A recent report on online education for the U.S. Education Department suggests that some students may be better with online rather than classroom teaching. Here are some excerpts from the report:
Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction; interpretations of this result, however, should take into consideration the fact that online and face-to-face conditions generally differed on multiple dimensions, including the amount of time that learners spent on task. The advantages observed for online learning conditions therefore may be the product of aspects of those treatment conditions other than the instructional delivery medium per se.
Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction An important issue to keep in mind in reviewing these findings is that many studies did not attempt to equate (a) all the curriculum materials, (b) aspects of pedagogy and (c) learning time in the treatment and control conditions. Indeed, some authors asserted that it would be impossible to have done so. Hence, the observed advantage for online learning in general, and blended learning conditions in particular, is not necessarily rooted in the media used per se and may reflect differences in content, pedagogy and learning time.
Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly. Analysts examined 13 online learning practices as potential sources of variation in the effectiveness of online learning compared with face-to-face instruction. Of those variables, (a) the use of a blended rather than a purely online approach and (b) the expansion of time on task for online learners were the only statistically significant influences on effectiveness. The other 11 online learning practice variables that were analyzed did not affect student learning significantly. However, the relatively small number of studies contrasting learning outcomes for online and face-to-face instruction that included information about any specific aspect of implementation impeded efforts to identify online instructional practices that affect learning outcomes.
The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. Online learning appeared to be an effective option for both undergraduates and for graduate students and professionals in a wide range of academic and professional studies.
The narrative review of experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting different online learning practices found that the majority of available studies suggest the following:
- Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes. The research does not support the use of some frequently recommended online learning practices. Inclusion of more media in an online application does not appear to enhance learning. The practice of providing online quizzes does not seem to be more effective than other tactics such as assigning homework.
- Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection. Studies indicate that manipulations that trigger learner activity or learner reflection and self-monitoring of understanding are effective when students pursue online learning as individuals.
- Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners. When groups of students are learning together online, support mechanisms such as guiding questions generally influence the way students interact, but not the amount they learn.
The full report, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” can be downloaded here.