It’s a statistic that hurts in these times of the health crisis that’s closing campuses in favor of distance learning: online courses improve the exam scores of the best students by 2.5%, but worsen those who are less bright. In other words, distance learning reinforces inequalities.
The study was carried out in 2016-2017 among 1459 freshmen at the University of Geneva from several faculties at the initiative of the Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) and has just been published in the open access journal Journal of the European Economic Association. Explanations with one of the co-authors of the study, Michele Pellizzari, Professor at the Institute of Economics and Econometrics of the GSEM.
Le Temps: What does your study show?
Michele Pellizzari: Students had the choice of following the lectures in class (we didn’t say face-to-face yet…) or at home, with the lecture being filmed live and streamed. For a few weeks there were only lessons on site, without streaming. We then measured the difference in probability of correct answer between the 10% of students with the best grades before entering university and the 10% of students with the lowest grades, based on remote use of the courses. We found that online courses improved the exam results of the best students by 2.5% but lowered those of the less brilliant students by 2%.
How did you make the connection between face-to-face events, streaming and results?
In general, we observe that all students prefer to come to class when they can: being able to follow the same course in streaming only reduces class attendance by 8%. The difference occurs when going to class is difficult, for example due to weather problems. In this case, the strongest students are more willing to follow the courses in streaming, they don’t come even without streaming, but tell themselves that they will catch up later with books; while more average students make the effort to get to class. They know that they need explanations from the teachers in the class in order to understand them; Even if it’s difficult to get there, they do it. They follow classes online when there’s no other option, but streaming penalizes them because they lose the advantage of a teacher evaluating their class, seeing when students drop out, being able to explain again… And that’s not an effect of the Group: There is no difference in learning quality depending on how full a classroom is.
What are the implications of your study for improving online teaching or hybrid learning that mixes distance and face-to-face learning?
We used very simple course streaming for our study. Online courses with more challenging material, interactive elements, reverse courses have a very positive impact on students with the best abilities. But pedagogical innovations often reduce the teacher’s pure explanation time, which is very important for weaker students. The reduction in attendance time makes it very difficult for them, while not having a major impact on the stronger students who can pick up a book or find other resources. The key would be to set up very small groups in video interaction with a teacher, almost one-on-one sessions that get a student mature enough to say to themselves: I need these sessions. However, this requires greater accountability.