Asia Jackson likes to learn at the computer because she can work at her own pace, which is usually faster than her classmates’. Al-Tariq Linton says, “It’s one on one. If I have a question, instead of competing for the teacher’s attention, I can go back and read it on my own.” Wanda Williams says her favorite part of the online course she’s taking is the narrator of the videos it includes. “Rufus made it funny,” she says. “It was fun.”
As interest in online education rages, these 17- and 18-year-old students at Newark, N.J.’s West Side High are guinea pigs in a global experiment to answer a key but surprisingly elusive question: whether and when it actually works.
Evidence is mixed about how well online courses teach core subjects such as science, math or reading, with a recent large-scale Columbia study showing disadvantages to online learning for community college students. (The study was done at Columbia’s Teachers College, which is also home to The Hechinger Report, producer of this story.) But new research shows that, in certain topics—as for these students in Newark — computer-based instruction is not only just as effective as the old-fashioned, in-person kind. It’s more effective.
These topics include sex, drugs and health — subjects in which privacy, personal comfort and customized information are especially important, and embarrassment or cultural taboos can get in the way of classroom teaching.