Future Tense

Can an Online Teaching Tool Solve One of Higher Education’s Biggest Headaches?

Starting this fall, Carnegie Mellon will offer “blended learning” for one of its most popular computer science courses.

Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Carnegie Mellon University has a problem. It’s a good one, this time—unlike when it lost dozens of researchers and scientists to Uber. The university’s new problem is not one of lack but of excess: Too many students are interested in taking a popular computer science course, and there’s not enough physical space in the classroom to accommodate them all.

Rather than move the course to a football stadium, the Pittsburgh-based university plans to open the course up to more students by moving the majority of its instructional content from the classroom to the Internet. But it’s not just uploading a series of lectures and calling it an online course. The university will rely on a “blended learning” approach, combining video lectures, optional minilectures, and a handful of face-to-face group meetings between students and instructors for concepts that need to be reinforced in person. The program, which is backed by a $200,000 prize from Google’s Computer Science Capacity Awards program, will debut in the fall, and some of its materials may also be used in high schools next year.

What Carnegie Mellon’s trying to address is an important problem. Universities across America often struggle with disproportionate interest-to-availability ratios in their courses. Courses in computer science especially face an oversubscription problem. Some schools just allow classes to be overcrowded, resulting in large auditorium lectures in which students squeeze shoulder to shoulder along the walls; others try to tackle the issue by capping courses and determining enrollment with an application or a lottery system. In both cases, though, students lose out. Schools could hire more teachers for extra classes, but new instructors have to be paid, even if they are cheap adjuncts.

Some colleges have tried to use online offerings to bridge the gap between supply and demand—to mixed results. Though online courses that count toward a degree tend to see more success than massive open online courses, or MOOCs, just offering free knowledge, performances in these formal classes are still lackluster. A dozen studies from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center found appalling withdrawal and failure rates in courses taught online. Formal online courses still cost money, so the large percentage of students who fail them are essentially paying tuition to receive nothing. 

So why could Carnegie Mellon’s new approach find success? Carnegie Mellon’s approach of blended learning is one of the rare forms of online education that have been shown to actually work. A U.S. Department of Education report in 2010 showed an abundance of blended learning’s positive effects on K-12 students, and numerous other research studies support this finding as well.

In the Columbia center’s dozen studies, online-only courses were shown to yield poor performance and success—but hybrid classes of online and in-person instruction were as successful as traditional courses. Blended learning has even been documented to help poor-performing high school algebra students improve more than their counterparts in traditional teacher-led classes.

Hybrid classes have not become widely popular in colleges yet because of a combination of wariness and cost. Universities, especially prestigious ones, tend to shy away from taking risks on online ventures in general because they could dilute the school’s elite brand or uphold the brand and fail anyway. In addition, implementing blended learning and teaching professors how to work with the new materials takes a lot of time. But Carnegie Mellon’s determinate efforts provide a spark of hope—if the school is successful, others may follow in its path. Perhaps we will begin to see more diverse teaching methods, as well as fewer students crouching in the aisles of overcrowded lecture halls.