Online learning is better than face-to-face learning?

The US Department of Education sponsored the Center for Technology in Learning to look into the effectiveness of online learning – and to specifically compare the effectiveness of using online learning compared to face to face learning. The results, published in May, are on the website, for all to see.

What I’ve seen of the reporting seems to take the simple line that “online learning is better than face-to-face learning”. Hmmm, having read more than the first highlighted sentence in the abstract, I think there’s a lot more to it!

The inescapable conclusion is that with students changing, and their lives changing, methods of supporting online and blended learning are not only more convenient for many different types of students, but also more effective at ensuring that the student achieves the required learning outcomes.

What the researchers did

The researchers looked at 1,000 pieces of research, over the last 12 years, of online learning. After throwing out those pieces that didn’t compare online and face-to-face learning, or didn’t measure the impact on student learning, or didn’t take a rigorous approach to the research, they were left with 51 pieces of research – which is a large enough group to make effective comparisons.

Then they crunched all the conclusions together from all of the reports, to arrive at an overarching conclusion – answering the question “What do we know about the effectiveness of online learning compared to conventional, face-to-face learning?

The headline conclusions

The simple conclusion was:


students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction Endquotes

Which is the bit that has been reported widely.

But read on a little further, and the report went on to say:


The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes…was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-faceEndquotes

Which is saying that a combination of online and face-to-face learning (ie blended learning) is more effective than online learning alone.

Although there are some provisos around this finding – eg theories that blended learning often includes additional learning time and additional face-to-face learning not included in standard courses – it is still significant.

Key Findings

Further in (starting on page xiv, if you’re following along) are some key findings that are good summary conclusions:

  • Few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K–12 (school) students have been published
    "K-12" is ‘Kindergarten to 12th Grade’, which is American for "schools"
    Of all the research completed, there was none on school use of online learning between 1994 and 2006 that met their quality criteria, and only five in total up to 2008.
    Personally, I think in the UK we need to improve this situation. We’re mandating online learning platforms in every school in the UK, without there being a robust set of research to prove that it works?

  • 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
    This conclusion speaks for itself

  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction
    Which may result from the approach a teacher takes – do they feel more engaged too, when the learning is mixed?

  • 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
    I’d suspect this is a factor of students being able to each learn at their own pace, and pause or repeat sections of their learning – something that’s all but impossible in face-to-face learning.

  • Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly
    I suspect that if we had the data for all e-learning in UK schools we’d see something similar – that the biggest difference in learning outcomes is achieved by a decision to support blended online learning effectively, however that happens. The two factors that did make a difference were the use of blended learning (as opposed to online only) and the amount of time students spent on task.

  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types
    Although, because the schools research sample was so small, there are few strong conclusions for school-age learning specifically.

  • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online and face-to-face conditions varied in terms of curriculum materials and aspects of instructional approach in addition to the medium of instruction
    ie don’t just put your existing course materials onto a website – you need to plan to deliver your course differently

In the US, and I would guess that’s it also true for the UK, online learning—for students and for teachers—is one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology.

The US National Center for Education Statistics (2008) estimated that the number of US school students enrolling in a technology-based distance education course grew by 65 percent in two years between 2003 to 2005, and after some recent research it’s been estimated that more than a million school students took online courses last year.

You can read the full 93-pages of the report on the US Department of Education website (although you may want to re-read your “Dummy’s Guide to Statistical Analysis” before you start!)

It’s also interesting to read the Comments debate on the New York Times website, which started when it reported the findings.

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