Is it Effective?

Online Learning: Is it Effective?

Kristin DeAngelis
J. Garvey Pyke, Ed.D.


Online learning is becoming increasingly prevalent. More than 3.1 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall semester of 2005, which is 800,000 more students than in 2004, and 2,500,000 more students than in 2003 (Allen & Seaman, 2006). These numbers are expected to continue to rise.

As more students enroll in online courses, the question of their effectiveness becomes increasingly pertinent. Do students learn as much in an online classroom as they do in a face to face classroom? Do they learn more? What data and research support this claim?


The data and research show that students learn just as effectively in an online environment as in a traditional classroom. In some studies, online students not only matched the performance of traditional students, but surpassed it.


  • Reasons, Valadares, and Slavkin (2005) compared face to face, online, and hybrid courses in teacher education and health services with the hypothesis that hybrid courses would be the most effective, but their research data showed that online courses led to better student outcomes. They examined course participation, final grades, and interaction with the course website. Final grades were highest for students in completely online courses, and students in hybrid and traditional courses had the same average grades. Students in the online courses also had more interaction with the course website than students in traditional or hybrid courses. Intriguingly, students in hybrid courses did not access the website any more often than did students in traditional courses.
  • Raggan and Kleoppel (2004) compared the exam scores of students enrolled in an online program versus students enrolled in a classroom based program in the Pharm.D. curriculum at the Kansas University School of Pharmacy. Both groups of students took two multiple choice, open book exams with a one hour time limit. The traditional students took a timed, proctored test while the non-traditional students were timed through Blackboard. Both groups of students also completed a demo of specialized equipment which was graded on a pass/fail scale. Traditional students were observed by faculty members while nontraditional students could perform for a faculty member, nurse, or physician. The online students averaged higher scores on each of the two exams.
  • Benbunan-Fich and Hiltz (2003) compared student and instructor perceptions of learning between seventeen courses offered over a three year period, with a total enrollment of 1700 students. Some of the courses were offered in a traditional classroom setting, some were offered strictly online, and some were hybrid courses which consisted of a combination of online and classroom learning. The findings showed that there was no significant difference among perception of learning based upon the course delivery format. In all three formats, active participation and ease of access to instructor were found to be essential to a high perception of learning.
  • Fallah and Ubell (2000) worked with a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology simultaneously taught two sections of the same course, one in a classroom and the other online. The online course had seven students whose scores ranged from 57 to 94, and the campus course had twelve students whose scores ranged from 35 to 87. The average score of the online students was five percent higher than that of the campus students.
  • Mascuilli (2000) analyzed success rates—the portion of students who passed—of online and traditional classroom mathematics courses at Pace University over three semesters. To prevent cheating, online students had to find a designated proctor who would monitor their exams and mail the completed hard copy to the course instructor. There were no significant differences between the success rates of the online and classroom courses.
  • Koory (2003) taught Introduction to Shakespeare in both the traditional classroom and online formats for the University of California at Berkeley from 2000 to 2002. She stated that the online course resulted in consistently better learning outcomes for her students. Nearly four times as many online students earned A grades when compated to the classroom students (58% vs. 15%, respectively). Koory did not attribute this to the format but rather concluded that the course design is a more important indicator of student success than the delivery method.
  • Shapley (2000) compared exam data from an online and a face to face chemistry course at the University of Illinois. Each course had four exams. The first two sets of exam scores for both sets of students had averages between 53% and 57%, so Shapley raised the level of difficulty for the online students by asking about more complex material in the short answer section. The online students scored 2% higher than the traditional classroom students, even though their exam had a higher level of difficulty.
  • Wegner, Holloway, and Garton (1999) studied students in a curriculum design course over two semesters. The students chose whether they wanted to participate in a traditional course or an online course. The 17 students who selected the traditional course and 14 who opted for the online instruction were each given an identical objective test. The face to face students had an average score of 93%, which was nearly identical to the average of 92% achieved by the online students.

Further Reading:

  • The Sloan Consortium publishes the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks and other reports. Sloan C
  • Educause seeks to advance of higher education through information technology through the reports from the Educause Center for Applied Research, Educause Learning Initiative, and Educause Connect, all of which provide current information about the uses of technology in education. Educause


Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2006). Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006 [Brochure]. Needham, M.A.: The Sloan Consortium.

Benbunan-Fich, R., & Hiltz, S. R. (2003). Mediators of the Effectiveness of Online Courses. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Transactions on Professional Communication. 46, 298-312.

Fallah, M., & Ubell, R. (2000). Blind Scores in a Graduate Test: Conventional Compared with Web-based Outcomes. Asynchronous Learning Networks Magazine, 4, Retrieved October 24, 2008, from

Koory, M. A. (2003).Differences in Learning Outcomes for the Online and F2F Versions of "An Introduction to Shakespeare". Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 7, 18-35.

Mascuilli, A. (2000). Effectiveness of Teaching Mathematics Online. Asynchronous Learning Networks Magazine, 4, Retrieved October 24, 2008, from Sloan C

Ragan, R. E., & Kleoppel, J. W. (2004). Comparison of Outcomes on Like Exams Administered to In-Residence and Asynchronous Distance-Based Pharm.D. Students. Journal of Asynchronous Networks. 8, 15-24.

Reasons, S. G., Valadares, K., & Slavkin, M. (2005). Questioning the Hybrid Model: Student Outcomes in Different Course Formats. Journal of Asynchronous Networks. 9, 83-94.

Shapley, P. (2000).Online Education to Develop Complex Reasoning Skills in Organic Chemistry. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 4, 43-62.

Wegner, S. B., Holloway, K. C., & Garton, E. M. (1999). The Effects of Internet-Based Instruction on Student Learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 3, 98-106.

About this Teaching Tip Sheet:

This Teaching Tip Sheet was prepared by Ms. Kris DeAngelis and Dr. Garvey Pyke at the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte. Please visit us online at CTL for more professional development resources.