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Online Courses Are Cost Effective but Detrimental to Learning, Researchers Find

Multitasking can be damaging to your brain, and online students are bearing the brunt.

Record numbers of students are taking online classes.

For more and more of today's university students, screen time is competing with seat time. According to the most recent statistics (from 2016–17), 33 percent of college students take at least one online class, 17.6 percent mix online and in-class coursework, and 15.4 percent exclusively take online classes. Each statistic represents an increase over the year prior, a trend that has continued since 2011. Advocates of online education are quick to celebrate this increase, but the rise of screen time in higher education may harbor some detrimental consequences.

Online courses have obvious benefits: They cut costs and are popular with working students seeking scheduling flexibility. At a number of campuses they also increase educational access. The Orlando Sentinel reports, for example, that the University of Central Florida, a school with an extensive online catalog, can serve 66,000 students due to that catalog as opposed to the 40,000 its physical campus can accommodate. Thomas Cavanagh, UCF vice provost for digital learning, explains that demand for online offerings is at an ever-increasing level. "Students," he says, "are clearly voting with their behaviors."

But the educational benefits of online courses are less clear. A Brookings Institution report found that students taking online courses "perform substantially worse than students in traditional in-person courses and that experience in these online courses impact performance in future classes and likelihood of dropping out of college as well." The New York Times opinions page editorialized in 2013 that the "online revolution" was "distressing," threatening as it does to "shortchange the most vulnerable students."

A new study out of Kent State suggests a specific reason for the problems plaguing online coursework: multitasking. In a survey of 452 undergraduates at public universities in the American Midwest, researchers confirmed "significantly greater multitasking behavior in online versus face-to-face courses." Students enrolled online reported higher rates of texting, emailing, checking in with online social networks, watching videos—none of these activities related to class—while also playing video games and listening to music.

The study's lead author, Andrew Lepp, was inspired to explore the topic of online-course multitasking when he witnessed a student taking a biology class in his library basement while streaming a Netflix video. Lepp notes that his study's findings have "immediate implications" for undergraduate education, in part because "an abundance of research demonstrates that multitasking during educational activities significantly reduces learning."

On this point, the evidence is quite strong, if not alarming. By nearly every measure, multitasking is bad for the brain—and may even damage it. A University of London study found that students who multitasked experienced a drop in IQ comparable to the mental decline caused by staying up all night or smoking pot. And this drop may be more than temporary. A 2014 study published in PLoS One found that multitasking might permanently diminish the brain's density. Specifically, researchers discovered that people with a high "Media Multitasking Index"—that is, big multitaskers—"had smaller grey matter density" in the anterior cingulate cortex section of the brain. Needless to say, this kind of mental development runs contrary to the most basic mission of higher education.

Furthering the bad news for online education is the fact that the drawbacks of online coursework disproportionately harm lower-income students and community colleges. A University of California–Davis study found that community college students were 11 percent less likely to pass a class if they took it online, rather than in a face-to-face setting. Shanna Jaggers, an assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, has indicated that community colleges promote online classes for enrollment rather than educational purposes. "They need enrollments," she says, "and this [online class work] is one way to pull enrollments up."

Speaking to journalists at a January of 2019 meeting of the Education Writers Association, Spiros Protopsaltis, a professor at George Mason University, told the audience, "The interaction between a student and an instructor is an intrinsic part of the educational process." Could it be that the "intrinsic" element in that "educational process" is the pressure in most face-to-face classrooms to put the phone away and pay attention? And if so, might the so-called great disrupter of higher education—the "online revolution"—disrupt itself from within?