In Brookings, Dynarski describes who benefits from online ed, and who doesn’t

November 13, 2017

In “Online schooling: Who is harmed and who is helped?” Susan Dynarski highlights key findings from recent randomized trials and regression discontinuity design studies that attempt to measure the impact of online schooling on student success. The piece appears in Evidence Speaks, a weekly publication of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families.

Dynarski writes that one recent study by Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb (MPP '94) showed that "in a large, for-profit college, online courses [were] a poor option for the least prepared students." A recent NBER working paper, which summarizes findings from a range of studies designed to measure the impact of education technology, found that while learning suffered with no face-to-face interaction, “blended courses” that combine instructor attention with supplemental online content, showed promise.

Dynarski also summarizes findings from two studies that examine the effect of online algebra courses on middle- and high-school students. In the first study, which explored the impact of online algebra for enrichment, students in the online course "did substantially better on assessments of algebra knowledge." In the second study, which focused on the effect of online algebra for students "who had already failed a face-to-face version" of the course, the online students "were substantially less likely to pass." 

Together, says Dynarski, these studies suggest that while “academically challenged students do worse in online [courses],” such courses may be helpful for "expanding course options or providing acceleration for students who are academically prepared.”

Susan Dynarski is a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, a professor of education at the University of Michigan's School of Education, and a professor of economics at the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She is co-director of the Ford School’s Education Policy Initiative, which engages in applied, policy-relevant research designed to improve educational achievement and outcomes.