Researchers examine financial, academic impacts of online instruction in STEM programs

Igor Chirikov/Courtesy

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In a study published April 8, researchers found that compared to in-person instruction, online education platforms could be used to increase enrollment in STEM programs at a lower cost.

The study — conducted by researchers from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, Cornell University and Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics — focused on differences in learning between in-person, online and blended classes within resource-constrained higher education institutions. The key takeaway of the findings was that mastery of course content was similar across the three groups, according to the study’s principal investigator Igor Chirikov, Student Experience in the Research University Consortium director and senior researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.

“Since all curriculum is standardized, courses like ‘Engineering Mechanics’ at regional universities and the top schools in the country should be the same, and we saw a clear opportunity for an experiment here,” Chirikov said.

Data for the study was collected across three Russian universities, where researchers divided students into one of three groups, according to the paper. Students in the first group attended lectures and discussion groups in person, while members of the second group only attended discussion groups in person and members of the third group took the course fully online.

In addition to looking at the differences in academic performance between the groups, researchers also examined the financial effects of introducing online or blended courses across multiple universities. According to the study, online education platforms could address the shortage of resources and declining supply of qualified STEM instructors in Russia without exceeding budget constraints.

“We calculated the cost savings for the use of certain online courses and found out how many more students can be enrolled if implemented at scale,” Chirikov said. “We saw that there will be significant cost savings, which will allow them to expand the student population at the same budget.”

While the study was conducted during the 2017-18 academic year, Chirikov acknowledged the relationship between the researchers’ findings and the situation that many universities face across the world in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Chirikov added that one key difference between the online instruction used in the experiment and the emergency remote instruction universities are using was that students were still able to access resources on campus.

The results are only applicable to courses in a particular field of study with a shortage of faculty, according to Chirikov, but there are opportunities to explore the impacts of universities moving instruction completely online. Future studies may focus on the academic and financial effects across disciplines and countries with many potential applications, Chirikov added.

“As for the implications, in the upcoming recession, universities looking to increase efficiency in work and instruction can use this model to exchange courses with other institutions,” Chirikov said. “If UC Berkeley created a successful online course, they could license it to other universities with a shortage of instructors or not enough money.”

Contact Aditya Katewa at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @adkatewa1.