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The Covid-19 pandemic has propelled universities to switch to online learning, which will probably foster the development of online higher education. IOE researchers joined forces with their American colleagues to demonstrate, based on a representative sample of STEM students, that online learning at university can be as effective as traditional in-person education. 

Real Learning Experiment

The experiment involved 325 second-year engineering students of Machine Building and Construction from three Russian universities. The students were randomly divided into three groups. The first group studied in person with the instructor at their university, the second group watched online lectures and attended in-person discussion sections (i.e., a blended modality), and the third group took the entire course online. All students passed examinations upon completing the course.

The national Open Education platform was used in the study. A non-profit project founded in 2015 by eight Russian universities with governmental support, the platform provides those who are interested with the opportunity to switch university courses to an online mode. The experiment was carried out in 2017-2018, and the outcomes have been nearly identical.

Researchers compared groups’ performance in three areas: the level of subject knowledge during the course, the final exam score, and satisfaction with the course. The results demonstrated that the average level of knowledge acquired in the course was the same in all three groups. Furthermore, the average grade for in-course assessments of online students was slightly higher.

Meanwhile, satisfaction with the studies among online students was slightly lower compared with students who studied in person. The in-person and the blended groups demonstrated similar outcomes in satisfaction as well as in the final score. Generally speaking, however, the researchers do not believe that the differences discovered between the groups’ outcomes are considerable. This demonstrates the fact that online learning may be an alternative to traditional forms of education.

‘High-quality online courses can no longer be considered a second-rate method of instruction. They advance students’ skills and knowledge the same way as in-person classes,’ commented Igor Chirikov, the study’s principal investigator, SERU Consortium Director and Senior Researcher at UC Berkeley, and Affiliated Researcher at the HSE Institute of Education.

Expensive Knowledge

Transition to online learning may also be a key to solving the anticipated deficit of teachers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Over 40% of engineering teachers at Russian universities are over 60 years old today, the researchers say. The deficit may be made up for if at least lectures are replaced with online courses.

The lack of STEM professionals hampers growth and innovation in the global knowledge economy. Universities are facing the need to limit their costs in recruiting staff, as implementing programmes is expensive. ‘The largest global producers of STEM graduates – China, India, Russia, and the United States – are actively seeking policy alternatives to increase the cost-effectiveness of STEM education at scale,’ researchers say.

The authors have calculated that, with almost equal outcomes, blended instruction lowers the per-student cost by 19.2% for Engineering Mechanics (EM) and 15.4% for Construction Materials Technology (CMT). Online instruction lowers it by 80.9% for EM and 79.1% for CMT.  As a result, redistribution of the costs spent on these specializations could allow universities to teach 18.2% more students in EM and 15.0% more students in CMT if they relied on online instruction.

Online Learning Requires Investment

In all likelihood, the transition to online learning in higher education will speed up. The current situation, in the context of Covid-19 pandemic, has in fact become a forced live experiment on such transition.

‘We are seeing how universities that are more advanced in creating and using online courses have adapted to the transition to the online format more quickly,’ said Chirikov. And the fact that Russia has a major national platform with online courses from leading universities has given the country a big advantage in switching to a remote instruction quickly, the researchers believe.

‘In today’s context it is essential to invest in advanced online platforms, interactive online learning content, and new teaching methods,’ Igor Chirikov said. ‘This would allow access to high-quality education to be expanded without considerable additional costs and would provide students with flexible educational trajectories. In addition, it would help universities prepare for various unpredictable situations, such as the novel coronavirus pandemic.’