Yes, the Internet Can Make You (and Your Kids) Smarter

Maybe Google isn't making us stoopid, after all. Students taking online courses beat those with face-to-face instruction, according to a new study for the Department of Education. The report, by SRI International, reviewed studies from 1996 to 2008 involving K-12 schools in addition to colleges and adult education programs. It concluded that students following online courses ranked in the 59th percentile in tests compared with the average classroom students scoring in the 50th percentile. Great news! What do we do with it?

First, an important caveat. The study did not conclude that online learning is inherently better than human instructors. That would be a slightly crazy conclusion designed to bring the wrath of the teacher's union down upon the heads of SRI. Instead the study concluded that classes incorporating online learning produced better results. From the Executive Summary (pdf):

Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is  superior as a medium. In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy.

As someone who grew up during the dawn of Google, Wikipedia and interactive CD-ROMs, the study's conclusion seems self-evident. Of course online learning is a beneficial supplement to face-to-face instruction. It's not just the flexibility of learning -- you move on to the next chapter whenever you have free time with your computer -- it's the ability of online programs to monitor your progress with the material with periodical tests and reading comprehension gut checks to make sure the user is following along. Even the most alert lecturer can't read your mind to gauge your understanding of the lesson as well as a computer system that won't let you onto the next chapter unless you answer more than 80 percent of the questions correctly. (I'm thinking now back to my pre-college online alcohol tests.)

As the generation coming up through the K-12 system lives on a diet of iPods, laptops, smart phones, e-reader and heretofore uninvented gizmos, there is going to be upward pressure on schools to change their curricula to fit an online-first class. We can fill their iPods with podcasts, their laptops with online readings and interactive lessons, their smart phones with text alerts about homework and their e-readers with e-books. Or, you know, we could pretend that it's still 1950.

 [From the New York Times Bits Blog]

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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