Effectiveness of Online Learning

Date Published: 
June 29, 2009

The US Dept of Education just released a report [PDF] on the effectiveness of online education.  Abstract:

A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size. As a result of this screening, 51 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education). 

Did you catch that?  The caveat, too?  Let's look at some of the more interesting bullet points, excerpted from the executive summary:

  • 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.

  • 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 mean effect size for studies with more time spent by online learners was +0.46 compared with +0.19 for studies in which the learners in the face-to-face condition spent as much time or more on task (Q = 3.88, p < .05).

  • 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. Analysts examined the characteristics of the studies in the meta-analysis to ascertain whether features of the studies’ methodologies could account for obtained effects. Six methodological variables were tested as potential moderators: (a) sample size, (b) type of knowledge tested, (c) strength of study design, (d) unit of assignment to condition, (e) instructor equivalence across conditions, and (f) equivalence of curriculum and instructional approach across conditions. Only equivalence of curriculum and instruction emerged as a significant moderator variable (Q = 5.40, p < .05). Studies in which analysts judged the curriculum and instruction to be identical or almost identical in online and face-to-face conditions had smaller effects than those studies where the two conditions varied in terms of multiple aspects of instruction (+0.20 compared with +0.42, respectively). Instruction could differ in terms of the way activities were organized (for example as group work in one condition and independent work in another) or in the inclusion of instructional resources (such as a simulation or instructor lectures) in one condition but not the other.

  • Blended and purely online learning conditions implemented within a single study generally result in similar student learning outcomes. When a study contrasts blended and purely online conditions, student learning is usually comparable across the two conditions.

  • 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.

    OK, so online learning is better when it requires more time on task, active learning, diverse ways of learning, et al.?  Sounds familiar.

    The report is definitely worth examining.  It's not simply an "online is better" type of report: it truly delves into the issues regarding which methods show gains and why.  It's not the medium that makes online learning better but the thoughtful, purposeful, and intentional instructional design decisions used to create the courses (a combination of time spent, curriculum, and pedagogy, according to the report).


    J. Garvey Pyke, Ed.D. | Center for Teaching and Learning | UNC Charlotte