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Online courses reinforce inequalities

As millions of university students worldwide go online in response to Covid-19, a new study finds streaming lectures widens educational inequality between able and less able students by up to 5%.

New research by the Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) finds that live streaming lectures improve exam results among high-ability students by 2.5%, but lower results by 2% among low-ability students. Data for the study, which has been accepted for publication by the prestigious Journal of the European Economic Association, was conducted before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Entitled “Distance Learning in Higher Education: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment” and co-written by Prof. Jérémy Lucchetti and Prof. Michele Pellizzari, along with Prof. Christian Hildebrand (University of St. Gallen) and Dr. Maria Paula Cacault (EPFL and Enterprise for Society (E4S), the journal article also finds that, given the choice, most students prefer to attend in person, only opting to watch online when faced with unexpected difficulties (i.e. sickness or bad weather). Offering live streamed lectures reduce in-person attendance by just 8% and is therefore unlikely to tackle issues such as overcrowding in higher education.

One of the report’s authors, Michele Pellizzari, says: “Going online seems to prise open the learning gap between able and less able students. This is something universities everywhere should take note of as the coronavirus accelerates the shift to online learning.”

The study looked at 1459 first year students taking eight compulsory courses, including mathematics and introduction to economics, at the University of Geneva. The same set of students were randomly assigned access to live streamed lectures some weeks, but not others. Course content was mapped to specific exam questions to assess educational attainment. All students had the option of attending lectures in person.

> Link to the press release issued by the University of Geneva.

January 19, 2021
  2021
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