Department of Education study shows that students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The study is a meta-analysis of the research, and it is accompanied with the warning that the findings apply primarily to adults. Researchers were surprised to discover how few research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students have been published.
Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (2009). 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. Key findings include:
- 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, with an average effect size of +0.24 favoring online conditions. The mean difference between online and face-to-face conditions across the 51 contrasts is statistically significant at the p < .01 level.
- Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction. The mean effect size in studies comparing blended with face-to-face instruction was +0.35, p < .001. This effect size is larger than that for studies comparing purely online and purely face-to-face conditions, which had an average effect size of +0.14, p < .05.
- Few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K–12 students have been published. The systematic search of the research literature found just five experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies comparing the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K-12 students. As such, caution is required in generalizing to the K-12 population because the results are for the most part based on studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).
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).
The authors encourage more K-12 research and caution that their findings should not be applied to K-12 students. For adults, however, the benefits of online learning apply to undergraduate, graduate and professional learners. Online learning, points out the report, gained traction because early studies had shown it to be a cost-effective and convenient route to equally effective learning. However, as the tools and online environments have improved, it now appears to be superior. Even so, not all gizmos make a difference.
The study posed four key research questions:
- How does the effectiveness of online learning compare with that of face-to-face instruction?
- Does supplementing face-to-face instruction with online instruction enhance learning?
- What practices are associated with more effective online learning?
- What conditions influence the effectiveness of online learning?
Key findings include:
- Blended and purely online learning conditions generally result in similar student learning outcomes.
- Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes.
- Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.
- 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.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – Review of Online Learning Studies