to ensuring the student feels like an important and supported member of the university community.

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.