I’m a skeptic of many technology initiatives in education. In particular, I find the idea of college transmitted over the Internet to be a fad at best, and a scam at worse.

But as far as the learning goes, it turns out people online do pretty well. In fact, almost just as well as in real college. That’s according to a report out by Derek Wu. a research analyst at Ithaka S+R. In a literature review of research of online education he concludes something interesting:

The three studies that employ randomization or quasi-experimental strategies find that students taking online or hybrid courses performed slightly worse to no differently than their peers taking traditional face-to-face courses, though there is some variance across specifications and subgroups. The descriptive studies that incorporate control variables find that online and hybrid courses were generally associated with lower learning outcomes. Finally, a majority of the six studies that employ strictly observational analyses indicate that students in online and hybrid formats performed no worse and, in some cases, better than their counterparts in face-to-face sections.

So online isn’t great, but it’s probably not that bad. What do we do with this? That’s where this gets troublesome.

It’s hard to we might conclude from this. And that’s because the “control variables” here are important. All else being equal one can probably learn pretty well online. Whether you watch a lecture passively in a large room with other people or you watch it online doesn’t matter that much. It also isn’t all that important whether you sit and argue in a classroom discussion section or have a discussion online with a bunch of people remotely.

But all else is not equal. The author writes that “there remains a need for further research on the costs associated with online instruction and the particular features of online instruction that drive their impacts on learning outcomes.” One of the particular features here is that online is mostly a promising development in terms of college access for the American poor. If you can reduce the delivery cost of college it’s a good way for working-class people to earn college credits.

But because working people have distractions in their lives—children and other family members to care for, jobs to work at, financial constraints, and insufficient academic preparation—online college doesn’t really work so well. That’s because online college actually requires greater focus and fewer distractions in order to succeed.

It’s not enough for online to be fine all else being equal. All else is not equal. Inequality is why online colleges exist, because the working poor don’t make enough to afford to go to college.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer