Positive results for teaching statistics by computer

A recent study shows that students taking an online statistics course utilizing software from Carnegie Mellon do better than students who take a hybrid course with a classroom classroom:

The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.

Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities…

The robotic software did have disadvantages, the researchers found. For one, students found it duller than listening to a live instructor. Some felt as though they had learned less, even if they scored just as well on tests. Engaging students, such as professors might by sprinkling their lectures with personal anecdotes and entertaining asides, remains one area where humans have the upper hand.

But on straight teaching the machines were judged to be as effective, and more efficient, than their personality-having counterparts.

As someone who regularly teaches both Statistics and Social Research (a research methods course), these findings are intriguing. I understand the urge to curb costs while still providing a good education. However, I have three questions that perhaps go beyond these findings:

1. Are there any benefits for students from being in a classroom for three hours a week beyond learning outcomes? Is there a social dimension to the classroom setting that could enhance learning? For example, it is common for professors to have students work in groups or with each other, sometimes with the idea that being able to teach or effectively help another student will increase a student’s learning. Also, I wonder about learning becoming strictly an individualistic activity. Sure, there are ways to do this online (discussion boards, using Skype, etc.) but does this replicate the kind of discussions faculty and students can have in a classroom?

2. Are there any professors in the United States who might secretly welcome not having to teach statistics?

3. Is there a point in a discipline, like statistics, where the difficulty of the subject matter makes it more helpful to have a live instructor? This study looked at introductory stats courses but would the findings be the same if the courses covered more advanced topics that require more “intuition” and “art” than pure steps or facts?

h/t Instapundit

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