The Evidence on Online Education

WASHINGTON — Online learning has definite advantages over face-to-face instruction when it comes to teaching and learning, according to a new meta-analysis released Friday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study found that students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction. Further, those who took "blended" courses — those that combine elements of online learning and face-to-face instruction — appeared to do best of all. That finding could be significant as many colleges report that blended instruction is among the fastest-growing types of enrollment.

The Education Department examined all kinds of instruction, and found that the number of valid analyses of elementary and secondary education was too small to have much confidence in the results. But the positive results appeared consistent (and statistically significant) for all types of higher education, undergraduate and graduate, across a range of disciplines, the study said.

A meta-analysis is one that takes all of the existing studies and looks at them for patterns and conclusions that can be drawn from the accumulation of evidence.

On the topic of online learning, there is a steady stream of studies, but many of them focus on limited issues or lack control groups. The Education Department report said that it had identified more than 1,000 empirical studies of online learning that were published from 1996 through July 2008. For its conclusions, however, the Education Department considered only a small number (51) of independent studies that met strict criteria. They had to contrast an online teaching experience to a face-to-face situation, measure student learning outcomes, use a "rigorous research design," and provide adequate information to calculate the differences.

The department noted that this new meta-analysis differs from previous such studies, which generally found that online education and face-to-face instruction were similarly effective on issues of learning, but didn’t give an edge to online learning that may now exist.

While the new study provides a strong endorsement of online learning, it also notes findings about the relative success (or lack thereof) of various teaching techniques used in online courses. The use of video or online quizzes — frequently encouraged for online education — "does not appear to enhance learning," the report says.

Using technology to give students "control of their interactions" has a positive effect on student learning, however. "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," the report says.

Notably, the report attributes much of the success in learning online (blended or entirely) not to technology but to time. "Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning," the report says.

In noting caveats about the findings, the study returns to the issue of time.

"Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium," the report says. "In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction."

In a statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged educators to consider the report’s findings. “This new report reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide,” he said.

John R. Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a group of colleges and other organizations that work on online education issues, said he was not surprised by the findings, but thought it was quite important that the Education Department was the source. "I think this is incredibly significant," he said. "Those of us in the business have thought these things for some time, but we have had enormous trouble convincing some folks" about the quality of online education. "I think this will give more credibility to the things that have been said."

Diana G. Oblinger, president of Educause, also was pleased with the findings. "Online education provides additional opportunities," she said. "It gives people greater opportunity for flexibility, for experiential learning, for illustrating things in multiple ways such as visualization." What the study demonstrates, she said, is that colleges need to think broadly about using online education, and not be "artificially limited" to face-to-face instruction.

Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education at the American Federation of Teachers, said via e-mail that it was important to pay attention to the report’s caveats and not view it as evidence for shifting everything possible online.

"This report correctly recognizes that online learning and blended learning are growing components of higher education and, employed properly, can play a significant role in promoting student learning. Further public investment in experimentation and technology is certainly warranted," he said.

But noting the caveats in the report about factors other than medium of instruction, he said that "we should not take the report as saying it is simply better to move to online learning. These results demonstrate why more research is needed — broadly based research that moves well beyond case studies conducted by distance education practitioners, research focused on student retention in online environments and especially research that looks behind the instructional medium to isolate the characteristics of instruction that produce positive results. Successful education has always been about engaging students whether it is in an online environment, face to face or in a blended setting. And fundamental to that is having faculty who are fully supported and engaged in that process as well." (Inside Higher

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