about the Bowen et al. 2012 study of interactive online learning

One of our discussion group participants recommended that we read this report: William G. Bowen et al., Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials (Ithaka S+R, May 22, 2012), http://www.sr.ithaka.org/research-publications/interactive-learning-online-public-universities-evidence-randomized-trials. Another participant asked for more background on the authors and quality of the study.

Bowen is a former economics professor and president of Princeton, former chair of the Mellon Foundation, and founder of the Ithaka S&R, the research/advocacy organization on technology in higher education that published this report. I’ve assigned my students to read Bowen’s prior works on higher education, and also prior studies sponsored by Ithaka. For our discussion group, I highly recommend this historical/qualitative overview of digital learning experiments, which Ithaka funded: Taylor Walsh, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses(Princeton University Press, 2010), http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9386.html.

My quick summary of the Bowen et al. 2012 report: When comparing students in introductory statistics courses at large universities (where enrollments ranged from 80 to 800), those randomly assigned to traditional classes versus hybrid classes (using interactive online modules developed by Carnegie Mellon, plus one-hour-per-week face-to-face instruction) performed at about the same level. While I’d like to know more about some methodological and contextual details, as far as randomized trials in higher education research go, this is a fairly well-designed study, and I’ve added it to our group’s suggested reading page.

What do the conclusions tell us? I’m not surprised by the findings, given my experience as a graduate student teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1990s, and weak incentives for faculty at those institutions to devote time to quality teaching and learning. But it would be quite a leap to automatically apply these findings to small liberal arts colleges like ours, where teacher-student ratios are smaller and faculty labor incentives are very different. Furthermore, the Bryn Mawr Next Generation grant project found creative ways that small liberal arts colleges are using interactive learning tools to enhance the quality of instruction, rather than substitute for it.

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