College Courses Can Use Technology To Improve Access and Reduce Costs

Matthew M. Chingos: Brookings Institution
Janice B. Riddell:  (203) 912-8675, External Relations, Education Next

College Courses Can Use Technology To Improve Access and Reduce Costs

Experimental study shows students learn as much online as do peers in traditional courses

CAMBRIDGE, MA—While increasing attention is being given to the rising cost of a college education, there has been little systematic research on the potential for online learning to deliver high-quality instruction on a more cost-effective basis.  Now a new experimental study has shown that students enrolled in a large “hybrid” introductory statistics course at six public university campuses, featuring online learning modules with lecture periods as supplements, learn as much as students in traditional lecture-only course formats, at substantial cost savings.

The study, “Online Learning in Higher Education:  Randomized trial compares hybrid learning to traditional course,” was conducted by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, Kelly A. Lack, and Thomas I. Nygren and is now available online at Education Next (

The researchers worked with campuses in New York and Maryland to examine the effectiveness of an interactive statistics course developed at Carnegie Mellon University.  Most of the instruction was delivered through interactive online materials, although the online instruction was supplemented by a one-hour-per-week face-to-face session in which students could ask questions or obtain assistance.  Course systems of this type take advantage of data collected from large numbers of students in order to offer each student customized instruction and to enable instructors to track students’ progress.  Students were, with their permission, randomly assigned to take the class in a traditional or hybrid format.  Students who chose to participate had broadly similar characteristics to other students registered for introductory statistics, with any differences that did exist being quite small.

Among the study’s findings were these:

• Hybrid-format students reported spending 1.7 fewer hours per week in total time devoted to the course.  This finding is consistent with non-experimental evidence that interactive online courses can achieve the same learning outcomes as traditional-format instruction in less time, with important implications for scheduling and expected rate of course completion.

• Hybrid format students performed slightly better, achieving pass rates 3 percentage points higher, standardized-test scores about 1 percentage point higher, and final-exam scores 2 percentage points higher. (These differences were not statistically significant.)

• The effect of the hybrid-format course did not vary when controlling for race/ethnicity, gender, parental education, primary language spoken, score at the standardized pretest, hours worked for pay, or college GPA.

• Students gave the hybrid format a modestly lower overall rating than their counterparts gave the traditional-format course, but there were no notable differences in students’ reports of how much the course raised their interest in the subject matter.

“The public is losing confidence in the ability of the higher-education sector in particular to control costs,” note the authors, adding that “all of higher education has a stake in addressing this problem, including the elite institutions that are under less immediate pressure than others to alter their teaching methods.”  While finding that “students in the hybrid format pay no ‘price’ for this mode of instruction” in terms of educational outcomes, the researchers’ cost simulations find that substantial savings would result from the hybrid course model, primarily reflecting reduced professorial compensation.  They estimate savings in compensation costs for the hybrid model ranging from 36 percent to 57 percent compared to the all-section traditional model (where professors teach all course sections), and 19 percent compared to the lecture-section model (where professors give a large lecture and students are assigned to smaller sections led by teaching assistants).

The authors worked with six public university campuses.  The individual campuses included, from the State University of New York (SUNY):  the University at Albany and SUNY Institute of Technology; from the University of Maryland: the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Towson University; and from the City University of New York (CUNY):  Baruch College and City College.

The authors do not suggest that online learning is a “panacea” for the nation’s education problems, but note that “well-designed interactive systems in higher education have the potential to achieve at least equivalent educational outcomes while opening up the possibility of freeing up resources that could be redeployed more productively.”

About the Authors

Matthew M. Chingos is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy and senior research consultant at Ithaka S+R (the strategy and research arm of ITHAKA).  William G. Bowen is senior advisor, Kelly A. Lack is a research analyst, and Thomas I. Nygren is a former business analyst at Ithaka S+R.  The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  For more information about Education Next, please visit:

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976,, or visit

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