Changing Distributions: How online college classes alter student and professor performance

October 02, 2014


Changing Distributions: How online college classes alter student and professor performance

Online courses for college students are rapidly expanding, especially at private for-profit institutions, yet little extant research identifies the effects of online courses on students’ academic success. We study students and professors at DeVry University—the fourth largest for-profit institution in the country where two-thirds of classes are conducted online. Using an instrumental variables approach, this study finds that on average students perform worse in online classes, compared to how they would have performed in a traditional in-person class setting. Our instrument limits identifying variation to differences in online versus in-person course taking that arise from variation over time in which courses are offered in-person at the student’s local DeVry campus. Additionally, we find that student performance is more variable online than in traditional classrooms. This greater variation is not, however, due to greater variation in professor performance. In fact, individual professors explain less of the variation in student performance in online settings than in traditional classrooms. The results highlight differences in students’ abilities to productively use online offerings, and the potential of online settings to reduce within-course variation in quality.