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Online STEM courses can rival their in-person analogues

17 April 2020

The OpenEdu platform brings high-quality instruction to Russian universities at a reduced cost.

Worldwide demand is growing for effective STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education that can produce workers with technical skills. Online classes—affordable, flexible, and accessible—can help meet that demand. Toward that goal, some countries have developed national online higher-education platforms, such as XuetangX in China and Swayam in India. In 2015 eight top Russian universities collaborated to create the National Platform of Open Education, or OpenEdu. Professors from highly ranked departments produced courses for the platform that could then be used, for a fee, by resource-constrained universities. The courses comply with national standards and enable universities to serve more students by reducing the cost per pupil.

A new study from Igor Chirikov at the University of California, Berkeley, and his collaborators at Stanford and Cornell Universities and the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow investigates the effectiveness of the OpenEdu program. The researchers looked at two metrics—effectiveness of instruction and cost savings—and found that the platform was successful on both fronts.

The study followed 325 students at three universities who were taking courses on either engineering mechanics (EM in the graph below) or construction materials technology (CMT) during the 2017–18 school year. Students were randomly assigned to one of three instructional modes: in-person, blended, or online. Those in blended classes attended in-person discussions to supplement the online instruction. The researchers worked with instructors to ensure that the course content and assessments were identical across the three groups. Average final exam scores (left graph) were approximately the same for all students.

Comparison of course types.
Credit: Adapted from I. Chirikov et al., Sci. Adv. 6, eaay5324 (2020)

The researchers estimate that blended instruction reduces costs by 15–20% and online-only education by 80% (right graph). Using platforms like OpenEdu could therefore enable an instructor to reach more students without diminishing learning outcomes—a particularly important capability in Russia, where a sharp decline in the number of STEM faculty is expected in the coming years.

However, students in online-only classes reported slightly lower levels of satisfaction with the course experience. The researchers suspect that more online-specific tools, such as automated formative assessments and interactive materials, would improve the remote learning experience. More research is needed to understand whether a student’s success with an instructional modality depends on their background. (I. Chirikov et al., Sci. Adv. 6, eaay5324, 2020; thumbnail image credit: Andrey_Popov/

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