On-line training exacerbates inequalities

This is a statistic that hurts in these times of health crisis, which is closing campuses in favor of distance learning: online courses improve the test scores of the best students by 2.5%, but worsen those that are less clear. In other words, distance education reinforces inequalities.

The study took place in 2016-2017 among 1459 first-year students 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 an open access journal. Journal of the European Economic Association. Explanations with one of the study’s co-authors, Michele Pellizzari, a professor at the GSEM Institute of Economics and Econometrics.

Le Temps: What does your study reveal?

Michele Pellizzari: Students had the choice of watching the courses in class (we haven’t talked in person yet …) or at home, with the course being filmed live and streamed. For some weeks, there were only on-site courses without streaming. We then remotely measured the difference in the probability of a correct answer between the 10% of students who had the best grades before entering university and the 10% of students with the lowest grades depending on how they used the courses. We found that online courses improved the best students’ exam results by 2.5%, but reduced the results of less great students by 2%.

How did you create a link between personal courses, streaming and results?

In general, we observe that all students prefer to come to class when they can: being able to attend the same course replicated in streaming reduces class attendance by only 8%. The difference occurs when it is difficult to go to class, for example due to weather problems. In this case, the strongest students are more willing to take streaming courses, even if they don’t come without streaming, but they say they’ll catch up later, with books; while more average students try to come to class. They know that they need explanations from the classroom teachers to understand; so even though it’s hard to get there, they will get there. They take classes online, if there is no other option, but streaming penalizes them because they lose the advantage of a teacher who evaluates their lesson, sees when students drop out, can explain again … And that’s not the effect for the group: there is no difference in quality learning according to the degree of class fulfillment.

For more: Pierre Dillenbourg, pioneer of educational technologies

What implications does your study have for improving online teaching or hybrid learning that combines distance and full-time?

We used very simple streaming courses for our studies. Online courses with more sophisticated material, interactive elements, reverse courses, have very positive effects for students who have the best skills. However, pedagogical innovations often reduce the time it takes to explain teachers, which is very important for weaker students. Shortening a face-to-face meeting makes their job very difficult, while stronger students who can take a book or find other resources are not affected. The key would be to create very small groups in video interaction with the teacher, almost individual meetings that require the student to be mature enough to say: I need these meetings. However, this requires more responsibility.

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