Online education platforms scale college STEM instruction with equivalent learning outcomes at lower cost

April 8, 2020


April 8, 2020
Contact: Igor Chirikov, UC Berkeley —, (510)517-7066


Online and blended (online and in-person) STEM instruction can produce the same learning
outcomes for students as traditional, in-person classes at a fraction of the cost, finds research
published today in Science Advances.

A team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, HSE University Moscow in
Russia, Stanford University, and Cornell University used a multi-site, randomized controlled
study at three Russian universities to compare performance and satisfaction for students in two
engineering courses. The students were randomly divided into the three cohorts and received
identical lessons and assignments via one of three delivery modalities: 1) in-person lectures and
discussion sections 2) a blend of online and in-person instruction, and 3) fully online instruction.
The online and blended instruction utilized OpenEdu, a platform developed by a non-profit
organization in Russia to make online university courses available to the public.

At the conclusion of the courses, researchers measured final exam scores, performance on
course assignments, and student satisfaction. Students in all three modalities had similar scores
on final exams. Students in fully online modality scored higher on course assignments but
reported slightly lower satisfaction than students in the in-person modality. Furthermore, the
online and blended modes of instruction cost significantly less per-student than traditional,

in-person instruction. Blended instruction lowered the cost of per-student instruction by 15-19%
depending on the course; online instruction lowered the cost of per-student instruction by 79-
81% depending on the course. These cost-savings can fund increases in STEM enrollment.

“Online education platforms have a big potential to expand access to quality STEM education
worldwide,” says Igor Chirikov, SERU Consortium Director and Senior Researcher at UC
Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education and the project’s Principal Investigator. “Such
platforms could bring cost-savings to financially distressed colleges and offer flexible learning
opportunities to students without diminishing learning outcomes. They could also strengthen the
instructional resilience of colleges when in-person delivery is not an option, such as right now,
when most universities are closed to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“This is the strongest evidence to date that an average college student can learn just as much
from a course online as on campus or with blended learning,” says Cornell professor of
information science and study co-author Rene Kizilcec. “The fact that students find online
learning less satisfying doesn’t mean it is less effective. That’s why we shouldn’t rely too much
on student surveys like teaching evaluations to judge the quality of instruction, especially in a
time of crisis when the transition to online learning is unplanned. In this study, we only used
basic online course materials to match the in-person content, but prior research shows that
interactive and social online activities with immediate feedback could have produced even larger learning gains.“

Ongoing challenges of adopting this model include the initial cost of investing in online platforms
and training instructors. Also, the model requires a high degree of synchronization of academic
programs and courses across multiple colleges.
“The proposed model is relevant in the countries or regions where college courses and
programs are aligned across several institutions,” says Chirikov. “In the United States, some
states (e.g., Florida) maintain statewide common course numbering systems and allow students
to take online courses from other state universities and transfer credits. There are also private
online platforms, like Coursera, that allow colleges to integrate online courses from the world's
top universities into their curricula. These examples are very similar to the model that we tested
in our study.” 

Read more

Science Advances