Phil Hill: George Mason University Report on Online Education Deeply Flawed!

Dear Commons Community,

My colleague, Fred Lane, alerted me to a report, titled “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at the Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy” []  From what I can see the report has not been published or subjected to a peer review.  Regardless, it is getting some attention in the media.  An abstract of this report appears below.  Phil Hill on his  blog earlier this week provided a response to “this deeply-flawed report.”  I agree with one of Hill’s  points that it is not easy to wade through, largely because of its wide-ranging discussion of for-profits, online history, past federal policy, a snapshot of research on learning outcomes, and a discussion of current policy debates. Online learning is no longer new and has twenty-five years of research behind it. It is too simple, for instance, to consider online learning as one entity. A MOOC online course is very different than a self-paced, adaptive learning online course is very different than a faculty-led, high interaction online course is very different than a blended learning course, etc.  Hill also mentions this report references several studies from the California Community College system, mostly from years ago, describing how students “were less likely to complete online courses and when they completed them, less likely to pass them”. Yet the authors did not look at the trends within this system, as easily found in the most recent Distance Education report from the system, where the gap in performance overall for online versus tradition is closing rapidly.

For those interested in the issues of online education, I would suggest the original report makes for okay reading even if flawed.  However, I strongly suggest that you read Hill’s response to clarify your overall opinion.





Spiros Protopsaltis and Sandy Baum

January 2019


Technology has the potential to increase access to education, enhance learning experiences, and reduce the cost of providing high-quality postsecondary education. However, despite the explosive growth of online education, which has been disproportionately large in the for-profit sector, our review of the evidence shows that this potential has not been realized. Instead, on average fully online coursework has contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability. Even when overall outcomes are similar for classroom and online courses, students with weak academic preparation and those from low-income and under-represented backgrounds consistently underperform in fully-online environments. Success rates are lower and employers—in addition to students, faculty, academic leaders, and the public—attribute lower value to online than to classroom degrees. A strong body of evidence, as well as industry best practices, have consistently emphasized the critical role of frequent and meaningful interaction between students and instructors for increasing the quality of the online educational experience and improving student outcomes and satisfaction. Weakening federal requirements for regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty in online courses would likely decrease educational quality, further erode employer confidence in the value of online credentials, increase barriers to postsecondary success, and expand opportunities for some institutions to exploit vulnerable students and federal student aid programs.

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