This article presents the first experimental evidence on the effects of live versus Internet media of instruction. Students in a large introductory microeconomics course at a major research university were randomly assigned to live lectures versus watching these same lectures in an Internet setting where all other factors (e.g., instruction, supplemental materials) were the same. We find modest evidence that live-only instruction dominates Internet instruction. These results are particularly strong for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students. We also provide suggestions for future experimentation in other settings.
A draft of the paper is here (2010). The paper was published three years after the draft. From the conclusions
. . . our strongest findings in favor of live instruction are for the relatively low-achieving students, male students, and Hispanic students. These are precisely the students who are more likely to populate the less selective universities and community colleges. These students may well be disadvantaged by the movement to online education and, to the extent that it is the less selective institutions and community colleges that are most fully embracing online education, inadvertently they may be harming a significant portion of their student body.
At the least, our findings indicate that much more experimentation is necessary before one can credibly declare that online education is peer to traditional live classroom instruction, let alone superior to live instruction.
I am optimistic about online education, and it will improve with time.
Face to face education is here to stay, at least for some good years. The best way to look at online education is as a complement to face to face interactions. Probably only the conscientious are the ones who will take advantage of online classes, as Tyler Cowen says.